Notes from the Underground

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

Nogueras became interested in the plant while he was hosting a state-run radio program in Cienfuegos. He had wrangled a visit inside the facility on the pretext of touring the plant's small media-production lab. Later he began meeting clandestinely with plant employees -- engineers, laborers, and technicians, many of whom live in Cienfuegos or in a housing development near the plant. "There are a group of engineers who are very upset with what is going on there," Nogueras explains during a recent visit to Havana. "They are interested in exposing the problems."

Among the allegations: As many as 750 of the 5000 welds in the reactor's auxiliary plumbing, containment dome, and spent-fuel cooling systems were x-rayed and found to be defective; reactor operators are not properly trained; and the piping for the cooling system was inadequately installed and could cause the reactor to overheat. (Similar information has been provided by Cuban and Russian scientists who have defected and who have testified before the U.S. Congress or given statements to federal authorities.)

Such investigative reporting is almost unknown in Cuba, where Nogueras has attracted more than his share of attention. Since joining the independent press in October 1994, he has been detained sixteen times. In every instance, Nogueras says, he has been interrogated about the nuclear plant and pressured to reveal his sources, something he says he will never do. He also says he has been told that the harassment would cease if he would only stop reporting on such sensitive topics. "I said I would keep covering the plant as long as it was newsworthy and I had reliable sources," he recalls.

Nogueras speaks rapidly but precisely. His phrasing and cadences are formal, like an old-time radio announcer. And his manner -- reserved and deliberate -- seems at odds with his past as an aggressive soccer player and his present as the wild-man reporter of the independent press. His colleagues say the outward appearance is deceiving. "Olance is the bravest of us all," affirms Lazaro Lazo of the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba.

After graduating from a school specializing in athletic training and instruction, Nogueras enrolled in post-graduate classes at the Jose Marti International Institute of Journalism and worked at a Havana radio station. In 1993 he secured a job at a station in Cienfuegos, where he had his own weekly show called Hora 25, an eclectic mix of calls from listeners, interviews, and his own reporting. Nogueras saw it as a chance to experiment, to test the limits of free speech in Cuba. "I wanted to develop a language that would allow me to be critical," he explains. "A language that would allow the Cuban people not only to be informed but to express their own opinions, points of view, and criteria."

Nogueras's new language included phrases such as "suicide rate," "the Grammies," "Gloria Estefan," and "Willy Chirino." For more than a year Cuban authorities allowed him to tackle such traditionally taboo topics on the air. Then on March 8, 1994, International Woman's Day, Nogueras dedicated the holiday to a female Cuban political prisoner.

He had gone too far. Friends warned him that he was about to be fired. So Nogueras followed up four days later with a lengthy interview with the Catholic bishop of Cienfuegos. The interview covered subjects such as the interior ministry's supervision of the warehouses of Caritas, the international Catholic charity, and conversations between the archbishop in Cuba and the archbishop in Miami. After two and a half minutes, the transmission was interrupted. "They took me to the director's office and informed me that I was being expelled from all means of mass communication on the island as a result of a decision taken by the party," Nogueras recalls.

Six months later, in October 1994, Nogueras joined the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba. He threw himself into the role of maverick reporter, repeatedly crashing government press conferences and identifying himself as a member of the bureau. "I only need to say my name and the agency to which I belong and they immediately throw me out," he says. He attended a press conference recognizing the American group Pastors for Peace and asked the group's leader, Lucius Walker, what he would do for Cuban pastors who had been imprisoned for their religious beliefs. He was expelled. This past spring he had planned to attend a press conference featuring Danielle Mitterrand, but he was detained the day before the event and kept in prison until she left.

This past September Nogueras finally found an event where he thought he would be welcome. The Union of Cuban Writers and Artists was hosting a conference on cultural liberty, cultural sovereignty, and tolerance. The slogan for the gathering was "Respect for differences will make us more civilized, more free, more respected."

"This filled me with satisfaction," Nogueras remembers, "and I thought to myself that there would be a debate, where anyone would be able to communicate and express his opinion." Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he waited until the third day of the conference before attempting to participate. Some of the speakers had been criticizing the Cuban press for being unprofessional and lazy. "I wanted to say that from my point of view, the people to blame aren't the journalists. The guilt lies with those who are directing editorial policy." Nogueras wasn't able to complete his observation. The other participants -- his colleagues from the Cuban press -- booed loudly and nearly threw him out physically.

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