Press Time

With Fidel on his death bed, journalist Carlos Otero is more critical than ever

Carlos Rios Otero is trying to write a note, but his black pen has run out of ink. He shakes it furiously, tries to scribble on a piece of thin white paper, and then tosses it on the table.

He shoots the pen a nasty glare, grabs it again, and flings it high into the air.

Carlos is frustrated. The pen is just one more thing that doesn't work in Cuba.

He is trying to change that, one word at a time. He is the rarest of rare on the island — an independent journalist.

But this writer doesn't work for a state-run communist-mouthpiece rag like Granma or Juventud Rebelde. His articles are penned sometimes by candlelight, always in longhand, on the unused side of printed sheets of paper. When he's finished, Carlos whispers his words across crackling phone lines to Miami, where Cuban exiles make sense of them and put them into magazines read by other exiles around the world. Sometimes he appears on Spanish-language radio stations like Radio Mambí (710-AM).

He hopes he doesn't get caught. "It's a brutal way to live," Carlos says matter-of-factly.

We're sitting around a table in the back yard of Carlos's house, a 100-year-old Mediterranean-revival with an iron gate, peeling paint, and pink roses growing in the courtyard. The dry pen is lodged in an overgrown bush. The table is covered with a threadbare red cloth that is pockmarked with holes.

Carlos's wife, Irene — shy and tired-looking — brings us coffee in delicate floral-patterned demitasse cups. She offers a glance that apologizes for not offering more.

It's a critical time for Carlos and all independent journalists in Cuba. As Fidel Castro's illness becomes more mysterious by the week — it's cancer, it's not cancer, he's got a colostomy bag, he's dead and cryonically frozen — Cuban exiles crave news from the island more than ever before.

Years ago Carlos and Irene were young professionals with a baby girl. They could graciously entertain guests — she was a teacher, he was a specialist in agriculture economics who once worked for the government. Carlos's father was a revolutionary, and Carlos himself fought in Angola.

He was rewarded with a post in the Ministry of Sugar — an important government office because sugar was, and remains, one of Cuba's few commodities. But in 1983, he criticized the regime, saying the communist model didn't work. At first, Castro overlooked Carlos's comments because of his family's revolutionary ties. But then the young man made similar remarks in 1986 and again in 1990. He had waded into the dangerous waters of activism in Cuba — he started and joined several groups calling for change.

The government began to pay attention. He was removed from his job and ostracized by the Cuban bureaucracy. The fallout extended to his wife's job and their daughter, now age 21, who has not been able to enroll in college because of her parents' activism — even though she's a top student.

If Hollywood were to film a movie about Carlos's life, he would be played by Lou Reed. When he dons his sunglasses, Carlos is a dead ringer for the singer (circa 1985 Honda scooter ads); he's cool and calm, and more than a bit paranoid about the world around him.

Carlos began his underground reporting sometime in the 1990s; all media in Cuba is state-run and has been for 48 years, so his dispatches are all on the down-low. He is published regularly on www.nuevaprensa.org, an exile-run Website in Miami. When his phone line isn't too fuzzy with interference, he calls dispatches into Miami radio stations and, on occasion, Radio Martí. This past year he was quoted in a report about the sorry state of Cuban journalism published by the international group Reporters Without Borders.

He achieved rock-star notoriety in Cuba and around the world this past December 10, when he and a dozen other dissidents marched in a Havana park to commemorate International Human Rights Day. A mob attacked the demonstrators, and a Spanish news agency photographed Carlos being restrained by a half-dozen government-supported thugs.

During our visit, Carlos shows me a photocopy of the picture and then pulls out a few dog-eared magazines. They contain his writing, but many of his articles are mere briefs about how conditions are deteriorating on the island. Longer stories just aren't easy to report or write. It's a bit sad and surprising to see that a man is risking his life for this.

"It's hard to have sources in Cuba," admits Nancy Perez Crespo, manager of Nueva Prensa Cubana in Miami. "And sometimes they don't even have paper to write on."

Like many of Cuba's journalists, Carlos doesn't usually see his own work, especially if it runs on a Website. He can't afford to use the Internet (it costs about six dollars per hour, about half of the average Cuban's monthly salary). Besides, the Internet is so tightly controlled on the island it's unlikely that Carlos would be able to get near a computer without harassment.

"He's risking his life every time he gives us information," says Perez Crespo.

Yet he writes. He writes about political prisoners who are slowly dying inside Cuba's jails; he writes about the failed distribution of rice cookers to citizens; he writes about the country's dengue fever crisis. He shows me a piece he is working on; this one is about Castro's health.

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