Notes from the Underground

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

Nogueras recounts the incident with unsettling detachment, as if it had happened to someone else, as if he were reporting a piece of news. His tone doesn't change when he recounts how state security agents pummeled and arrested him near the bureau's office (back when the bureau still had an office), or about being arrested outside the Jose Marti International Institute of Journalism. That time, he says, the agents grabbed him around the neck and smashed his tape recorder on the ground in front of him.

Those episodes occurred in the fall of 1995. Back then Nogueras was unflappable. Since then, he says, the repression has intensified. He has become increasingly wary. If he so much as walks down the street with a tape recorder, he can expect it to be confiscated. Now he records his interviews by taking notes, and he transmits them to radio stations in his own voice.

When Nogueras talks about more recent harassment, his voice becomes edgy with anxiety. This past summer, shortly before U.S. diplomat Robin Meyer was expelled from Cuba, she paid a special visit to Cienfuegos to check on Nogueras. The entire time she was with him, Nogueras recounts, Meyer was pursued by Cubans with a video camera, whom he assumes were agents from state security. Nogueras says he finally became upset by the harassment and confronted the cameramen. "I told them, 'If you were more competent, if you were more rational, more logical, we could take the camera and go to Juragua nuclear plant and I could show you where the bad welds are and we could make a dignified report instead of this disgraceful spectacle.'"

This past summer Nogueras and his family began receiving death threats. His mother would pick up the phone: "They would basically say that her son Olance is going to appear one day drowned in a river, beaten, or the victim of a car accident," he recalls with a grimace. Worse, after one of his detentions last summer, his mother went to inquire about his whereabouts. She also was arrested. Nogueras has since asked the U.S. Interests Section to grant him political asylum. He is scheduled to be interviewed this week.

It is unclear how hard the Cuban government might crack down on Nogueras and his colleagues. Aside from Yndamiro Restano's early imprisonment, only one journalist -- Rafael Solano, former head of Havana Press -- has been held for an extended length of time. A radio reporter and the only Cuban journalist to be honored with the prestigious King of Spain Prize, Solano spent 42 days in prison earlier this year on charges of "association with persons with the intent to commit a crime." After his release in April, in response to an international outcry, Solano reported that he had been given an ultimatum: He could either stand trial on the charges, which were still pending against him, or go into exile. He now lives in Madrid.

"Things have reached the point where the government cannot stop the development of civil society," says Restano, the father of the independent journalism movement. "The only thing it can do is maintain it within certain limits."

But Olance Nogueras is less optimistic. "I think they are forcing us to leave the country," he says glumly. "They fire us from our jobs. They don't let us work. We survive on help from Reporters Without Borders. We do our work without pens, without typewriters, without access to computers or access to information. We can be arrested at any moment. If there is any type of unrest, we'll be the first ones rounded up.

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