Abraham Jiménez Enoa: “Professions do not belong to those who study them… but to those who practice them”

Abraham Jiménez Enoa (Havana, 1988) is a black man from a revolutionary family of soldiers and lawyers, almost all of them Communist Party members. His father is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), and his grandfather –who died in 2015 and with whom he lived during the most important years of his childhood– was for many years a bodyguard for Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Ramiro Valdés, and other “histórico” leaders of the Revolution.

Jiménez graduated from the University of Havana with a degree Journalism in 2012. While finishing his social service obligation as an archivist in a forgotten information department of the MININT between 2012 and 2014, he began to collaborate with OnCuba writing about sports, a passion that obsesses him as much as journalism.

However, when he asked to leave the MININT in 2015 to dedicate himself full time to founding the independent magazine of narrative journalism El Estornudo, they took until 2016 to grant his request and then sanctioned him with a special regulation which barred him from leaving the country for five years. For him, this sentence –which should have ended in June 2021– has been “a cost that only those who have suffered it know, and those who have not minimize.”

He directed El Estornudo until June 2020. He was exhausted given the many challenges of watching over the other reporters, guiding their texts, and coordinating an independent media outlet from within Cuba: no office, no internet, on top of the constant repression from State Security. He says that those four years of “beautiful work” at the magazine “felt like ten.”

He made the difficult decision to leave El Estornudo in order to regain his strength, get back in the ring, and dedicate himself to writing stories that interested him. Now, He is a mostly freelance journalist but with monthly columns in both The Washington Post in Spanish and the Mexican magazine Gatopardo.

Although he would like to travel abroad one day, he is determined to continue practicing independent journalism from within despite the fact that the conditions to do so are not the same as at the beginning of the indie “boom” between 2014 and 2017. “The repression is increasing more and more, the economic situation is getting worse,” and every day another colleague goes into exile. Although he criticizes official journalists for their “lack of courage,” he understands perfectly well the decision of other independent journalists to leave the island thanks to “their desire not to live in a dictatorship.”

“For this reason,” he declares, “the only way to do journalism in Cuba and for that journalism to perpetuate itself in history, is to continue practicing the profession with the commitment and responsibility that being a journalist entails in a totalitarian regime such as Cuba.”

Note that the last communication I had with Jiménez to finalize this interview was on Sunday, July 11th at 9:42 in the morning, the very moment in which unprecedented mass anti-government protests began to take over the entire island of Cuba. It has not been published until now since I wanted to communicate with him so that I could find out about his own safety. He is safe and sound, and continues to report from Havana.

In addition, he wanted to share some of his impressions and journalistic analysis of the historical events of that day and during the days that followed. Thanks to his courage and commitment to reporting, he published articles during the week following the protests in The Washington Post (“Cubans are losing their fear. We want change”), Gatopardo (“The unknown balance of the protests in Cuba: ‘We are no longer afraid’”), and El País (“The false tranquility”). He also narrated an entire episode of the El Hilo podcast, explaining what happened on July 11 and its implications: (“Cuba, between fear and satiety”). Below are some key quotes from those articles.

Washington Post: “Cubans have gone from domestic discontent, from complaining at home and assenting in public, to action, and that has opened a fissure in the arteries of the heart of the regime. From now on nothing will be the same in Cuba: the game has changed and these new rules bring the future closer. What happened means climbing onto a springboard that can launch us, or the regime becoming even more bloodthirsty and dictatorial to impose its norms, or the freedom of Cubans after 62 years of suffering.”

Gatopardo: “Sixty-two years have passed since the Castros disconnected us from the world and from the rest of the Latinos to become a village from another galaxy. But the internet brought us back to Earth and today it has us fighting with clenched teeth over all that we have lost. It delights me to say that after losing so much, after so much has been taken from us, or rather stolen from us, we have been left without fear.”

El Hilo: “Another piece that has generated all that Tower of Babel is the Internet. All of this that I am commenting on, one has been able to know, the world has been able to know precisely due to the Internet. That is to say, the Internet changed the physiognomy of this country. Little by little since 2015, when people started to connect more and access more networks, it has meant a shot in the foot for the regime because it has become its fiercest enemy, to the point that when the country exploded the main measure was to turn it off and disconnect it from the world”.


Could you describe your family and social origins? What profession did your parents practice and how “integrated” was your family in the revolutionary process during your childhood?

Both my parents are lawyers. My father did not practice law because he became a military man. My family is a family where there are many military men and women, not only my father, but also my sister, and an uncle. My mother also studied in a military school. And then there’s my grandfather, who was for many years the bodyguard of Fidel Castro, Che, Ramiro Valdés and other government leaders.

The house where I grew up is full of portraits of them, of them alone and them with my grandfather. To give you an idea: Che was the best man at my grandparents’ wedding. There is a picture of them getting married and Che with a mojito in his hand in the living room of my house. My grandmother still keeps their wedding gift: a General Electric TV from that era that Che gave them. So, my family is what is called in Cuba a “revolutionary” family, a family where almost everyone is a Communist Party member, where what is said in the news and in the newspapers is sacred and where Fidel Castro is loved.

I grew up in that environment and, obviously, I also loved Fidel and the Revolution without being aware of anything. I grew up as children grow up in Cuba: within the automatism of the Revolution. Even worse, because my grandparents’ house, where I grew up, was around the corner from one of Fidel Castro’s houses and he would go there from time to time. I would see him passing by in his black Mercedes. One time I shook his hand, one “voting” day and he caressed my head, me and all the children in the neighborhood. So, all my childhood and almost all my adolescence were spent surrounded by symbols that I would deconstruct years later.

Looking back at your own professional development and political orientation over the years, how has this transformed and why? Was there a moment of rupture or was it more of a slow and lengthy process of distancing and independence?

I did not have a real critical conscience of the country until I began to write, to look in order to write. Until that moment I did not realize what this country was. Looking with intention and then capturing what I saw in writing, that brought down many things, all those symbols that surrounded me in my childhood and in my youth. It was a process that took place, I can’t point to a watershed, a rupture, but that rupture when it began to happen, to occur, occurred in a defining way in my life.

How and why did you decide to study journalism at the university? What attracted you to the idea of ​​being a journalist in a country like Cuba?

My great passion is sports. As a child I tried to be a baseball player, but I was not good enough to make my way in baseball. So, as a teenager, knowing that I was not going to be able to be a player, I decided I wanted to be a sports commentator. That’s why I decided to study journalism: it was the only path that guaranteed my dream, at least the path I knew.

I wasn’t a good student in high school. In reality, I never was. Because I am too entertained and distracted. Anything stole my attention and that made me not pay attention to the teachers. My academic results at that time were not the best and that is why I had to go to a high school in the countryside (Raúl Díaz Argüelles, in Melena del Sur) and not to the vocational school Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the best school in the country from where most of the journalism majors came because they were the students who had the best preparation.

The high schools in the countryside were crazy, almost no one studied there. They functioned as anything but the waiting room for the university. And I, who wanted to pursue a career in journalism, was at a disadvantage compared to the students from the Lenin high school, because I had less preparation.

My father, today a retired lieutenant colonel of the Ministry of the Interior, told me that I had to be pragmatic, that I was not going to be able to compete with the Lenin students and that I was going to miss out on majoring in journalism, and that the best thing to do was to join the Ministry of the Interior’s “Inserted Cadet” program. This program was created to raise the qualitative level of the forces of this institution and it worked by recruiting high school students who wanted to access universities without taking the entrance exams.

To obtain a degree through this program, it was only necessary to pass the entrance exams for each of the majors. However, there was also the requirement that once graduated, the student would have to do their social service at the Ministry of the Interior. Social service is the mechanism through which the Cuban State charges its students to study at the university free of charge. In this way, women have to work for the State for three years and men for two, because one year is deducted for compulsory military service. In the end, I followed my father’s advice and that’s how I got into the university.

If I understand correctly, you went to university, but you also gained access via an obligation to work for MININT and thus you have not been able to travel outside of Cuba for 5 years (among many other controls). Looking back with the perspective of time, do you now think that your father gave you good advice?

It was advice from his perspective, advice from his imagination, from his own life. There was, of course, no intention to harm me even if that ended up happening later. It is a father-son advice and parents always want the best for their children. Part of the responsibility is on me, because although almost always at that age you do what your parents say, the decision was up to one, although it was conditioned. My father didn’t put a gun to my head to make me do what he said.

Once inside the university, I decided that my thing was no longer going to be commenting on sports behind a microphone, but listening to stories and then narrating them. I didn’t know how and where I was going to do it, but at least I had decided what I wanted to do in the future.

Were there specific classes, professors, books, or journalists (current or historical) that inspired you or had an intellectual impact on you as a student and future journalist during your college years?

Yes, especially during my third or fourth year, I don’t remember well but there was a class –I forget the name– but the classics of the type of journalism that later captivated me were discussed and analyzed: Truman Capote, Rodolfo Walsh, Gay Talese, and so on.

If you did internships in journalism as a student, could you describe them to me? Was it a frustrating or a fruitful experience?

It is mandatory to do internships each semester in journalism school. But since I was not one of the best students, they always sent me to remote places in the state press. The placements were made by the teachers and they put the best students in what were thought to be the best places. In the long run, it was better for me that way, because I didn’t have to go to Granma or any other dark place. Although now that I think about it, I did television work at “Mesa Redonda”, where they gave us hardly any space, but luckily we could take advantage of the tremendous internet connection that they had there.

In general, I gained almost no real journalistic experience because where they sent me nothing was done, and they hardly listened to us, so I hardly ever went in during that month. I was assigned to the National Information Agency (AIN), in the Technical Youth magazine, and Bohemia magazine.

How did you choose the topic or focus of your thesis, and your tutor?

As a soccer fan, I decided to do my thesis on the cultural consumption of soccer by young Cubans. At that time, soccer was beginning to make inroads in Cuba and I found it interesting to address this mass phenomenon on the island. My tutor was Carlos Díaz, one of the most lucid guys I have ever met. I chose him because of his intelligence and because he was one of the few teachers I got along with. We ended up becoming friends.

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of independent journalists who graduated with a degree in Journalism and worked (at least for a time) in the official media before moving on to the independent press. In your opinion, what is responsible for this phenomenon during the most recent 5-6 years (2014-2021)? Why has this happened now and not earlier?

Because, on the one hand, the internet opened the eyes of a generation that wanted to change things and found that possibility on the internet. From there, my generation created an important cross-section of new media startups between 2015-2016. We were able to launch media outlets outside the official umbrella.

And that this was possible also animated those that came after us to do it as well. That is to say, with the independent media already on its feet, those who came out of the university classrooms behind us saw that there was a way to practice journalism outside the official media. The spadework had already been done.

At the same time, Cuban independent journalism has always been nourished by the work of self-taught or “citizen journalists.” For you, does the distinction between “professional” independent journalists (with university degrees and experience in the official sector) and self-taught independent journalists have relevance or importance, and if so, in what sense?

Journalism is a singular concept and it does not matter who decides to do it as long as they do it well.

If a carpenter does it and does it well, great. If a bricklayer does it and does it well, great. Professions do not belong to those who study them but to those who practice them and practice them properly.

There is everything in life: there are those who graduate from the university and cannot write, cannot tell a story, or even identify one; and there are those who did not go to college but still have the ability to go where others do not and then report that reality. This does not mean that the rules of journalism should be ignored. It’s just about telling stories properly. Whoever does it is a journalist and does not need a degree.

Looking back at the development of Cuban journalism (and the teaching of Journalism in Cuban universities) from 1980 to now (2021), are there significant changes or ruptures (or attempts to change) that you could point to? Or is the development process during these 40 years rather a continuity with the press model established between 1959 and 1979?

I believe that the Cuban official press model remains the same: a state propaganda system. It has been, necessarily, mutating without moving from its own axis. These mutations have not been a rupture, but rather physiognomic changes typical of modernity.

For example: it was unthinkable to see the official Cuban media broadcasting directly from social media, allowing comments on their publications, etc… The changes have gone in that direction, obligatory changes, almost biological we could say.

But it is still an archaic and medieval press, which does not tell what it has to tell, neither in content nor in form.

What was your first job as a journalist in the official media? Was it pleasant or disconcerting? Could you share an anecdote from it? How did these professional experiences mesh with your hopes and ambitions as a student?

As mandated by the program to which I had joined, when I graduated, they sent me to work at the Film Office of the Ministry of the Interior, in a communications department where my job consisted of reviewing the country’s newspapers on a daily basis and archiving the information that was published about the Ministry of the Interior.

Sometimes, occasionally, they sent me to cover some political events for which I had to write notices that were sent to the national newspapers. I remember that some were published under my byline, but many others did not. They were horrible notes, anything but an “informative note” (nota informativa). They were pure propaganda.

In that place, obviously I didn’t have any kind of projection or professional incentive, but I knew, from what I heard from my classmates who had gone to the official press, that there was no room for professional expectations there either. We were all in a kind of no place. Somehow, we felt that what little we had been taught in the academy could not be put into practice in any of these places.

I say “no place” because at that time (2012-2014) I had a total ignorance about independent journalism. I knew it existed, I knew some names, but I did not have even a minimal knowledge of the independent press. I thought, like many people, that they were opponents who were dedicated to the same thing as Granma but in reverse: instead of defending the government, to criticize it unequivocally.

How has your view of the independent press changed over the years -as you’ve had more access to and knowledge of its lights and shadows, and as the press itself has changed and transformed?

It is a press that has grown in quality, but has yet to take a higher leap. It’s very difficult because of the conditions in which we work, because of the repression, because in many cases we do not have ways to reach certain sources. But I think, even under the conditions that exist, that it can be done better than how it’s currently done.

There is too much ease, a lot of writing from home and not going out on the street, a lot of refuting what people see on Facebook. I think that is the weakest point of the independent press: it needs more reporting. In Cuba, it is almost impossible to uncover a case of corruption or something else working in that style, due to the closed system, but you can tell stories that talk about it, with testimony, with people, even without having access to official documents. That’s the case with a lot of topics.

Journalism is always about going against power, trying to expose it. I understand that the very reality of the country forces the media to write almost daily about repression, arrests, and the rest of the arbitrariness that happens, and indeed, we have to do it because that is Cuba, but we cannot only fill our pages with that because other equally important events also happen.

So, going back to the question about my first job, that sent me into a kind of doldrums: I was working in a place where there was practically no work to do and the little that there was was garbage and I didn’t see any other options on the horizon. So, I began to read. I did nothing but read. At work, at home. Journalism, storytelling, seemed to me a distant thing, an inaccessible profession.

In 2011, the London-based Cuban writer Juan Orlando Pérez published a reflection on his blog Juan Sin Nada entitled: “Profession, journalist. Cuban. Sorry”, where he says that being a journalist in Cuba is the perfect recipe for a professional life of “immense dissatisfaction” and “tremendous frustration.” At the same time, he describes the two years that he worked at La Tribuna de La Habana as the happiest of his career. Based on your own experience, how do you understand Pérez’s contradictory description?

I imagine that being in the official media is a useful exercise in the long in order to learn what journalism is not. That is to say, those who have been in those newsrooms already have the experience of what a media outlet is not, what a “nota informativa” is not, how not to write a report or an opinion piece, etc… I imagine that Juan Orlando is referring to that: to be inside that chaos, learning to discern what should be done and what should not be done.

Chaos can be enjoyable, because surrealism, dystopias, in the long run, are enjoyable. And I believe that Juan Orlando is referring to this specific personal experience. However, we’d have to ask him what he meant by it.

It seems like you didn’t suffer his same frustration because (1) you weren’t in an official media outlet per se and (2) you didn’t go in with the idea that you could do something different there? 

Exactly.

In your experience as a journalist, what is the role of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC)? What are the most common criticisms of the practice of Cuban journalism that have been made at UPEC congresses and what changes or reforms have been suggested? Have these criticisms or demands had any impact?

The UPEC is a joke. It is another one of the many Cuban organizations that exist for the sake of existing, that receives state resources and spends them on nothing. It is unthinkable that the UPEC praises state power, when it should do just the opposite. It is an organization that only generates bureaucracy, paperwork, speeches. Those who do not belong to it do not miss anything, because there is nothing good to be found there.

If the official press is a disaster, imagine the organization that watches over that press. An organization that invites to address its congresses the very people it should be judging. It is a complicit organization. That is why I have not attended a single UPEC congress nor am I interested in them, because they have nothing to do with me. I have no idea what they talk about in them, if they all agree with everything, with the country, with the government. The UPEC is just another performance by this government.

How and why did you decide to leave the official media and become a journalist in the independent media, outside state institutions? Did you leave of your own free will or were you expelled? Was it a quick decision or a longer process of conscientization? What were the reactions of the people and the media with whom you worked in the state sector? What were the costs and benefits of this decision?

I began collaborating with the independent media some time later, around the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013. I started writing about sports in OnCuba. It was a much different time.

By “a much different time,” do you mean that at that time OnCuba was more free and open, but since then it has changed?

Exactly. I remember that I mainly wrote about the Cubans who had left Cuba and who were not mentioned in the official media. For me that was a joy.

Back then, OnCuba appeared to save the lives of many journalists of my generation who found in that magazine a fresh, open, and different place without taboos, where we felt incredibly comfortable. That OnCuba of 2013, 2014, and up until the beginning of 2015 allowed many of us to grow, because it was a place where many talented people came together and wanted to tell the Cuban story in a different way.

Who were the editors of OnCuba during this period?

The one who started the era of change in OnCuba was Milena Recio. Before that, Mayle González was the editor and with her everything was wonderful.

The thing was that the directors (Hugo Cancio is the owner and the one who made the call, at least at that time) decided to get accreditation with the International Press Center (CPI) and that meant that the editorial profile of the magazine changed completely. The magazine transformed into what it is today: a quasi-official media outlet.

Can you give specific examples of this transformation?

Above all, criticism delivered through life stories began to disappear from the magazine’s pages, as well as the most critical columnists. In addition, editorially, stories that made the government look good began to carry more weight.

Given these developments, many of us began to leave and within the avalanche of journalists who left, a group of friends and I, we decided to found El Estornudo in 2016. We decided to make this move because we had run out of options of where we could publish our writing and we had a tremendous desire to do real journalism.

I am discovering in my interviews that the role of OnCuba during that time was key in two respects: (1) as you say, it saved the (professional) lives of many journalists who were looking for a fresh place to practice journalism (sometimes while they were still working in the official media) and (2) by changing its editorial line, OnCuba inadvertently pushed many young journalists to take the risk of founding their own independent start-ups (such as El Estornudo and El Toque). What more can you tell me about these two points?

Precisely what you say. There is not much more in my case. On the one hand, OnCuba gave me the opportunity to write for the first time in a media outlet, and in one that was “freer” than the ones that existed at that time, at least the ones I knew about. On the other hand, when we lost that relative “freedom,” it forced us to create a medium where we could continue doing, at the very least, what we had been doing up to that point at OnCuba.

Were there discussions or meetings at OnCuba where this shift was announced? Were there moments or clear examples of censorship? How did the editorial staff of OnCuba change? Who were the journalists who migrated from OnCuba to other new independent digital start-ups?

Surely there were such meetings, but I was not there, as I was not a member of the staff, although I was always in the newsroom. I do not remember clear examples of censorship (I am talking about stories that had already been written), but I do remember ideas within texts that were taboo for my colleagues to touch. I don’t mention specific examples here because they didn’t happen to me, and I shouldn’t be the one to share them.

In the case of El Estornudo, I understand that there was a group of friends and colleagues (including yourself) who studied together at the University of Havana, worked at OnCuba, and then founded El Estornudo. Could you narrate this process in more detail?  

The group that left OnCuba in order to launch El Estornudo includes Carlos Manuel Álvarez, Carla Colomé, Maykel González, Jorge Carrasco, and myself.

When El Estornudo was born, I was still at the Ministry of the Interior and although I had submitted my resignation, they sent me home to wait for it to be accepted. The fact that I was already collaborating for OnCuba was problematic, but it did not bother them so much because I wrote about sports and so they never said anything to me. Now, El Estornudo was something different. It was a truly independent media outlet and I was its director.

That raised some hives and, when they finally called me in to accept my resignation from the Ministry of the Interior, they imposed a five-year immigration regulation on me, supposedly until June 2, 2021. So, I have been unable to travel abroad all this time, a cost that only those who have suffered it know, and those who have not, tend to minimize.

Did you participate in the “blogger” phenomenon and how did the experience impact you? Did you publish articles in any other independent media at that time?  

I didn’t participate in the “blogger” phenomenon. I think I published one or two sports articles in Progreso Semanal while I was also collaborating in OnCuba. That was before the birth of El Estornudo, the only independent Cuban media for which I have written.

Could you describe your career as a journalist over time? Which media outlets you have published with and how have your journalistic collaborations changed?

I was telling you that I started in OnCuba, then I founded El Estornudo and while I was there I also published articles in media outlets outside Cuba. The list is a bit long, but here it is: The New York Times, BBC World, Aljazeera, Internationale, Vice News, Courrier International, Huffington Post, Univisión, Yahoo, Época, Revista Anfibia, Reportagen, GQ, 5W, The Clinic, El Faro, Líbero and Contexto.

I published in those outlets, on the one hand, to test myself with other editors and in a field other than the Cuban one and, on the other hand, to be able to earn more money, which was not enough just with what I earned at El Estornudo. Later, I also wrote for El País and today I have columns in both The Washington Post and Gatopardo.

Although I address Cuba once a month in each of these columns, each has a different focus. The one in The Post is more topical, more political I would say, more about what is happening right now on the island and has a more linear linguistic approach than the one in Gatopardo, which is a more intimate column, more a reflexion of me. That Gatopardo column is called “Desde el Malecón” and I started it in 2018. The idea is to tell personal stories, almost always, although I have told some that are not about me. It is my way of narrating my life in Cuba during all this time that I have been prevented from traveling abroad.

The editor of Gatopardo, Alejandra González Romo, was the one with the idea and I have already told her that my last column will be the day I manage to travel abroad, to have a kind of closure. It is a stage of my life that I will surely read as peculiar surely when I’m older. That is why I am very fond of this space and of Alejandra, for giving me such an important place to express myself.

Why did you found El Estornudo and what economic and technological factors facilitated its foundation? What have been the most important obstacles along the way?

Those of us who left OnCuba founded El Estornudo. We thought about the site, we gave it shape, we decided what we wanted to be and what we did not want to be. And we did it because we had nowhere else to do journalism and we wanted to have a place to practice it that was ours, where we were in charge, where our ideas prevailed.

We went almost two years without money, so the economic factor came in play when the site was already consolidated as a platform. And in the beginning we put it together mostly from abroad – that is, in terms of design, social networks, and programming. Many friends helped us gratis. The biggest challenges were always the logistical ones: internet, not having an office, not having transportation, money for production, etc… I don’t know what the main challenges are now. I’m not part of the magazine anymore.

Since when did you stop working at El Estornudo and why did you leave an outlet you co-founded and where you were the director? Does it have more to do with your professional path as a journalist or with pressures and threats from State Security?

I left El Estornudo in June 2020. I was tired, exhausted. It is probably more difficult to coordinate an independent outlet in Cuba than to do journalism. It’s because of the conditions in which you work: no office, no internet, using your own salary to pay for the very expensive Cuban internet. Plus, the kind of stories that El Estornudo usually published back then, long-form journalism, took a lot more logistics because they were stories where you were working for one or two or three months without transportation, without money for expenses.

Besides, coordinating a publication takes time for meetings, time to watch over the work of others, to guide texts and strategies. And all that beautiful collective work that we did together began to take time away from me; I stopped writing stories that interested me because I had too much on my plate.

So, I decided to take some time off to regain my strength, because those four years at the magazine felt like ten. All this has allowed me to get back to work, to writing, which is what I’m doing now. That is the reason why I left El Estornudo.

The pressure from the State Security is always there, but as I explain later, you should not pay attention to it if you want to do journalism in Cuba, or rather, dignified journalism in Cuba.

In your experience as a journalist and as a reader, how would you describe the ecosystem of Cuban independent media? What characteristics unite them and what differentiate them from one another?

It is an ecosystem that has been growing and specializing. There are outlets that specialize in covering almost the entire breadth of Cuban society (sports, the environment, data journalism, social issues, entertainment, etc.). It is an ecosystem that is gaining readers because it addresses Cuban reality directly.

I think that today, unlike five years ago when there was the “boom,” all these media are more similar to each other. It is very difficult today to find thematic differences because Cuban reality has led them all to focus on the same thing: the decadence of life in Cuba and the repression, especially the latter.

So, the differences can be found in their different approaches to these topics: how to cover in a unique way what everybody else is also covering. Therein lie the differences: some opt for pure information, others for more narrative stories, and others for analysis, and so on.

Cuba has a long history of censorship and self-censorship of the press (even before the Revolution). Professionally, have you suffered censorship or have you had to exercise censorship or self-censorship?

I have been lucky not to have suffered such phenomena. Because I have been lucky enough to write in places where I have been able to say what I want in the way I want.

What do you think of the official press?

Cuba’s official media outlets are apparatuses of propaganda. In those places, journalism has no place. Political slogans do. In those newsrooms, you can only repeat, like parrots, the Orwellian babble of the Cuban government. A real media does not repeat; it questions, it investigates. There is no way that a system that is precisely designed to praise power can work well. Journalism is the opposite of all this: to judge power, to persecute it, to enclose it, to confront it.

What fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?

The difference with the independent media is this: that the independent press sees it as its duty to narrate power, to keeping watch on it. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it does not, but, at least, having that possibility is what matters. There can be no journalism without freedom. And the official media are tied down: they must question, in theory, the same people who give them their orders. It’s a crazy thing, impossible to achieve.

How do you compare their working conditions? How do you compare their abilities to support or facilitate journalism?

Even if the official media has newsrooms, cars, technical equipment of all kinds, access to sources, all manner of logistics that would be a utopia for the independent press, official journalists will never be able to report on the island’s reality, because Cuban reality includes many areas that they have to ignore by default. And those are the very areas where journalism must shine its light, the dark areas.

You are a journalist but practicing journalism outside the official media in Cuba makes you a sort of “dissident” in the eyes of the state by default, even when that is not your intention. For you, what is the key difference between an independent journalist and a dissident, political opponent, or activist? Is it possible to be both a journalist and one or all of these at the same time?

A journalist, as I understand it, tells stories. And political opponents, activists, and dissidents are all characters of those stories that a journalist can tell. I do not think that the work of one and the other is necessarily linked, although they obviously have points in common. They are intertwined, because in a country like Cuba, where practically the dignified journalism that can be done is that which is done against power. That journalism becomes activism itself at a certain point, because it is a journalism that condemns, and then, they are stories that dissent from what the government promulgates.

Nevertheless, there are many political opponents who have found in journalism a way to practice activism and there are also many journalists who have been turned into dissidents as a response to the repression of the regime.

These are lands thorugh which the same river flows.

For a while, there was an emphasis on the distinction between some blogs and later independent media sites being made or run “desde Cuba” (from Cuba) while others were made or run “desde afuera” (from abroad). For you, does this distinction still have relevance given the increasingly “transnational” reality of Cuban journalism and the Cuban nation?

Of course, it has great relevance, because it is not the same to report on what happens in Cuba being here than from outside. It is not the same because the sources for the stories that happen on the island are flesh and blood and not a voice or an image on a screen and here you can verify them.

It is not the same because the state repression happens in Cuba and not abroad, because here they can put you in prison, they can confiscate your property. The risk is taken by those who are reporting from here, on the ground.

It is not the same because the working conditions –internet, quality of life, etc…– are worse here than outside.

It is not the same because journalism is based on real events and to report those facts, to report them well, you have to be in situ.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t do journalism about Cuba from abroad. Of course you can, because Cuba today is not an isolated island but exists in many parts of the world due to the great flow of emigration.

But I’m referring here to reporting on Cuba’s Cuba. To report on that country, you have to be here. The rest is opinion, information, activism, anything else, which are also valid, but do not have the same journalistic value.

Given these arguments, I want to ask you two additional quesitons: (1) How can pioneering sites like El Estornudo, Periodismo de Barrio, and El Toque continue to function as journalism sites when almost all of their reporters have been forced into exile in recent years? I understand that there are very few reporters left on the island. (2) Many independent media outlets have adopted a strategy of purposely dividing their teams, with the technical, financial, and logistical operations done from abroad and most of the reporters on the island. What do you think of this journalism model?

I don’t know how they do it. I have no idea. You’d have to ask the people who run those outlets today. In my case, when I left El Estornudo, it was precisely when most of the magazine’s staff was already permanently abroad or they were intending to leave. Before it was only the editors who worked from abroad. Then, the reporters also began to leave. But, that was not my experience. It is a model of journalism that I do not know because I did not live it.

All over the world the traditional model of media financing is in crisis. In Cuba, there is also an official discourse that the independent media and its journalists are really “subversives” and “mercenaries” because they are forced to rely on alternative funding. What’s your assessment of this controversy? 

​​I have no conflict in that regard. I have made that known to State Security when they have taken me in for questioning and accused me for it. I have told them that I work and I get paid for it. There is nothing more normal in this world than getting paid for the work you do.

They cling on to the belief and assert that these payments are made so that I write the specific things I write, but they have no idea how the world works. So, this discussion seems superfluous to me. I don’t pay any attention to them.

There are funds from foreign entities (governments, foundations, or other entities) that are dedicated to promoting social and political change in Cuba (so-called “regime change”). That is, to promote democracy, an independent press, support dissidents, etc… Are these funds and programs legitimate? Under what conditions? Why or why not?

Of course, they are legitimate. They are the funds on which the independent press lives all over the world. My experience is that these funds do not impose an editorial line on you at all. What they really seek is to support those who have no means with which to practice journalism and who do it in contexts where there is no freedom of the press.

On the other hand, you should ask yourself, if you don’t access these funds, which ones will you access? You cannot do journalism or anything else in life without money. Whoever denies this is an impostor.

As a journalist, how do you ensure that your content and approache to covering Cuba are not influenced by the interests of the media outlet’s sponsors? That is, that the editorial line of the media outlet is truly independent of the interests of its funders, and that the editorial line of the media outlet does not dictate, determine, or have undue influence on your coverage as a journalist?

Because I haven’t worked in any context where I’ve had an agenda imposed on me. These funds do not influence what you write or how you write. They just provide you with the means to write (financially speaking). You don’t have a little devil on your shoulder telling you to write against the government, to look for its weak, ticklish spots.

That is the excuse they use to discredit these media outlets. But the same thing happens in many countries in the region: we all have access to the same funds. When State Security gives me this argument, I easily refute it: if it is as they say, why have we criticized the opposition on occasions?

What are your experiences of harassment, intimidation, or detention and interrogation by State Security? Have you been arrested, harassed, threatened, or defamed?

On several occasions, I have been taken in for interrogation. In one of them, I was stripped naked. I have been handcuffed several times and they have taken me in a car with my hands cuffed and my head down without knowing where I was going.

I have been threatened with jail, with reprisals against my family. My partner, while pregnant, has been harassed via social media and sent messages defaming me. My mother-in-law experienced the same thing. My father has been interrogated because of me, as well as an old friend from the neighborhood. My mother was expelled from her job where she had worked for more than 20 years. My father’s wife also lost her job because of me.

Has your father’s connection to the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) had a special impact on your experience of repression? Does he understand and accept your position as an independent journalist and well-known critic of the same government to which he has dedicated many years of service?

No, he doesn’t understand how I became an independent journalist. He doesn’t know how that happened with his son. But it was more difficult at the beginning because now he knows what my position is, so he respects it even if he doesn’t understand it. And yes, they always threaten me with my family, with him, State Security tells me that I am a “traitor” and that I am tarnishing my family.

At one point, they tried to control me through my father and that’s why they summoned him several times for interrogations. They tried to use him as a kind of interlocutor to get to me. But I broke with that: I told him not to talk to them anymore, that whatever they had to tell me, they should tell me directly. And so he did.

I am also interested to know if the fact that you are Afro-Cuban been used by State Security in interrogations, with the implication that you are supposedly being ungrateful by criticizing the very system that “gave you everything”? 

Racism is always implicit in all the accusations, in the way they treat you. But I don’t recall any such specific passage.

Have you been prevented or “regulated” from free movement within or outside the country? Under what legal justification?

I am still unable to leave the country, even though I completed the “supposed” five-year travel regulation (on June 2, 2021) because I had worked in the Ministry of the Interior. This reveals that the regulation was for them a way to try to “get even” with me for leaving the ministry.

Have you ever been found guilty or sentenced to prison or jail in Cuba (for your journalistic activities)?

They have threatened me with prison, but I have not gone to jail. The last time was in October 2020. They told me that if I wrote in the Washington Post again, I would go to prison. But I have kept doing it and nothing has happened.

If you could recommend some articles that you have published that are representative of your journalistic work throughout your career, what would they be?

These:

Is there a publication or interview of yours that you could refer me to about Cuban (independent) journalism?

These:

To date, what has been the impact of the rise of new independent digital journalism in Cuba? Does independent journalism have a future on the island? What needs to change for it to have better possibilities of existence and success?

Independent journalism in Cuba has empowered, in part, the nascent Cuban civil society. I say partly because that civil society has also emerged by its own force, but the one who has covered that growth, that emergence, has been the independent press. That is who has given voice to everything that has happened in Cuba since the arrival of the Internet.

The impact has been such that, with gritted teeth, the authorities have had no choice but to recognize the existence of these media. It is true that it has been recognized with the purpose of flogging it, but it has been a recognition nonetheless because, justly, these media have forced the authorities to take note of them thanks to their stories.

It must also be said that while many of the outlets that make up this new spectrum of Cuban independent media are still standing, they have suffered a generational bloodletting. Most of the reporters, editors, and directors of these media outlets are no longer working from Cuba. And this was not the case four years ago.

Cuban independent journalism is alive, but today it is more activism than journalism. This is due to the increase in state repression and the emigration of a large part of the profession, either for political or personal reasons. In the last few years, it was common to see many students go from university classrooms directly into independent journalism, but government repression has slowed that flow. And it shows. There are few new names in the independent press.

Today we can no longer speak of the boom of the independent press; that has passed. But there is still the commitment, the work. The media outlets that were born a few years ago are still alive one way or another, and that is what matters. We will have to reinvent ourselves, not only to survive financially, but also to continue doing journalism that guarantees our very existence; journalism that produces a real impact and that, above all, continues to hold to account the powers that be.

The conditions are not the same as they were at the beginning of this boom: repression continues to increase, the economic situation is worsening, and the salaries for the press are less than rewarding. Therefore, the only way to do journalism in Cuba, and for that journalism to be perpetuated in history, is to continue practicing the profession with the commitment and responsibility that comes with being a journalist in a totalitarian regime like Cuba.

What do you know about the history of Cuban independent journalism before the current new digital movement? Who were the pioneers of independent journalism in Cuba? Do you identify with this history as part of your own professional history now that you are an independent journalist as well?

The truth is that I don’t know much and I’m afraid to say some of the names I do know and be wrong. I have yet to study the various stages prior to my generation of independent journalists. Of course, I do identify with all of them, with Raúl Rivero and company. We are here, in part, thanks to them.

As a journalism graduate, you probably have friends and colleagues who continue to work in the official sector while you and many others have opted for the independent sector. In your opinion, is there anything in particular that distinguishes those who stayed working within officialdom from those who left?

A lack of courage.

In the same way, you must have many independent journalist colleagues who have left the country (or who have chosen to remain silent) while you have chosen to continue practicing journalism from within. In your opinion, is there anything in particular that distinguishes those who have left from those who have stayed working inside the country?

The desire to not live in a dictatorship.

TED A. HENKEN
TED A. HENKEN
Ted A. Henken (Pensacola, 1971). Tenured associate professor of sociology at Baruch College, CUNY. His most recent academic works include Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (University of Florida Press, 2021) and Cuba empresarial: emprendedores ante una cambiante política pública (Editorial Hypermedia, 2020). He is currently working on a history of independent journalism in Cuba.

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