Dateline Havana

Tenacious Cuban journalists Olance Nogueras and Lazaro Lazo were strangers in their homeland. Now they are strangers in ours.

On the morning of August 5, Cuban state security officials arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. Their orders were simple: Make sure that two of the country's best-known independent journalists and their wives boarded a United States-bound plane to exile. The journalists, Lazaro Lazo and Olance Nogueras, had said their farewells elsewhere; they'd warned friends not to come to the airport and risk interrogation. Family members also stayed away.

Operating outside the rigidly controlled official media and under constant threat of arrest, several dozen independent journalists struggle to report news the authorities would like to keep quiet. They cover everything from outbreaks of hemorrhagic conjunctivitis to the latest unemployment statistics, calling in dispatches to foreign colleagues who transcribe and disseminate their words by radio, the Internet, and print media. The information often resurfaces in Cuba through broadcasts from Miami-based commercial radio stations and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Marti. Castro's government has waged a campaign to silence the independent journalists by harassment, imprisonment, and exile.

Lazo and his wife Maria Esther Saez arrived at the airport without luggage, their meager possessions left behind for relatives. Still, immigration officials took their time scanning the couple's visas and passports before authorizing them to board the waiting plane.

Characteristically, the last stop on the road to exile for Nogueras and his wife Betania Abreu was marked by confrontation. A veteran of skirmishes with the authorities, Nogueras had left nothing to chance. The documentation he'd amassed in three years of reporting groundbreaking stories remained with friends, rather than be subject to confiscation and a possible betrayal of sources. A wise decision; immigration authorities searched the couple's two carry-on bags thoroughly. They seized a shortwave radio and the journalist's tape recorder -- a gift from a foreign colleague. When the officials came to his books and papers (mostly cultural magazines, although he did toss in a primer on nuclear energy), they opted to take those as well.

Exhibiting the determination that earned him recognition in Europe and the United States, Nogueras protested. Loudly. "It was like I reverted to a little boy," he says, describing the ensuing temper tantrum. "I told them if they took a single document, I wouldn't leave Cuba." The hapless immigration agent walked over to the state security officers observing the spectacle. After a short discussion, the man in charge, known only as Captain Aramis to the independent journalists he has interrogated for years, ordered the couple through. "Good riddance to that son of a whore," Aramis snarled.

After a brief stop in Cancun, Lazo and Nogueras landed at Miami International Airport at noon. Neither man had set foot outside Cuba before or knew what to expect. Their first sight of the United States, upon clearing immigration, was a pack of roughly 30 reporters, representing most domestic and foreign Spanish-language media based in Miami. "We were journalists trapped by journalists," says Lazo of the irony he felt at the time. At an impromptu press conference, replete with television cameras and popping flashbulbs, reporters quizzed the two journalists about current events in Cuba. They dutifully played out their roles in this theater of exile.

Lazo, 48 years old, peered from behind thick glasses that disappeared into an unruly expanse of frizzy black hair, the same color as his drooping mustache. His face flushed by fever and the grief of leaving both his twenty-year-old son and long-time Havana home, Lazo lashed out at Castro. Twenty-nine-year-old Nogueras, tall, wiry, and intense, stood beside his young wife and vowed that the independent journalism movement on the island would persevere.

For the first time Miami Cubans could put faces to the men whose stories had brought them closer to the land they left behind. The pair had worked together briefly in Cuba but were booked on the same flight by chance. A month later Nogueras was still being greeted as a hero, recognized on the streets of Hialeah by Cubans who'd watched the airport press conference. Lazo's brief sojourn in Miami would be his last stop on familiar ground. Weeks later he would be struggling to adjust to a life of isolation in North Dakota.

"We didn't know it was going to be that hectic at the airport," says Rita Estorino, Nogueras's caseworker from Episcopal Migration Ministries, an agency that resettles refugees in the United States. Among the crowd at the airport was Soren Triff, editor of Catalogo de Letras, a Cuban cultural magazine based in Miami. One of the first U.S. writers to help spread the work of Cuba's independent journalists through a network of contacts established by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Triff had agreed to act as Nogueras's U.S. sponsor. With the young journalist and his wife in tow, Triff left the airport for the house of a former political prisoner from CamagYey. Lazo and his wife were taken out to dinner by other exiles, then dropped off at a hotel. The couple left Miami the following day.

Lazo decided he wanted to leave Cuba in 1986, after his release from prison. No strong human rights movement existed in 1981 to aid him when he wrote a series of short stories about bureaucracy and poverty on the island, one of which was published in Costa Rica. In retaliation, the government sentenced him to three and a half years for "enemy propaganda" and "contempt." Imprisoned for criticisms now commonplace in Cuba, he spent eighteen days of the sentence in a two-meter-square cell, naked in the dark, with only one meal a day to sustain him.

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