Notes from the Underground

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

"Three ... two ... one: According to press reports, the Spanish government has pledged 25 million pesetas in aid to the victims of Hurricane Lili. Private donations from Spanish municipal, local, and regional organizations will reportedly exceed that amount. The first flight, carrying food, medicine, et cetera, will arrive in Cuba the last week of October."

-- Luis Lopez Prendes, Bureau de Prensa Independiente de Cuba

Lopez is speaking loudly into a battered rotary phone in a windowless, two-room hovel off an alley in Havana's densely populated, dilapidated, working-class neighborhood of Cerro. The 43-year-old economist-turned-guerrilla-journalist reads the handwritten text from a crumpled piece of paper. His voice is rough and his delivery uneven, but what Lopez lacks in polish he makes up for in pluck.

His reporting of the news -- to a friend in Puerto Rico who will later assist in having it rebroadcast on a foreign radio station to his compatriots in Cuba -- is considered counterrevolutionary. If he is caught and charged with crimes against the state, he could face imprisonment. Under the Cuban constitution, only the "official" media are guaranteed freedom of expression. An independent journalist is, therefore, an oxymoron. Luis López Prendes should not exist.

This past April state security agents ransacked the office of the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, a bedroom in the house of one of its members, which had been jury-rigged as a newsroom. They confiscated two typewriters, a beat-up word processor, a computer printer, all office supplies, files, and correspondence. Not a single pen or pencil was left behind. The raid was a devastating blow. Pens are hard to come by in Cuba's shriveled economy, let alone computer hardware.

Agents warned bureau members to cease their activities or face lengthy prison terms. They also encouraged the journalists to leave the country. But López and his thirteen colleagues at the BPIC, along with a dozen or so journalists at other independent agencies, ignored the threats. To the best of their ability, chasing the news by bicycle and scrawling out radio scripts on scraps of paper, they have continued to provide Cubans with an alternative to the homogenized drone of the state media.

Their efforts have been met with international support from press-freedom groups such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. This year the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), a coalition of more than 1000 Western Hemisphere newspaper editors and publishers, awarded them the Grand Prize for Press Freedom. According to a statement released by the IAPA, "the independent Cuban news agencies, despite the daily censorship, violence, and intimidation carried out against their journalists, defied the state propaganda apparatus and fought so that freedom of expression and democracy may finally triumph in their country."

In a nation reinvented by an improbable coterie of idealistic rebels, independent journalists explaining the mechanics of their own quixotic endeavor seem equally improbable: Although they operate in Cuba and their audience is Cuban, they do not clandestinely distribute pamphlets or any type of underground newspaper. They do not have direct access to local airwaves through pirate radio or television stations. Instead they arrange for their stories to boomerang back to their homeland through foreign radio stations. They frequently transmit to the U.S. government's Radio Marti, and they also read their dispatches to commercial broadcasters in Miami whose signals can be heard on the island. In addition, a group of volunteers in Miami and Europe has constructed a Website for the journalists, on which their dispatches -- painstakingly transcribed from telephonic reports -- are regularly posted. Their articles can also be found in El Nuevo Herald (Spanish-language sister of the Miami Herald), the Miami-based Diario Las Americas, and other Spanish-language publications.

This Saturday morning, Lopez first tried calling Miami radio stations but got no answer. Next he dialed Carlos Franqui, once a close associate of Fidel Castro but now an exile living in Puerto Rico. Franqui had published the underground newspaper Revolucion and directed operations for the clandestine Radio Rebelde before Castro's guerrilla army swept down from the Sierra Maestra. For several years he headed the country's main newspaper until he decided he could no longer support the revolutionary government.

Franqui now acts as a representative for the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba, accepting their collect calls, recording their dispatches, and helping them obtain outlets in the foreign media. He is also a publisher of Carta de Cuba, a Puerto Rican-based magazine devoted to the work of the independent journalists.

Finding a place for the journalists' work abroad is not easy because their interests are relentlessly local. Lopez, for example, has been arrested three times for trying to report on a housing eviction controversy in the municipality of GYines, a predominantly agricultural community outside Havana. The only media with an appetite for such provincial news are Radio Marti, which broadcasts to Cuba on AM and shortwave frequencies, and Miami radio stations catering to Cuban exiles. Though these outlets aren't ideal -- their proclivity for airing vicious anti-Castro tirades and denigrating the revolution's indisputable accomplishments have cost them legitimacy among the Cuban population -- the independent journalists aren't choosy. As long as the news gets out in some form, they believe it will make a difference.

Agitated and high-strung, Lopez talks about his work with evangelical zeal. "We are doing a job that government is incapable of -- that is informing people about what is really happening here," he says proudly. Reports from the independents include everything from allegations of police brutality in towns far from Havana to economic and environmental analyses, political commentaries, impressionistic essays -- anything outside the rigid ideological confines of the official press.

Lopez cites an example of the Cuban media's tendency to slavishly disseminate the official line. As Hurricane Lili approached the island last month, a television news crew broadcast a segment showing Castro listening to a meteorologist predict the hurricane's path. "At the end of the forecast, the reporter turned to Castro and asked, 'Is it okay to air this?'" Lopez repeats in amazement. "I don't consider them journalists, I consider them government spokespeople."

Since the April raid, the bureau's newsroom has become something akin to a state of mind, continuously resurrected from materials at hand. On this bright, hot Saturday in October, the headquarters exist in the home of Lazaro Lazo, who acts as director of the bureau. Lazo and Lopez have commandeered the tiny front room, which serves as the Lazo family's living room, dining room, recreation room, and parlor. Lazo's diploma in Spanish literature from the University of Havana hangs on the wall, a reminder of his former status as a privileged intellectual.

Long ago he was an editor at a government publishing house that turned out novels, short stories, and books about Cuban art. Then in 1981 he wrote a series of short stories and essays about bureaucratic snafus, shortages in consumer goods, and the hardship faced by country people who had emigrated to the capital. Some of the pieces were published in a Costa Rican newspaper.

Lazo was arrested and charged with enemy propaganda and contempt -- the latter charge reserved for those accused of making fun of Fidel Castro or other public officials. He was convicted and shipped off to prison for three and a half years. During that time, he spent 42 days in solitary confinement, composing parodies of popular songs and singing them aloud to keep his sanity. He also spent eighteen days in a so-called punishment cell, crouched over the infamous "Turkish chair," a stinking waste receptacle that took up most of the narrow cell floor. There was no bed, so Lazaro leaned against the iron cell door to sleep. "The stench was overwhelming," he remembers, "but at least the door was cool."

The thought of being sent back to prison unnerves him, and he admits that he would leave the country if he could. "But we find ourselves in a jam," he says, speaking not only for himself but for other independent journalists who have been told to pack their bags. "How can we emigrate? Even if we were offered political asylum, we don't have the money to buy a ticket. We're caught in a paradox. I can't leave and I can't stay. So we keep doing the same thing day after day. We're like crazy people who are told not to take another step -- and yet we keep on walking."

Lazo disappears for a moment into the back room where he, his wife, and two children sleep. The room is crammed with beds and little else. A makeshift curtain separates the sleeping area from a cranny containing the toilet and improvised shower.

He returns with a loose bundle of papers. These are the dispatches the bureau has recently prepared for broadcast. Much of this week's news deals with the island's recovery from Hurricane Lili. Reporters have stitched together their own observations with statistics that appeared in the official press, along with interviews with Catholic relief officials.

Bureau reporters worked full-time to gather this information, yet they receive nothing for their labor. The commercial Miami radio stations do not pay. Lazo says bureau members survive primarily on contributions from foreign organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, which sends $1100 each month to the five main independent news agencies on the island. Lazo distributes the bureau's share (about $200) equally among its members.

The monthly fifteen dollars or so per person is used for supplies -- pens and paper -- and for food. It is rarely sufficient. On this day, for example, Lazo and his family had a breakfast of sugar and water. Yesterday all he had to eat was two bananas. He opens his empty refrigerator and shrugs. "Our biggest problem is the lack of economic resources," he notes earnestly, oblivious to the understatement.

"These are groups that work against the revolution and that work as the instruments of those from the United States who are trying to return our country to a past of oppression."

-- Cuban official referring to the independent news agencies during the opening session of a conference called "Community Press in Today's World: Alternative Grass Roots Proposals," October 21, 1996

More than 100 foreign journalists have gathered in the auditorium of a polytechnic institute just outside Havana and are listening to government officials lay down the party line regarding the independent press. The visiting journalists represent scrappy, upstart news organizations from Argentina, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Canada, and the United States. They give voice to those who oppose government policy, or those whose opinions are drowned out by corporate media. Ironically, they and Cuba's independent journalists share similar aspirations: Each seeks to break the information monopoly maintained by the powers that control their societies.

But any exploration of common ground is deftly thwarted by the conference's Cuban hosts, among them officials from the Union of Cuban Journalists, the Jose Marti International Institute of Journalism, and incongruously, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood groups whose original function was to enforce a form of ideological purity, to keep an eye out for neighborhood malcontents who might be tempted to organize against the government.

Members of the Union of Cuban Journalists address the gathering. The so-called independent news agencies are hotbeds of counterrevolution funded by the U.S. government, they assert. "Many of these people are not even journalists," sneers union official Juan Marrero. "They don't even know how to speak Spanish, their own language. They are paid to report...and they will say whatever they want to get this money. In the end, all these people insult the profession of journalism." Marrero belittles the prize awarded by the Inter American Press Association, calling the organization "an instrument of transnational corporations, of imperialistic monopolies who seek to defend their penetration in the continent.... The IAPA has attacked trade unions ... it has booed the emergence of radio stations in the continent, and now they are defending the independent journalists in Cuba."

Marrero and another official outline the rationale behind their dismissal of the independent journalists: They are not professionals, they are insignificant in number, they are seeking a visa to emigrate, and they have sold out to the enemies of the revolution. They are dissidents, not journalists. They are interested in politics, not news.

As the independent journalists themselves have not been invited to attend the conference, no one mounts an argument in their defense and the audience does not pursue the topic. The Cuban government rests its case.

"Cubans on the island have received scant information about the aid sent from Miami to the victims of Hurricane Lili. As of this moment not a single article about the aid has been published in the national press. Out of 50 people surveyed -- 27 from Havana and 23 from other parts of the country -- only 9 knew details about the aid, because they had heard the news on Radio Marti. Eleven had heard rumors of the aid from neighbors or friends who had listened to Radio Marti. The other 30 people learned about the aid from CubaPress."

-- CubaPress report

Raul Rivero, president of the news agency CubaPress, leans back in his rocking chair as he reads aloud the hurricane-aid dispatch, prepared by one of his reporters. Since forming the agency in September 1995, he has striven to boost their level of professionalism. This report meets with his approval, and he murmurs in satisfaction, smoke from his ever-present cigarette drifting over his words.

From his apartment in central Havana, Rivero directs a handful of local reporters and a dozen or so correspondents elsewhere around the island. Like other groups, CubaPress provides radio news reports and commentary, as well as longer articles for print media. Agency reporters used to gather regularly to transmit from Rivero's home phone, but Cuban state security began interrupting the line, so now everyone makes separate arrangements.

It is difficult to imagine Rivero's empty apartment as the site of a frenetic newsroom. Paint flakes from the walls. The living room is barren except for some rocking chairs, a table, and a refrigerator. After quitting his job with the official press in 1989, Rivero sold his possessions to pay for necessities. He refers to the agency as "an abstraction," despite the hundreds of dispatches he has distributed in the last year.

An acclaimed poet and former influential cultural official at the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, the 50-year-old Rivero worked for Cuban newspapers and magazines for nearly 30 years, including a stint as Moscow correspondent for the national wire service, Prensa Latina. His was the first class of university students to receive a degree in journalism from the revolutionary government.

Short, heavyset, and pugnacious, he is happy to respond to the government's criticisms of the emerging independent press. But first there is news to report: A human-rights activist in CamagYey, a province in the eastern part of the island where Rivero was born, was arrested for possessing a video copy of the August 23 debate between Miami exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa and Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban national assembly. The debate, which was televised throughout Latin America, has not been aired in Cuba, nor has the Cuban government informed its citizens of the unprecedented event. According to the information Rivero has received, the activist was jailed for subversion. "How can that be subversive?" he wants to know. "A debate between the president of the national assembly and an opponent that has already been broadcast before thousands of people around the world!"

This is an example, Rivero fumes, of how the Cuban government and its accomplices in the official Cuban media have been lying to the country for 37 years. His goal in creating CubaPress was to help the Cuban people see their nation clearly: "If there was a free press circulating in this country, if large segments of the population had access to the truth about what was happening, this whole process [of economic and political change] would happen much faster."

Rivero denies that he or other members of CubaPress are political dissidents. Their role is that of impartial observers, he explains. The agency reports on dissident activities because they are part of the island's daily panorama of events and because they are an integral part of Cuban life that is ignored by the official media. As for being a counterrevolutionary, he says, "Nobody in his right mind is going to propose that we overthrow this government. This government has weapons. It has the most powerful army in Latin America. Anyone who proposes a violent overthrow is an imbecile."

He is equally emphatic in downplaying CubaPress's links to Miami and its sordid history as a launching pad for countless acts of sabotage, armed raids, and attempts to destabilize the Cuban government by spreading rumor (and sometimes fact) about attempted attacks on Castro. "This is not a den of conspirators; this is a news agency," Rivero insists. "Who is most interested in news about Cuba? Cubans. So where do we turn? To Miami. I'm not going to call Switzerland."

Rivero shuffles to a bedroom at the rear of the apartment. This is the command center of CubaPress: a single bed, one small bookshelf, an antiquated typewriter, and a box full of manila folders -- the CubaPress archive. "I am not hiding anything," he declares. "Everyone knows my address. The information we provide is not secret." As far as Rivero is concerned, CubaPress reporters technically are not breaking Cuban law. "Publishing a samizdat [an underground newsletter] is considered enemy propaganda, and they send you directly to prison," he says. "But they haven't come up with a legal statute penalizing telephone calls."

The Cuban government does, however, prohibit unauthorized private employment. In 1993, as a result of the economic crisis, more than 160 self-employment opportunities were legalized, but journalism was not among them. Furthermore, the country's constitution specifies that all media will be owned by the state. And the penal code provides that anyone belonging to an unregistered organization can be imprisoned for one to three months. Rivero hoped to avoid that penalty by attempting to register CubaPress soon after the agency was formed. He holds up the original application from October 3, 1995. "We still haven't gotten an answer," he notes wryly. But they have elicited an official response of a different sort.

Members of CubaPress, along with individuals at other independent press agencies, repeatedly have been detained. (Rivero himself has been held twice in the past year.) Guided by an interpretation of the law that differs from Rivero's, authorities have threatened to charge the journalists with an array of crimes ranging from "contempt" to "rebellion," "resistance," "dangerousness," "illegal association," "enemy propaganda," and "spreading false news that threatens international peace." Journalists' phone service is frequently cut off. State security agents have interrupted calls to Miami radio stations and have on occasion themselves argued with the broadcasters on the air.

Even associating with independent journalists can be risky. Recently a reporter from Miami's El Nuevo Herald who dropped by Rivero's apartment was subsequently detained and then expelled from the country. Suzanne Bilello, an official with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, was arrested June 19 after spending several days in Havana meeting with Rivero and other independent journalists. She was interrogated for three hours; her notebooks, address book, personal papers, and film were confiscated and she was required to leave Cuba the next day. A month later a journalist working for Reporters Without Borders was denied entry into the country and put on the next plane back to Paris.

A foreign ministry official recently explained that the Cuban government made an example of the El Nuevo Herald reporter in order to send a message to Miami-based journalists: If they are discovered practicing journalism without the appropriate visa, they will be sent home. In addition, he complained that the Miami Herald had antagonized the government by "supporting" the independent journalists. He also noted that Herald publisher David Lawrence is a past president of the IAPA, which this year honored the independent Cuban press.

Maria Garcia, Herald foreign editor, points out that there is nothing nefarious about providing moral support to the cause of independent journalism. "We support freedom of the press anywhere in the hemisphere," she says. The Herald, which has not been granted a visa to report in Cuba since the beginning of the year, has written stories about the island's independent journalists and occasionally uses them as sources. In contrast, El Nuevo Herald regularly publishes their dispatches.

Alberto IbargYen, publisher of El Nuevo, says his newspaper sometimes provides the Cuban journalists a token payment. "But most frequently the pieces are volunteered," he adds. The independent journalists, however, praise El Nuevo as one of the few foreign media organizations regularly willing to pay them for their work.

The independent journalists say that on principle they do not accept payment from Radio Marti because it is funded by the U.S. government. They would, however, be happy to be compensated by Miami's commercial radio stations. "Of course they want to be paid," says Nancy Perez-Crespo, owner of a Miami publishing house who also acts as CubaPress's foreign representative. "They have to receive money to make a living."

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.

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.

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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