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.

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.")

"My generation was heavily marked by the experience of growing up in revolutionary Cuba," the 44-year-old journalist says by phone from Havana. "We are the generation that wasn't allowed to listen to the Beatles. We are the generation that wasn't allowed to believe in God. We are the generation that wasn't allowed to think freely. And of course, all these things have an effect."

When representatives of the SUVP knocked on his door, Torres says, he rebuffed them. "I said if they wanted to talk to me in an official capacity then they should bring an arrest warrant, but that voluntarily I had nothing to talk to them about," he recalls. "They became very angry and upset, and they left."

Torres has no doubt the SUVP visits were coordinated by the state security police, one of the branches of the Interior Ministry. He also says that on February 10, the day after Jorge Olivera was thrown out by his mother-in-law, the SUVP and other local groups responding to orders from the Interior Ministry scheduled "acts of revolutionary reaffirmation" in neighborhoods around the city.

Following Clinton's January 28 declaration that the United States would supply from four to eight billion dollars in aid to a post-Castro Cuba, the Cuban government, interested in shoring up flagging loyalties, announced its intent to hold rallies in every factory, military unit, neighborhood, and school. Such publicly orchestrated demonstrations of loyalty, in which residents sign pledges of their support, are not unusual in Cuba. Similar meetings were convened following a small riot that occurred on the Malecon in August 1994 and after the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes last year. These rallies have been known to metamorphose into "acts of repudiation," vicious verbal lynchings that were directed against Batista supporters in 1959 and repopularized in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people would surround the homes of supposed counterrevolutionaries, yelling at the occupants until they were hoarse. Some of the protests turned violent.

As darkness gathered on February 10, Torres says, his neighbors began drifting toward the medical clinic next to his house. Loudspeakers were erected to broadcast the rally. He waited at a window, fearful of provoking the crowd by appearing in person. About a dozen friends had crowded into his three-bedroom house to provide moral support.

The rally started around 8:00 p.m. A spokesman for a neighborhood association that organizes activities on behalf of the government quickly reviewed the different provisions of Law 80, slowing to read the full text of Article 8. Neighbors were asked to sign a pledge of support. Then just as the proceedings appeared to be winding down, a member of the block association grabbed the microphone. "!Esto no se ha terminado!" he bellowed. This isn't over! "We want to say that on our block we have a traitor to our country."

Torres continues his account: "Then he said my name and began to insult me, calling me a gusano [worm], a counterrevolutionary. This guy bet his television and his refrigerator that neither myself nor my colleagues in the independent press were journalists."

But as the jeering continued, Torres says, some of his neighbors quietly left, and when the rally ended more than a dozen showed up at his house. "They said they had no idea that was going to happen to me. People said some very nice things. Neighbors who are not against the government told me, 'Joaquin, whatever happens to you happens to me as well.'"

That same night, five other independent journalists reported that acts of repudiation had occurred outside their homes; one more took place the following evening. Though the demonstrations varied in size from about 40 people to about 200, they all followed the same pattern: A member of the Communist Party would explain Law 80 to the group, reading from Article 8 at length. Then someone would declare that one of the neighbors had violated that provision, and the barrage of insults would begin.

CubaPress reporter Ana Luisa Lopez Baeza speculates that the rally directed against her attracted a large crowd because she is among the journalists most frequently heard on Radio Marti. She had also spent years writing in the official press in fervent support of the regime. "I loved the Cuban revolution," she confesses. "I loved the leaders of the revolution. Yo amaba entranablemente a Fidel Castro." I profoundly loved Fidel Castro.

Her feelings began to change in the late 1980s. In 1989 she attended the trial of Arnaldo Ochoa, the popular army general who was found guilty of corruption and drug trafficking and later executed. Like many Cubans, Lopez Baeza opposed the execution and speculates that Castro might have seen Ochoa as a political threat. (Ochoa's sentence carries a grim warning for independent journalists: In a televised 1989 speech, Raul Castro implied that the general's arrest was due in part to his agreement with glasnost, then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of encouraging "openness" in the media.)

After the trial Lopez Baeza began to feel increasingly stifled in her job in the official press. "In Cuba a journalist can't reveal anything that is not approved by the government or the party," she says. As an independent journalist she aims to present Cubans with both sides of an issue so the majority of the population can reach a decision about what should be done, an approach she says her neighbors appreciate; they do not consider her a counterrevolutionary. Like Torres, Lopez Baeza says she received declarations of support after the rally.

"These demonstrations have been converted into a boomerang [against the government]," Torres asserts. He believes most people attended the rallies because they feared that skipping them would have branded them opponents of the regime. "People on my block who didn't know about my activities [with the independent press] now know who I am, and they greet me in a different way, as if they want to tell me they are with me."

Ironically, the rallies coincided with news that CNN had received U.S. government permission to open the first American news bureau on the island in almost 30 years. Although the Cuban government had granted its assent months earlier, the juxtaposition -- Cuba opening up to the foreign press as it clamped down domestically -- was striking.

Comments Torres, who once worked with a CNN crew visiting the island: "It's very characteristic that the Cuban government will accept CNN but it won't accept us."

Lucia Newman, the CNN reporter assigned to the Havana bureau, publicly pledged to broadcast future demonstrations and to interview both the targets and the accusers. "If a public demonstration occurs in a country where [such things] are rare, that is newsworthy," Newman told the Mexican news magazine Proceso.

A week after the rally outside Lopez Baeza's apartment, independent journalists in the city of Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island, reported that two of their colleagues had been detained by authorities. Daisy Carcaces, of the Agency of the Free Eastern Press, is said to have been accused of threatening to kill two people and was held for two days at a local police station; upon her release, she was warned to stop her activities with the independent press.

On February 19 another Santiago-based journalist, Nicolas Rosario Rozabal of the Agency of Independent Press of Cuba, was reportedly visited by representatives of the SUVP, who requested that he cease his journalistic activities. That evening he was called to the local police station, where he was accused of distributing counterfeit U.S. dollars.

Two days later in Havana, says Joaquin Torres, a state security agent who goes by the name Aramis showed up at his house. Journalists describe Aramis as a young, invariably courteous official who attends directly to the independent press in Havana. Torres invited him to sit down. "He told me that I had to shut down the agency, because if I didn't I could be thrown in prison at any moment," Torres recounts. "It was the same conversation as always. He said we are going to be charged in accordance with the new law. I told him that I wasn't going to stop the work of Havana Press, and that they could stop threatening me. They know perfectly well where to find me. They are fully aware of all my activities. If they were going to throw me in prison, they should do it already."

The same day, Aramis reportedly repeated his threats to Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez Amaro, the president of the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers. Along with another journalist, de los Angeles had attempted to distribute twenty photocopies of a four-page pamphlet that reproduced articles written by the independent press. Such publications are explicitly banned by the Cuban penal code; no one has attempted to physically produce a dissident publication since the late 1980s.

De los Angeles says her home was searched and she was taken to a local jail, where she was interrogated for the next two days; her co-publisher, Nancy Sotolongo, was also detained. "They said they were going to annihilate the independent press," de los Angeles reports from her home in Havana.

Cuban officials referred to the Foreign Ministry New Times's request for comment regarding the allegations that the independent journalists are being threatened or harassed, but no spokesman was available. A Cuban state security official who was also contacted refused to answer questions on the telephone. Instead he suggested: "If you want to know anything about this, you can travel here and talk to anyone in the street."Before Law 80 was passed, the independent press was rarely mentioned by the official media. Since January, however, various articles attacking independent journalists have appeared in the newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde. References have also reportedly been made on national television; Joaquin Torres says he even heard a radio sports commentator weigh in on the subject, interrupting his observations on baseball to rail against "the treason of some colleagues."

A recently published article in Juventud Rebelde titled "Without Frontiers but with Principles" -- a dig at the Paris-based press-freedom group -- accuses the journalists of being tools in the worst campaign of disinformation ever waged against the island. The independent journalists are actually "dependent gossips," writes Jose dos Santos, vice president of the Union of Cuban Journalists. "Of course they are dependent because it is no secret they are paid by Washington to foment fifth-columnism in Cuba.... Their actions are in accordance with the ignominious and absurd Helms-Burton law." An article in Granma a few days later described the journalists not only as having been conceived by Washington, but also as being linked to Cuban exile leader and Miami resident Jorge Mas Canosa.

"What they are doing is preparing public opinion so that when they arrest us it will seem justified," Torres says. In the past, he observes, similar articles castigating so-called counterrevolutionaries appeared in the national press just prior to a wave of arrests.

At least two journalists from the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba have decided to leave the island, though Lazaro Lazo and Olance Nogueras both made up their minds last fall, before Law 80 was approved. Asserting that they can no longer stand the constant threats to themselves and their families, they sought and received visas from the United States Interest Section in Havana. Jorge Olivera, the homeless reporter from Havana Press, says he too is considering leaving if his family cannot find a permanent place to live.

"I don't think you should criticize anyone for leaving the country," Torres muses. "The fact is some of our colleagues have already [left], and I think others will leave rather than go to jail. Our forefathers did it. Jose Marti did it. [Antonio] Maceo did it. Fidel Castro himself did it when he was let out of prison and went into exile in Mexico. I think it is understandable. This is a very difficult decision to face."

Of course, the decision isn't theirs alone: Even if more of Torres's colleagues do want to leave, obtaining a foreign visa is not a simple matter. Nor is scraping together plane fare; though Lazo wants to leave, he says he has no way to pay for tickets. Torres says he is prepared for arrest. "In my personal case, I am ready, and if I have to go to prison, I will go.

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