Notes from the Underground, Part 2

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

Cuba is not alone in launching parliamentary counterattacks on Helms-Burton. Canada permits its citizens to sue for damages resulting from the act, and the European Union prohibits European countries from cooperating in U.S. enforcement efforts. But the Cuban measure is unique in that it subtly but specifically targets journalists for retaliation.

Article 8 of Law 80, as the Cuban measure is known, makes it a crime to "collaborate" with the application of the Helms-Burton Act, such as by gathering information for a representative of the United States government, distributing U.S. government material, or benefiting from U.S. government "resources."

It is that final clause, journalists say, that is an attempt to explicitly criminalize their work. It refers to an accusation frequently made by the Cuban government and vehemently denounced by the journalists: that they are paid by the U.S. government. (The journalists survive, just barely, by selling their articles abroad, and from a small amount of aid sent from Reporters Without Borders.)

"The text of this document makes us think that, far from affecting the [Helms-Burton Act], what Cuban authorities really propose is to deal a decisive blow to the peaceful opposition, and above all to the independent press," thundered Raul Rivero, president of CubaPress, in an article published January 24 in El Nuevo Herald in response to the new law. "We are not afraid of the provisions of this law because we do not collaborate directly or indirectly with the U.S. government, its representatives, or other people, in any way that can be utilized in the application of the Helms-Burton Act."

The seven other independent news agencies operating on the island published similar statements. But the independent journalists suspect they will be prosecuted regardless of the truth of the matter. "They believe we are violating the law," observes Lazaro Lazo, director of the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba. "They believe that we are annexationists and that we send information to the United States so that they will increase pressure against Cuba. They don't need evidence; they don't even need for you to commit a crime in order to send you to prison."

Lazo himself served three and a half years in prison on charges of "enemy propaganda" and "contempt" for articles he published in a foreign newspaper in the early 1980s. According to reports prepared by press freedom groups, authorities have threatened to rearrest him and other independent journalists on those charges as well as others, including "rebellion" and "spreading false news that threatens international peace."

The most prominent independent journalists working in Havana say they received visits in February from neighborhood authorities representing a coalition of various paramilitary groups called the Sistema Unico de Vigilancia y Proteccion (SUVP) -- the Unique System of Vigilance and Protection -- which is responsible for keeping an eye out for discontent in the barrios. The officials requested a meeting, saying they wanted to have a chat and offer some friendly advice. All the journalists refused except Jorge Olivera, a 35-year-old television editor who works for the independent news agency Havana Press. He said he agreed to show up on February 9 at the Grandfathers' House, a government-owned residence used for party functions and as a gathering place for retirees.

"There were twelve people there, members of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, of the Rapid Response Brigades, of the Communist Party," Olivera says by phone from Havana. "They started screaming insults and said they would not permit a counterrevolutionary to live in that neighborhood. I said I did not consider myself to be a counterrevolutionary, that all I was doing was exercising my right of freedom of expression, and that I considered myself to be a free citizen. They kept raising their voices, and I thought they were going to physically attack me. At one point they started shaking me by the shoulders, yelling that I was violating the Law of Reaffirmation of Dignity and Sovereignty. I told them to bring charges in a court of law if that was the case, and they said, 'We don't need a court of law, because we are a court of law.'"

Afterward, Olivera went immediately to the home of a colleague to file a report on what had happened. At the same time, he says, members of the SUVP dropped by the house he shared with his wife, his four-year-old daughter, his wife's ten-year-old brother, and his mother-in-law. They also visited his neighbors. "When I got back that evening, it turned out they had intimidated my mother-in-law and threatened my wife," he remembers. "They were terrorized." None of Olivera's neighbors would speak to him, and his mother-in-law told him he could no longer live in her house. That night he slept on a park bench.

The next day he made his way to the home of Joaquin Torres Alvarez, the director of Havana Press, who lives in San Miguel de Padron, an eastern suburb of the city. A founder of the video studios of the central committee of the Communist Party, Torres spent thirteen years working as an editor, cameraman, and director of several award-winning documentaries before joining the ranks of the independent press. (He was dismissed in 1992 after he made a documentary about the life of Fidel Castro, which concluded with the following observation: "Fidel Castro is one of the most polemical presidents in America today. Will he be considered a madman or a messiah? A fool or the incarnation of dignity? History will determine who he is.")

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