Camila Acosta: “My Awakening”

At the age of 15, Camila Acosta Rodríguez (Isla de la Juventud, 1993) won a scholarship to study at Havana’s prestigious Vladimir Ilich Lenin Vocational High School, which she graduated from in 2011. She went on to study Journalism at the University of Havana. Before graduating in 2016, she did internships in various official media outlets in the capital including Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.

These experiences did not give her much in the way of journalistic practice. However, they did provide her with two elements that have since proven essential in her professional development. First, she realized at an early age that she couldn’t do journalism in a media system structurally designed to serve as a channel for the party’s “ideological propaganda machine.” Second, and quite ironically, these internships and her subsequent period of social service as a reporter at Canal Habana provided her with much freer access to the internet than she had had at the University of Havana.

She took full and frequent advantage of this crack in the wall of state-imposed censorship to spend endless and “spectacular” hours searching for information on Facebook and YouTube. “For that, the internships actually helped me tremendously,” she says with a laugh.

She resigned from Canal Habana after just a year and a half because this short period of time was more than enough for her to experience “first-hand all the censorship and lack of freedom of expression one must accept when working in the official Cuban media. Being exposed to that,” she clarifies, “also taught me how to criticize the official media and defend my current position as openly against the island’s reigning political system.”

Acosta has been working as an independent journalist for less than two years, a task she began full-time in August 2019 as a reporter for CubaNet. She has also made several award-winning documentaries about Freemasonry in Cuba and has published her journalism in other independent digital press outlets, including Periodismo de Barrio, El Toque, OnCuba, the cultural magazine Árbol Invertido, Diario de las Américas, and Diario ABC. Additionally, she is a member of 27N, a movement born on November 27, 2020 as a result of the now historic spontaneous demonstration that took place that evening in front of the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

Since fall 2019, Acosta has experienced in flesh and blood nearly all the repressive strategies that the Cuban government’s state security agents unleash against those who attempt to practice journalism free of ideological control on the island.

She has been evicted from a series of different rental apartments in Havana, fined for the crime of “reception,” fined under Decree-Law 370 (against which she has been one of the clearest and most constant voices), interrogated and strip-searched, arbitrarily arrested in public, “regulated” from traveling abroad, placed under house arrest, and defamed both on social media and national television. While arbitrarily detained, state security agents have stolen money from her and broken or confiscated at least three of her cell phones, which has become one of the most basic tools necessary to carry out her work as an independent journalist. Finally, members of her family have been summoned for interrogations of their own and threatened with reprisals if they couldn’t get her to stop reporting.

Despite all this, Acosta has chosen not only to stay in Cuba and continue working as a journalist but also to focus ever more intently in her reportage on what she calls “the root causes of Cuba’s problems,” which for her is “the prevailing political system in Cuba, the dictatorship.”

That is to say, she wanted to go beyond simply “playing with the chain” of the system by cataloging its endless string of negative consequences without ever touching “the monkey,” the totalitarian political system itself, which for her is the root cause of all the problems. Here she cites the well-known Cuban expression that sets the unwritten rules for “legitimate” criticism within a system that still claims it’s a “Revolution”: “tú puedes jugar con la cadena, pero no con el mono” (you can play with the chain but not with the monkey). “I wanted to get to the causes,” she insists.

As a direct result of her playing with this “monkey” again and again, of giving visibility to figures from the political opposition through her interviews and investigative reporting, and of making clear and repeated denunciations of state repression and of the island’s reigning dictatorial political system itself, she quickly fell into the crosshairs of the island’s extensive state security apparatus, which has tried unsuccessfully to silence her.

However, their repression has backfired. She is ever more emboldened.


Could you describe your family and social origins? What kind of work do your parents do, and how “integrated” was your family in the revolutionary process growing up?

My parents are working class. My father is a farmer and my mother is a bookkeeper in a state-run cafeteria.

My mother’s family was always quite integrated in this political process. My aunt, an internationalist doctor, is a member of the Party. My maternal grandparents were also Party members for many years. My grandmother even belongs to an “Asociación de Combatientes,” given her past resistance against the Batista dictatorship. On my father’s side, it’s just the opposite. My father’s brother had to go into exile in the United States because he was the leader of a dissident organization on the Isle of Youth. My paternal grandfather is from Matanzas, and in the 1960s they removed him from his land because he supported the rebels in the Escambray mountains. In other words, that side of my family is against the Cuban regime.

How “integrated” were you when you were young? How would you describe your educational experiences up through high school?

Since I was a child I was much more influenced by my mother’s side of the family. In addition to the indoctrination I experienced at school.

I was always a very good student. I participated in all the student academic competitions, starting in elementary school. In middle school, I became part of the group of students chosen to as school leaders.

In the ninth grade they suggested that I join the Union of Young Communists (UJC), which they did with the best students, but I refused. By then I had become a bit suspicious of anything ideological. I just wanted to study. I didn’t want to be linked to any political-ideological issue. That’s why I rejected membership in the UJC.

Later, in high school, when I was in eleventh grade, I decided to ask to join the UJC because I believed that it would help me win a spot to study Journalism at the university, the major I had already decided on. Many times, belonging to the UJC can help you get into the major of your choice. But once a student at the University of Havana, I was never really that active in the UJC. Of course, I did go to some marches and other political activities that were mandatory. And at one point I think I was even secretary of the UJC among my cohort because nobody else wanted that job. I had to put in my time for a year, but I really didn’t do anything much. It was all quite banal.

How and why did you decide to study journalism at the University of Havana?

I am from the Isle of Youth (although I prefer to say “the Isle of Pines”) and when I was 15 years old I came to study in Havana, at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin vocational high school, because there were no such schools on the Island. In my last year of high school, I decided to opt for a degree in Journalism, because it was the major that most aligned with my talents and sensibilities. I always liked the humanities and found that I performed best in those subjects. I have also always liked to read and stay informed. And I wanted to do something in which I felt useful, where I could help other people and do something to transform my reality, my country, the things that I believed should be changed.

Back then, what were the things you wanted to transform or change?

I really didn’t see myself doing the same thing every day, or doing an office job where I didn’t get any feedback. Because I am one of those people who constantly sets goals in life. I always try to improve myself spiritually and professionally. And I think that with Journalism I have achieved that: I get feedback and spiritual nourishment from the practice of my profession.

What social concerns did you have when you were still unsure about the character of the Cuban political system?

I did not understand that in a system that was said to be so humanistic (the official discourse of promoting equality or eradicating inequalities) there were so many inequalities. For me, in practice, there were many contradictions: I saw that theory had nothing to do with reality. I saw that there were mothers who could barely feed their children. I myself suffered having to go without many necessities. I went hungry when I was on scholarship and the Lenin vocational school, between the ages of 15 and 18. When I started college, I barely had clothes to wear because my parents are working class and didn’t have the resources to support me here in Havana. My mother earned about 300 pesos a month, and a pair of shoes cost me 500. Things like that, which I didn’t understand at the time, made me ask: “How is this possible?”

My aunt, who is a doctor, had to go on an international medical mission for a year when her daughter was just 3 years old. Later, when her daughter was about 7 or 8, she had to go back to another mission, this time to Venezuela. And she was away from our family for six years. She would come back once a year to visit, but only for a month. Her daughter and I, we practically grew up together. I experienced all her pain, having to be apart from her mother. And I also understood that my aunt had to do it because it was the way she saw that she could get ahead financially. To help her family.

In fact, during those years she was the one who helped just about all of us to find clothes and shoes, to put food on the table. And I used to ask myself: “How is it that a professional, a doctor, has to go far from her country to survive economically, if this is her country? This is where she studied. Here she can work…” And at the same time, I saw how terrible the health service in Cuba was, the educational system. These were things that I questioned.

Along with this family experience, when I came here to Havana I realized the great social differences that exist in Cuba. In the provinces, in the towns, at that time this was less evident. For example, at the Lenin school, there were children of many political leaders, of people with a lot of resources, and they dressed very well. And they made fun of people like us, who came from the Isle of Youth, from small towns, and who didn’t dress as well as they did. They discriminated against us.

In Havana, I also began to see that many people could afford luxuries like going to bars and parties while I couldn’t. Some students even drove to campus in their own cars wearing expensive clothes. While there were others, like me, who could barely afford a pair of shoes.

When I decided to study Journalism and during the time I was studying for my major, I had these social concerns but was unaware that Cuba was a dictatorship, for example. I didn’t even know there were political prisoners. Little by little, especially after graduation, with greater Internet access, I started to meet people from the opposition and to open up to a world totally unknown to me.

After graduation, I think was my awakening. Over time, I have been able to access many banned books that broadened my horizons and helped me to better understand all those concerns that I had had.

What are some examples of the books you discovered at that time?

I have read Journey to the Heart of Cuba by Carlos Alberto Montaner. I read Juan Reinaldo Sánchez’s book, The Secret Life of Fidel Castro. I have also read, for example, the book by Andrés Oppenheimer, Castro’s Final Hour. It was very important to me. It inspired me tremendously. I have found it difficult to find books by Rafael Rojas, but I keep looking. I have also read the book by Comandante Benigno [Daniel Alarcón Ramírez] Life and Death of the Cuban Revolution. Benigno was one of Camilo’s guerrilla fighters, and later part of Ernesto Che Guevara’s guerrilla force.

On the Internet, I have been able to find many works on Cuban history. I have also interviewed many people as part of my research project on Freemasonry in Cuba. There were even freemasons among the Cuban political prisoners known as “los plantados.”

What attracted you to the idea of ​​being a journalist in a country like Cuba?

The constant exchange with people, feeling that I was providing people with a social service. Since I became an independent journalist, many people have approached me for help.

What kind of help have they requested?

I have covered cases of families in Old Havana whose homes are in danger of collapse. And when I publish these articles, the authorities are forced to visit these buildings and try to remedy the situation in some way.

Another experience I had, last year, was a family that contacted me through a friend, because the father of the family had a son with chronic schizophrenia. This was around the start of the pandemic when there was all this paranoia in Cuba of arresting and fining people for not wearing a mask. So, this young guy, suffering from schizophrenia, decides to go out for a walk. And the police catch him without a shirt or a mask. They gave him a summary trial, without a lawyer and without the presence of his family, and sentenced him to a year in prison. His father had not been able to visit him during the whole process. He even took his medical history to prove his condition, but the authorities did not take it into account.

I did some investigative reporting on this case, and as I began to inquire about all the violations that were being committed, in less than 10 days they released this kid. They called his father and handed him over without further explanation. He is free. After being sentenced to a year in prison.

People have found, in the independent press, a form of social denunciation. They can be heard in the face of so much injustice. Those are the things that comfort me, make me proud of what I do. And that’s why: the public service I provide thanks to the profession I chose.

What did you write your thesis about and why? Who was your thesis director?

I graduated from the Communication School at the University of Havana in 2016, and my thesis was a video documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba. My tutor was Maribel Acosta, a tenured professor at the University.

Freemasonry was a subject that interested me. First, I set out to put together a book of interviews. But then I saw that there was material worthy of a documentary, because nothing of the sort had been done before. In fact, in all modestly, mine was the first documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba.

Freemasonry has been quite momentous in this country’s history. The first separatist conspiracies in the 19th century were orchestrated by Freemasons. The Cuban flag and the national coat of arms were both devised by Freemasons. The national anthem was written by a Freemason. The Ten Years’ War was also hatched in Masonic lodges. José Martí was a Freemason. Later, during the years of the Republic, the Masonic order continued to have tremendous influence.

Later as I delved more deeply into my research on the history of the order in Cuba, I discovered that the female branch of Freemasonry, for example, was something has been almost completely ignored. Right now, I am finishing up my book on all this so I can enter it into a journalism contest. I think the main contribution I make is on the history of the order in the last 60 years, which is also unknown, unpublished.

How would you describe your internships at different state media outlets during college?

They were all about the same political-ideological question. I don’t think they contributed much to my development. I do remember that at Granma what we did was accompany older journalists in their coverage and see how they did things. And they gave us advice.

However, we students spent most of our time on the office computers. Sometimes we even skipped class so we could go on-line. The Internet access they gave us at the university was negligible. It didn’t allow us to do anything. Back then, I didn’t even know what Facebook was. I had never had a laptop or anything like that. So, to walk into a newsroom with so much connectivity, to find myself with access to all that, for me it was something spectacular.

I remember spending hours and hours on Facebook, on YouTube, watching videos, looking for information. For that, the internships actually helped me tremendously.

What was your first job with the official media?

At the television station Canal Habana. Specifically, as part of the show “Habana Noticiario,” which is still on the air today. I did reports from the street. It was mediocre journalism, really. I’m not ashamed to say it. In fact, I was ashamed of myself when I was working at Canal Habana.

I was there from September 2016 until March or April 2018, long enough to become professionally frustrated. Like all young people, I started with many ideas, many desires. But eventually I ran up against censorship, mediocrity, hypocrisy. From early on, I began to realize that I was not doing journalism. I felt like a simple government spokesperson.

An example that I always cite, because for me it was shocking: once, I was directed to do a story on the Russian Revolution (la Revolución de Octubre), as part of our annual commemoration in the media. So, I started off talking, of course, about Lenin’s “Great October Socialist Revolution,” and then I mentioned Stalin’s excesses, and the fall of the Berlin Wall along with the rest of the socialist camp. And I remember that the director and screenwriter of “Habana Noticiario,” Caridad Bermúdez, calls me in and says: “Camila, the first part is very good. The second, you can remove it.”

Here, we always show only one part of reality, a single version: the triumphalist version of the regime. While that’s something that I already knew, but just to feel good with myself I wanted to submit a complete report. So that they were the ones who would do the censoring.

At the same time, of course, I was digging up a lot of background information on-line. Working at Canal Habana gave me much greater Internet access, even with the many blocked pages here in Cuba. But by using social networks I could be in contact with the outside world and access censored material. That’s what allowed me to get to know figures in the political opposition and other dissidents, allowing me to have exchanges with them and learn about their experiences…

Could you name a few of them?

I met Ángel Santiesteban Prats, a writer and former political prisoner, at a Masonic event, given that he’s a Mason. And we started a romantic relationship. And through him I meet several other people including Jorge Olivera, who is part of the group of 75 dissidents imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003, and his wife Nancy Alfaya. I also met Antonio Rodiles, Claudio Fuentes, and José Daniel Ferrer.

What independent journalists and which independent media outlets did you discover at that time?

I was still working for Canal Habana when I learned of the existence of El Toque. Before that, I had once collaborated with Periodismo de Barrio. But it was only on one occasion. With El Toque, I collaborated 3 or 4 times, sporadically. Later, also through Jorge Olivera, I discovered CubaNet. Of course, I also knew about 14ymedio. You know, Yoani Sánchez is a bit of a celebrity here in Cuba.

It was in that period, after I started working, when I came to realize the true nature of Cuban reality. I always saw journalism as a form of public service. I wanted to denounce abuses, engage with everyday people about their needs, who suffered from deficiencies and injustices. And I never did that at Canal Habana. I never really did journalism. We worked with the provincial headquarters of the Communist Party. Most of the time they were the ones who took us to do our news coverage, and sometimes they even found the people for us to interview.

What injustices would you have liked denounce that you could not?

In my time at Canal Habana, I would have liked to denounce housing conditions, the building collapses, the thousands of people who have lived in shelters for years, the issue of overcrowding, all things I have been able to cover as an independent journalist. I would have liked to expose the situation of political prisoners, the repression, the injustices committed by State Security. But of course, I was never going to be able to do that, nor am I going to be able to do it, in the official media.

Look, an experience I had at Canal Habana that for me was shocking, because I did not see any way to get out of it, to escape, was when Fidel Castro died in November 2016. There followed an entire week where everything we did was about Fidel Castro: Fidel and education, Fidel and health, Fidel and sports… Even Fidel and agriculture!

It was my turn to do a report on Fidel and culture. I had arrived in the newsroom at 8:00 a.m. and by 11:00 a.m. I hadn’t written a thing. And a woman came to the station saying that she had information about Fidel. And so they told me: “Camila, look and see what this lady has. Maybe it’s enough for a story.” It turns out that she had worked, I don’t remember if it was at the Nicaraguan Embassy, ​​in the consular services section, and she had a photo of herself with Fidel, from a time when he had visited. And she said that Fidel had given a gift of some chocolates. Of course, I knew this had no news value, but I said to myself, “This is my escape.” And I interviewed the lady and managed to escape from work that day. It was really frustrating!

This was the kind of news that made me ask myself: “What is the value of this? Of what possible interest is it to anyone?” Because a journalist always tries to look for that: the news value that the coverage may have. And I saw that these kinds of stories had practically none. Everything was simply part of the propaganda machine of the Cuban regime. I was ashamed of myself for being a part of it, which also influenced my process of frustration.

I also noticed that, sometimes, journalists from the official media used coverage, or the influence they had on different organizations, to get personal benefits, financially or through favors, which could be an invitation to spend the night at a hotel, visit tourist resorts, or eat at a restaurant.

At tourism or business fairs, such as FIART Habana, there was a whole mechanism in place. It was always the same journalists who went, the ones who already had a kind of connection. And they always left those events loaded. With everything from cooking seasoning to, I don’t know, a new purse. Things like that.

Did you have any personal experiences related to this corruption or influence peddling?

I remember that they would invite us to lunch following some of our coverage. Other times they gave us the ability to buy food and other things at low prices. Once we visited a factory and they gave me a box of crackers. Another time, they gave me a case of beer. I noticed it after it was already loaded into our vehicle. And they said: “This is for you and the cameraman.” Later I found out that the cameraman and the technician, who had been working there longer than I, already knew those people and had previously set up this exchange. They had coordinated it with them.

All this made me feel ashamed. It doesn’t seem at all ethical to me. But this kind of thing is quite normalized in the official media. It is also a way that journalists have found, in the face of so much scarcity and low pay, to survive.

In 2011, Juan Orlando Pérez, a Cuban writer living in London, published a reflection on his blog entitled, “Profesión, periodista. Cubano. Perdón” (Profession, journalist. Cuban. Sorry), where he says that being a journalist in Cuba is the perfect recipe for a professional life of “deep dissatisfaction” and “tremendous frustration.” At the same time, he describes the two years that he worked at Tribuna de La Habana as the happiest of his career. Based on your experience, how do you understand this contradictory description?

The experiences I had at Canal Habana were not professionally satisfactory at all. Yes, I think I learned, because I practiced quite a lot of what in the official Cuban media they call “journalism.” Because you leave the university with the theory, but you need to practice, right? Journalism is a trade that needs to be practiced. However, I did not practice what I consider journalism, but I did get some exercise and experience in the practical elements of reporting: being on television, writing stories, news items, doing interviews, that kind of thing. And I also learned how to edit video. But, in terms of professional satisfaction: none at all.

That time, if it was worth anything, it was for me to realize that that was not the path I wanted to take. That that was not the kind of journalism I wanted to do. If it was of any use to me, it was to experience “first-hand all the censorship and lack of freedom of expression one must accept when working in the official Cuban media. Being exposed to that also taught me how to criticize the official media and defend my current position as openly against the island’s reigning political system.

Did you leave Canal Habana on your own or were you expelled?

On my own. For some time, I had harbored this series of professional dissatisfactions. I was looking for some justification and, well, something happened. I was making a documentary and later, for different reasons not necessarily related to decisions at the station, it was cancelled. That was my justification for quitting. It was easy, really. I simply presented my resignation and they accepted it.

Then I went was about a year and a half without working. I was in a kind of self-imposed detox from all the indoctrination, and I spent my time doing research for my book on Freemasonry, that I plan to publish soon. And learning, reading, broadening my horizons, until I got into independent journalism.

Other journalists say they had problems with their bosses and encounters with State Security when they were university students or during their years of social service, because they had already begun to collaborate with independent media. In your case, all that came more than a year after leaving official journalism, right?

I had a brief encounter with State Security when I was still working at Canal Habana. By then, I had started my relationship with Ángel Santiesteban, and it seems that State Security took note of this and sent an agent to pay me a somewhat suspicious visit. Nothing happened. I continued working normally, but I think it was their way of telling me: “We know what you’re up to and we’re watching.” I describe this episode in a two-part article I published in January 2021 at CubaNet.

Besides this, my experiences of repression as such, the interrogations, the fines, began after I started working with CubaNet. But there are benefits as well as costs.

What are the benefits?

To escape from being fenced in, from censorship, from the lack of freedom. To throw off all that.

What do you think of the official press? How would you describe it?

The official Cuban press is conformist. It does not criticize or question government decisions: quite the contrary. It is an ideological spokesperson for the Cuban Communist Party. A mere instrument of propaganda for the regime, regardless of the fact that some of those who work in the official media have differences with those who wield political power. The regime has been very effective at manipulation and fearmongering, and although many of these people realize they are playing the government’s game, the lying, the manipulation, simply out of fear, so as not to stand out or look for trouble, they continue to echo the party line as part of that same vicious circle.

There are talented people who work in the official media. But some do not even realize what they are doing.

Do you think there are also some (or many) who are motivated by pure opportunism? At this point, is it still possible that there are also others with a real belief in the “Revolution” and its purported achievements and principles?

Of course, there are many journalists who live lives of deception, inside the official bubble. But there are also others who are opportunists, who are looking for personal benefits. Also, if you earn the recognition of the regime, you are prone to receive perks, such as an apartment, a house, or a car. Or vacations at tourist resorts, things that you cannot access through your work, because of your profession, thanks to your own sacrifice.

There are two versions: the opportunists (I think they are the majority) and other people who live inside the bubble. However, sometimes they live inside that bubble of their own free will, because they refuse to see. It’s like the saying: “No one is blinder than he who will not see.”

The other reason, of course, is fear. Fear of losing your job, of not being able to support your family. Others are simply waiting, avoiding any trouble, to see how they get a trip or scholarship abroad.

Fundamentally, what differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?

There are so many differences. I already described my work a little: what I thought of official Cuban journalism, my experiences. And independent journalism, of course, openly criticizes power. It fulfills the function of acting as a check on state power, of bringing out into the light cases that are made invisible or manipulated.

How do their working conditions compare?

Official journalists have access to sources and statistics. Independent journalists, although they deal directly with issues willfully overlooked and manipulated by the official press, barely have access to official sources of information. When we independent journalists arrive at a state institution in search of the information necessary for our work, they reject us immediately after we answer the question: “What media outlet do you work for?”

At the same time, we face all of State Security’s repression. And of course, this is not faced by official journalists. We have a lot of trouble when we are out trying to do reporting. Not only to gain access to the most basic tools of the trade, but even to find people willing to go on the record in interviews. Out of fear, many prefer to remain anonymous.

Official journalists also have better working conditions. They give them a phone, a tablet, or a computer. Some even get Internet access in their homes and their smartphone accounts are topped up. Many also have access to transportation. Television reporters, in this sense, are a privileged group. They get transportation to do most of their news coverage. They work in offices with air conditioning.

Exercising journalism outside the official media in Cuba makes you a kind of “dissident” in the eyes of the state, even when that’s not your intention. For you, what is the key difference between being an independent journalist and a dissident, opponent, or activist?

I started in independent journalism in August 2019, when I started working at CubaNet (I had already collaborated sporadically with El Toque, Periodismo de Barrio, and OnCuba, but these outlets are considered “alternative media”; there’s a difference) and, almost automatically, State Security began its repression and interrogations of me, especially because I began to link myself to opposition groups, to interview dissidents. That is to say, I did not do activism, but I did interview opponents and dissidents; and I denounced state repression, making visible some of the initiatives of the opposition.

In October 2019, I participated in a training program in the United States related to gender violence, and of course, this was also key to put me in State Security’s crosshairs. Then in February 2020, the evictions began, then the fines, the arbitrary arrests, all this series of things. In terms of activism as such, I began by attacking Decree Law 370. I was one of the first journalists targeted and fined under this Decree, and my cell phone was confiscated.

It’s like I was forced into activism, right? Being a victim of all this repression, I felt obliged to also protest. To be not just an observer, but also an observer-participant of Cuban reality. From the beginning, what I have tried to do is journalism; I do not consider myself a protagonist, but because of my work and because of the repression, I have found myself in the spotlight of the media and human rights organizations. For example, in the campaign against Decree Law 370, I was one of those who promoted it, because I was also one of its victims.

Then on November 27, 2020, I went there to report. I had the opportunity to be among the 30 people who entered the Ministry of Culture that day, but I entered as a journalist. And this opportunity has made me connect with the 27N movement, be part of their initiatives and projects.

I knew that working with independent media was going to bring me problems with State Security. What I didn’t realize was that these problems were going to come so fast. Some people were surprised, they had been working as independent journalists for several months, even years, and they came to have problems a year or two later. I started working with CubaNet in August and in October was my first interrogation, and in November I was already being “regulated”; that is, they do not allow me to leave the country.

I believe that this was also because I began to make visible, to interview people from the opposition, to denounce the repression. And State Security saw that I had started with a lot of force and they tried to silence me quickly. However, they did not succeed. They achieved the opposite effect.

Why did you decide to work with CubaNet and not with another outlet given that you had previously published with others?

Earlier I said that there’s a difference between the “alternative media” and the “independent media.” The independent media are, or used to be, more confrontational with the dictatorship. In fact, the very term “alternative media” was coined by these same media, Periodismo de Barrio and El Toque primarily, to establish this differentiation with the “independent media.”

From the experience that I had (no matter who might be hurt by my saying it, right?), these media, while they did a different kind of journalism, it was a bit “light.” That is, they played with the chain and not with the monkey. They addressed some social problems, but in the end they did not address the causes. They talked about the consequences, but not the causes. And the causes start with the prevailing political system in Cuba, the dictatorship. I wanted to get to the causes. I believe that, to solve problems, you have to attack the root causes of Cuba’s problems and not the consequences.

For example, I wanted to interview the opposition. Once I proposed that I do an interview with Antonio Rodiles for El Toque, and they said no, that they weren’t interested. Perhaps it was a matter of their editorial line or of the newsroom. But I realized, based on the content they typically published, that they did not like to get mixed up in issues related to the political opposition.

However, I wanted to give visibility to the situation of Cuba’s political prisoners, the kidnappings carried out by State Security, and I knew that with them I wouldn’t be able to publish things like that. That’s why I decided to work with a media outlet where I thought these kinds of issues would have a place, the type of journalism that I wanted to do. And, as I already mentioned, through my friend Jorge Olivera, I started working with CubaNet.

Do you think that alternative media outlets like El Toque, Periodismo de Barrio, and OnCuba receive or have received different treatment from the Cuban government than have more decidedly independent media outlets?

CubaNet was founded in 1994. Periodismo de Barrio and El Toque are newer, they have not suffered as much from State Security repression. Perhaps it is also because of the issues they handle. Although yes, on several occasions their reporters have been interrogated and detained while doing their journalistic coverage.

Later, of course, as we have seen most recently, these media outlets have been put in the same sack as the independent media. They have been classified by the official press as “mercenaries,” “paid by imperialism,” “at the service of a foreign power,” “counterrevolutionaries.” And they have also crossed that threshold or that line a bit, and they are covering news, for example, of the San Isidro Movement demonstrations and 27N.

I believe that it has also been an evolutionary process for these media. And that’s great, right? But at the time I worked with them, it was not like that. They denounced State Security violations when they were directly affected by them, but when they had to do with other sectors of the opposition or of society in general, I never saw these issues covered.

Is it possible to be a journalist and a dissident at the same time?

I think so. The different kinds of journalism that exist allow this, in addition to reporting one can comment on reality, in this case Cuban reality. And the fact that you can become a protagonist also makes your voice have more weight and be heard.

Given the increasingly transnational reality of journalism and the Cuban nation, does the distinction between media outlets that are done “from Cuba” and others that are done “from abroad” still matter?

I don’t believe so. At one point that distinction was heavily emphasized, but now it is not. Many journalists who live or report from within Cuba work for media outlets that are obliged to be based abroad, because independent press is not legally allowed in Cuba. But the main reporters link me are still in Cuba.

But I imagine it is not the same to report on Cuba from Miami than from Havana, right? I mean in terms of doing good reporting and living under constant threat and repression.

Yes, of course there is a difference between reporting from Cuba and from abroad. The journalist’s job requires being in contact with that reality. But there are things that can be reported from outside, for example, brief news notices, things like that that are already known about because of social networks. Additionally, technology and the Internet have shortened distances considerably. Now things are reported almost instantaneously, and you can interview a person in another country like you are interviewing me now: via WhatsApp.

One of the reasons why I have not wanted to leave Cuba is this. I need to be in direct contact with reality. But I understand that other journalists have been forced to leave the country, and have wanted to continue doing journalism for Cuba, even though they are abroad. I understand that, and it also seems to me that this kind of reporting should be recognized. But in my case, as long as the regime allows it, I want to be in Cuba and report on Cuban reality from here.

In addition, the fact that these media outlets exist both inside and outside of Cuba has value. For example, I feel very supported whenever I am detained because I know that my colleagues abroad, the directors of CubaNet, are constantly denouncing such treatment and fielding questions from human rights organizations that monitor my situation. They also establishing contacts with these organizations and with politicians, to protect us and seek international support.

In all parts of the world the financing model of the media is in crisis. In Cuba, moreover, there is an official discourse that independent media and journalists are “subversives” and “mercenaries,” because they rely on alternative financing. Could you make a personal assessment of how you negotiate in this context?

The Cuban regime attacks and will always attack what they cannot control.

I don’t consider myself a mercenary; besides, in the Cuban penal code, being a “mercenary” has nothing to do with what we are doing. Being a mercenary, as defined in Cuban legislation, has more to do with military operations and the financing of armed guerrillas to promote violence in different countries. And our only weapon (if you can call it that) are cell phones, our computers, and our minds.

Subversives? It’s possible. There’s nothing wrong with that. If I do not agree with the ruling regime in Cuba, I have every right to promote changes, to promote transformations, a “subversion” of the reality that I believe is malignant for my country. But because they’ve manipulated the term for such a long time, it’s as if it were a bad thing. That is a tactic common to all totalitarian systems: they try to discredit their legitimate opponents to remain in power.

I live from journalism, just as a doctor lives from his or her work, or any other kind of worker anywhere in the world. Journalism is not a crime. Reporting is not a crime. I earn my salary honestly. Nobody pays me to report reality in the way they want or to manipulate that reality.

However, I avoid giving them weapons with which they can attack me later. In my various interrogations, I have never admitted that I charge for my work, which would be normal in any other part of the world. For example, on July 31 they arrested me right off the street. At the police station they stripped me naked and searched everything, all without any explanation. Without my consent, they started recording the interrogation. I tried to speak as little as possible, because I know that these materials are used later to misrepresent what we say and to defame us. At a certain point, they asked me my profession, what did I do for a living. And I told them” “I am a housewife.” That allowed me to effectively counter the interrogation strategy they had prepared: “Who pays you? How much do they pay you?,” would have followed along with a series of questions like that. However, after my response, they didn’t know how to proceed.

If I can avoid going to jail, of course I will, so I can continue reporting on Cuban reality. But of course, whenever they want they will invent trumped up charges against me, even without evidence or witnesses. In fact, they are already compiling a criminal file on me. They have already lodged several charges against me: violation of residence, reception, illegally residing in Havana, usurpation of public functions… So, when they want to send me to prison, they will.

In your experiences of harassment, intimidation, arrests, and interrogations by the State Security, what has been the legal justification?

The Cuban government has created a series of laws and mechanisms to deprive us of our rights. They arbitrarily arrest us, and if we resist, they beat us and accuse us of disobedience, resisting arrest, or attacking a police officer. They take us to police stations but never allow us access to phone calls. In other words, they “disappear” us for several hours, because our families and our friends don’t know where we are. They do not file any writ of detention, which is required by law: that they register our detention and tell us why we are being detained. They never do. The interrogations, of course, and the threats, and the whole process: it all takes place without the presence of a lawyer. Without a court order or justification. They have also kept me under house arrest without any legal justification.

What is your opinion about the funds that foreign entities (governments, foundations, or others) dedicate to promote social and political changes in Cuba (so-called “regime change”)? Are these funds and programs legitimate?

Yes. I believe that the financing of opposition organizations, and the independent press, is legitimate.

Many times, it is overlooked that, in many cases, the financing does not come from foreign organizations, but from Cubans themselves who live in exile and who have created ways to support the internal opposition in Cuba or to support the cause of Cuban freedom from abroad. And this is something that has been done since the Ten Years’ War. José Martí also received funding from exile organizations. Even the July 26th Movement received funding from exile and from organizations such as the CIA. So, I ask: with what moral authority are they going to come and say now that foreign support for organizations here in Cuba is somehow illegitimate?

Because there is a reality: we live in a dictatorship. It is a dictatorship in which people are afraid to support dissident initiatives because they’ll lose their jobs, because they’ll go to prison, because then they’ll have no way to feed their children, take care of their families. And this support from exile aims to do that: to support those people in Cuba who are invisible or repressed, so that they can move forward.

In the case of the press, it is the same. In other words, I wish we could legally exist in Cuba! I wish we could have legal personality and pay taxes like everyone else. But it’s not like that. They don’t want to allow us to exist in this country. That is why we have to work this way.

There are also government organizations that receive funding from foreign entities. And they are not tarred with the “mercenary” libel because of it, called “counterrevolutionaries,” or accused of working “at the service of foreign governments.” About a year ago, El Estornudo published an editorial that I think explains this whole issue very well. [“A Quien Pueda Interesar: Nuestra ruta del dinero,” May 13, 2020].

Another point is that this financing is not aimed at making us to do something: it is support for a job that we have already decided to do. In no way does it mean that these organizations impose an agenda on us or tell us what to say. Independent journalists are free to write about the topics we consider relevant. CubaNet has never told me what topics to cover or how to write my stories. My personal experience, and that of several of my colleagues in the independent press, has been one of total freedom of expression.

In addition, such financing is explicitly supported by the “Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.” In fact, Article 13 of Resolution 53/114 of the United Nations General Assembly, states: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.”

Another common attack is to say that these are “organizations that finance subversive projects” or that they aim to “promote changes in Cuba.” Yes, that’s true. And so what? Cuba’s official media and all pro-government institutions are financed by the government. What’s wrong with citizens who want a change in Cuba turning to financing with the aim of promoting democracy and human rights?

Of course, the independent media have differences. Each has its own editorial policy. Every media outlet in the world has its own editorial line and, in one way or another, they all represent or respond to a particular interest. And the official Cuban media responds to the interests of the Cuban Communist Party. What’s wrong with having a counterpart? We are anti-totalitarian media outlets that defend freedom of expression, the freedom of Cuba. There is nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

In a dictatorship, when you live in a dictatorship, neutrality is a luxury we can’t afford. You are on one side or the other. You support the dictatorship or you are against it. You are in favor of repression and the violation of human rights or you are against them. And the independent media, some more than others, are against that. And that’s why the topics that most of us cover are related to that. In addition, we give visibility to issues that are ignored by the official media. I have found very good articles of investigative journalism in the independent press.

I have also had to interview people whose ideas I do not agree with. It’s part of my job. I wish I could interview Miguel Díaz-Canel or some other government officials, but they won’t let me. Unfortunately, here public officials do not respond to the people. Everything’s manipulated.

They accuse us of being “mercenaries” and attack us over the issue of financing because they have no other way of counteracting us. If they really wanted to undermine our credibility, all they’d have to do is show that our reporting is wrong. And so far, they have not. Instead, all they’ve done is justify human rights violations, manipulate, and lie.

They have no way of counteracting the impact that the independent media are having in Cuba. Information is power. They know it. And that’s why they attack us on a personal level and try to imprison us. But every day there are more of us. In recent years, many young graduates of Cuban universities have joined the independent media, especially those who studied Journalism. They have strengthened the independent media, and the government is very afraid of that.

Before, most of those who did this kind of work were not journalists by profession, that is, they had not studied journalism in college. They were writers, intellectuals, even people who simply turned to journalism for the first time. In contrast, in recent years the independent press has been nurtured by the arrival of media professionals: professional journalists, graduates of the Journalism programs of Cuba’s own universities.

What is the reason for this phenomenon of “rupture” that has led more and more young people to abandon state journalism and embrace independent journalism? Why now and not before?

In the first place, it is due to frustration, the lack of freedoms that they suffer in the official media. The professional routines marked by censorship in a media system defined by ideology and propaganda. The other thing is that before there were few other alternatives. The Internet and social media have opened things up and given young people opportunities that barely existed before. Especially in the last two years [2019-2021], independent journalism has had a huge impact in Cuba.

I have talked to some of the independent journalists active in the 1990s and early 2000s. They say that at that time they wrote their news stories and had to find a phone to call abroad and read aloud what they had written so it could be transcribed and published on the other end. Then blogging started, but blogging also had a hard time reaching people. It was the expansion of Internet access —first, the Wi-Fi parks, and then, 3G access via mobile phones— that made possible the rise of “independent” or “alternative” media outlets, whatever you want to call them.

Indeed, having access to these “indie” media start-ups, in my case, was what made my awakening possible. And my subsequent decision to hold the position I do today: as an independent journalist and as a dissident in Cuba.

Could we say then that access to 3G/mobile data, as of December 2018, marks a turning point in independent journalism in Cuba? And if so, how do you explain the government’s decision to open this Pandora’s box?

Yes, I believe that the real explosion was after December 2018, when they allowed Internet access on cellphones. But I don’t think they ever imagined it was going to turn out like this. They didn’t think things through. On the one hand, they were forced to open up Internet access due to popular demands accumulated over many years. But on the other hand, they saw the opening as a way to bring desperately needed hard currency, dollars into the country through top-ups paid for from abroad.

Now many people get their news via social media and the work of the independent press. The evidence is in the flood of responses that the Cuban government has been forced to give, in the mass media, responding to controversies generated by social media. The impact can also be measured by the huge smear campaign they have deployed, with which they try to fight back against the content published in the independent press and of course on social media.

Independent journalism on the island is experiencing its best moment. And it can continue to improve as it is nourished by the work of more professionals, more people.

What must be changed so that independent journalism has a better chance of existence and success?

In order for it to have greater reach, it’s first necessary to lower Internet prices. Internet access is still very difficult for Cubans given how expensive it is. And the other thing is that there are still millions of Cubans who don’t even have a cell phone, so fewer will have access to the Internet.

As long as we are not allowed to disseminate information through other means, such as print media, television, or radio, this will continue to be the most important thing for us: that Internet prices are lowered so that more people have access to social media.

Still, we are breaking through. More and more people are accessing our stories. And, in part, this has been due to the same smear campaign that the official media has launched against us in the independent press, against dissidents, against activists. This has backfired on the regime since it has allowed people who don’t have much access to the Internet and social media to discover our work.

Once recently, a random person on the street asked me: “Are you Camila Acosta, the independent journalist?” Just days earlier, I had been featured in a national TV newscast, as part of a program aimed at defaming the independent press. And this person recognized me and said: “I support you all. Keep it up. What you guys are doing is very important.” This says a lot about our reach in Cuba, about the usefulness of the public service we are providing.

Of course, there’s still a lot we can improve and resolve. The main thing right now is to continue working to achieve the freedom of Cuba. Under democracy, we will be faced with new contexts and challenges. But right now, with the conditions we have, I think we are doing a lot.

Do you think the government will change its media laws so that private, independent, or non-state media outlets can legally exist?

No. I don’t believe that the regime, of its own free will, will permit freedom of expression. They have learned from the experience of the Soviet Union, of the collapse of the socialist camp, which was triggered in part by Gorbachev’s opening to freedom of expression. They know it’s no accident that information, the press, is called “the fourth estate.”

If something’s going to change, it will be because of what we are capable of doing by promoting that change, making demands and putting pressure on the regime so that they’re forced to open up.

What do you know about the history of independent journalism in Cuba before the current movement? Do you identify with that history as part of your own professional history?

At CubaNet, an article and video of interviews with several “old-school” independent journalists who were active in the late-1990s and early 2000s was recently published. These were run alongside interviews with journalists from this new wave. It was published to coincide with Cuban press day, March 14, 2021.

Of course, I identify with that history. It is part of Cuban history. I think all those journalists marked a path and made it possible for us to exist today.

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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