Notes from the Underground, Part 2

The latest dispatch from independent journalists in Cuba: Castro is cracking down

One evening in early December, journalist Jose Rivero Garcia left the office of CubaPress in Central Havana and hailed a cab to take him to his home in Alamar, a crowded suburb on the eastern outskirts of the city. The driver, who regularly traveled that route, was in a sour mood. He had been stopped four times that day and fined by a police officer for mechanical violations he had no way of fixing. His car, like so many others in Havana, was a 1950s Detroit fossil. Spare parts, had they been available, would have been collectors' items.

As the taxi exited a tunnel connecting downtown Havana with the suburbs on the other side of the harbor, the officer was again waiting. "That guy has it out for me," the driver grumbled as he paid yet another ten-peso fine. "Oye, if I could talk to Jose Rivero Garcia from CubaPress, I would tell him to denounce this guy on Radio Marti." Rivero, who was sitting in the front seat next to the driver, froze. The cab was full of other passengers. "I didn't even want to look at him," Rivero recalls.

Rivero is an independent journalist. In an attempt to avoid the rigid controls imposed by the official press, he and his several dozen colleagues in the independent press have formed eight agencies and broadcast their dispatches on "enemy" radio stations like the U.S.-government-funded Radio Marti and Spanish-language stations based in Miami, which are heard on the island. The government considers their work to be illegal, though until the Cuban National Assembly took action this past December, they were not violating any specific section of the country's penal code.

According to reports prepared by press-freedom groups such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Cuban authorities have repeatedly detained independent journalists and threatened them with long prison terms unless they cease their activities or leave the country. The homes of the journalists have been searched; authorities have confiscated typewriters, fax machines, pens, and pencils. (The hardships faced by independent Cuban journalists were chronicled in the November 28 New Times story "Notes from the Underground.")

The journalists have refused to stop their work, and are especially adamant now. They say that after almost two years of guerrilla newsgathering, their efforts are beginning to pay off. Although their evidence is anecdotal, independent journalists claim that more and more Cubans are tuning in to their reports. A Cuban opposition group's survey of more than 7000 Marti listeners on the island revealed that their favorite show was an hourlong compilation of reports from the independent press.

Rivero gives another example: Some months before the incident in the cab, a well-known member of the Communist Party knocked on his door in Alamar. The party member was furious that nothing was being done to stop widespread pilfering from state-owned warehouses. He had taken his complaint to the police and to party leadership, but they ignored him, and he wanted Rivero to denounce their indifference. Rivero warned him that he would have to use his name in the report.

"He said, 'I don't care. I am a communist. Fidel Castro is not a communist. AYo si soy comunista!'" Rivero recounts. The man eventually agreed to an on-air interview with Rivero on Radio Marti. He was subsequently arrested and lost his job. Rivero reported that, too. In the months following the segment, Rivero says, other disaffected Cubans showed up on his doorstep, eager to have their criticism aired, regardless of the risk.

"People say that we report the truth, unlike the official press, which insists that everything is fine or is going to be fixed," he asserts. "In contrast, we present a realistic view of what is happening." His credibility, and that of his colleagues, says Rivero, is due in part to the distance they try to maintain from opposition groups inside Cuba. "Unfortunately, within the Cuban dissident movement, not everything that glitters is gold. But the work we do is a practical thing. It is not politiqueria [political bullshit]."

The state, meanwhile, has begun to consider the journalists as a menace. After treating them with relative leniency -- threats of lengthy imprisonment, for example, have not been carried out -- the Cuban government has reportedly given the journalists an April deadline to stop their activities. According to word on the street in Havana, mass arrests are tentatively scheduled for April 17, the anniversary of the defeat of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.

If a crackdown occurs, it will not be a surprise. For the past two and a half months, the journalists say, the government has been carefully preparing the population for a decisive act. In dispatches transmitted on the Internet and in radio broadcasts, the journalists have reported on organized rallies denouncing their work, as well as detentions and visits from the state security police. The official media have also printed a number of articles accusing the independent journalists of being counterrevolutionaries.

The journalists say the government's new approach first became evident on December 24, when the Cuban National Assembly passed the Law of Reaffirmation of Dignity and Sovereignty. This law is Cuba's answer to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. The U.S. measure, widely condemned by other countries as a violation of the rules of international trade and trade treaties, requires the state department to deny visas to foreigners who use property in Cuba that was confiscated from U.S. citizens following the Cuban revolution. Furthermore, it allows Americans (including Cuban nationals with U.S. citizenship) to sue such foreigners in U.S. federal court. (President Clinton has temporarily waived this provision.) The Cuban law, in an apparent tit for tat, authorizes Cubans to sue Cuban Americans for "theft, torture, corruption, and murder" perpetrated by Batista-era officials, and to extract compensation from the U.S. government for suffering arising from military actions, terrorism, or the U.S. trade embargo of the island.

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