Notes from the Underground

Impoverished and imperiled, Cuba's independent journalists stubbornly cling to the notion of a free press

That expectation takes some Miami broadcasters by surprise. Cary Roque, who frequently relies on independent journalists for her daily show Cuba a la Una on WCMQ-AM (1210), says she was under the impression the independent journalists were volunteering their services for idealistic reasons. "They have never asked me for a cent," she says firmly. "I don't think they do it for money. If they do ask for money, we'll have to talk to them, and I'll have to talk to my director."

Agustin Acosta, general manager of La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), which also uses the independent Cubans regularly, says he thought the U.S. embargo prohibited him from paying the journalists. Actually, the U.S. Treasury Department merely requires news-gathering organizations who wish to hire independent Cuban correspondents to apply for a license. A Treasury spokesman says Miami radio stations would likely qualify for such licenses. Acosta says that if it is legal, he will consider paying the reporters.

Raul Rivero would prefer to have more formal relationships with foreign media and would like to operate in a manner similar to established news agencies such as EFE, Reuters, and Notimex -- and less like a network of eager freelancers. More than anything, though, he hopes to gain airtime within Cuba itself. "Let's say one hour a week on the radio, half an hour of television time in order that we could take part in the national debate," he proposes. "I think there are possibilities even without radical change. If there was only a small opening, and they allowed us to install a fax machine, obtain a car, establish an archive, get a computer -- with minimum equipment we could expand our work to other parts of the country."

Rivero is encouraged by the growth of the independent news agencies since November 1994, when direct telephone contact was re-established between Cuba and the United States. Before that occurred, there had been loose groupings of disaffected journalists, but no organized effort to report and distribute news. The first independent agency was founded in 1988 by Yndamiro Restano, a human-rights activist and former reporter for Radio Rebelde. Restano's Independent Press Agency of Cuba (APIC) concentrated almost exclusively on denouncing human-rights abuses, mainly by distributing news releases to the island's resident foreign press corps. He was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to ten years in prison for "rebellion." A recipient of the prestigious PEN freedom-to-write award, Restano was set free in June 1995 at the request of former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand. He now lives in Miami.

A month before Restano's release, Rafael Solano, an internationally recognized Cuban radio journalist, and a handful of other individuals who had quit the official media, formed the independent news agency Havana Press. By October 1995 five agencies were functioning: the old APIC; Havana Press; Raul Rivero's CubaPress; Patria, a small agency in the city of Ciego de Avila in central Cuba; and the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, originally conceived by Restano after his release from prison. Since September three new provincial agencies have sprung up: Pinar Press in the western province of Pinar del Rio, Prensa Libre Oriental in Santiago de Cuba, and CNP in Camaguey.

Although a growing number of professional journalists have joined the independent agencies, and numerous others are collaborating surreptitiously with their independent colleagues, Rivero says some of his most useful reporters have had no experience in the official media and are former economists, editors, and teachers. Official journalists undergo a process of "stupidification," he claims. "It is very difficult to learn to be free and think for yourself. Acquiring the language and the style of a free man is a complex process, and it hasn't been easy for us."

"Juragua [nuclear power plant] is a time bomb.... Russian advisers have exhaustive knowledge of the technical errors that occurred during the first phase of construction from 1982 to 1992. More than half of the materials offered by the former Soviet Union were defective, and various Soviet specialists warned Cuban officials that they could not guarantee the valves that were installed as part of the emergency refrigeration system of the first reactor."

-- From independent journalist Olance Nogueras's December 1995 report to Radio Marti on Russia's decision to help Cuba complete construction of the Juragua nuclear plant in Cienfuegos

Olance Nogueras, a 28-year-old reporter with the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, hitches a ride on a truck carting recycling material from Cienfuegos to Havana. It is late October 1996. A year earlier state security agents had banished Nogueras from the capital and ordered him to remain in Cienfuegos, the southern port city where he was born. He routinely ignores the order, but tries not to advertise his comings and goings. And no wonder. Government officials specifically warn foreign reporters against trying to speak with him, and boast that he is so closely watched by state security that within 24 hours of any contact, they will know about it.

The slender, athletic former soccer player and ex-radio host is perhaps the only authentic investigative reporter in Cuba today. His biggest story so far has been an expose of the construction flaws in the Juragua nuclear plant. Broadcast in segments on Radio Marti early this year, Nogueras's reports highlighted flaws in workmanship that might contribute to a catastrophic nuclear accident, one that could conceivably affect the United States.

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