José Raúl Gallego: “Journalism is Not Compatible with Totalitarianism”

José Raúl Gallego Ramos (Camagüey, 1986) graduated from the University of Havana in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. Four years later, he completed a Master’s Degree in Communication Sciences at the same state institution and two years later, in 2016, he completed a second Master’s Degree in Communication at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. Between 2010 and 2012 he completed his social service as a journalism professor at the University of Camagüey while working as a reporter for Adelante, the provincial newspaper of Camagüey, and as host and scriptwriter for the program “Zona de Encuentro” on TV Camagüey. He continued working as a professor at the University of Camagüey until 2018.

However, after having started to collaborate sporadically between 2016 and 2018, publishing articles in the digital pages of some new independent media start-ups such as Cuba Posible and El Toque, he was expelled from his position as a professor at the University of Camagüey. He was also kicked out of the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC). In his opinion, they wanted to make a public example of his case to send a clear message to other journalism professors and students so that they would not follow his example.

Given the opportunity to save himself, “rectify his improper behavior,” no longer publish in media outlets with “a position contrary to the Cuban government,” and spend a year working in a small university publishing house as punishment, he declined. As a result, his promising professional future in Cuba hit a dead end, as did his progress toward earning a doctorate. Instead, he suddenly became a “non-person,” condemned to what he calls “insile,” or exile within the boundaries of the island.

However, he managed to win a scholarship to continue his doctoral studies in Communication at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and in 2018 he quickly left the country where he was born. He has no regrets. On the contrary, in his opinion,  his expulsion from the University and his break with the official media and collaboration with independent media has helped him grow professionally.

Currently, while finishing his doctorate, he works as a journalist with Inventario, a data journalism project founded by Cuban journalist Bárbara Maseda in 2018. He also collaborates regularly with ADNCuba and Yucabyte, two other independent Cuban media start-ups.


Could you describe your family and social origins? What job or profession did your parents practice and how “integrated” were they in the revolutionary process during your childhood? How “integrated” were you as a youth and adolescent? What were your educational experiences through high school like?

My family and social origins are normal in Cuba. My parents were both engineers. They worked for the state. We had a normal status within Cuba. We were not a poor family, for what that means in Cuba. I think it was a normal family.

My family, at least my mom and dad, were not against the Revolution. They were young people who were formed as the process progressed. They were born, one in 1959 and the other in 1961. They grew up in Cuban schools, with the same indoctrination to which we are all subjected. They were even student leaders at the time. And they were not against the process. They believed in it as do most Cubans, until that moment when people become disenchanted.

And as a young man and a teenager, I was the same. I was a pioneer. I attended Pioneer Congresses. I was a Pioneer leader until high school. Later in high school, I began to distance myself because I did not like the rigidity of the structure. And I was also becoming a little more critical but without being against the system. In fact, even after I graduated from university and began working as a professor, I was very critical of many things. But without that criticism being focused on the nature of the problems, which is the system.

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?

Well, I think it was the least displeasing to me. I was not really clear up to 12th grade what to study. And at this moment, I think I decided to study journalism with the idea of ​​doing sports journalism, which is something very different from what I did later. But really when I entered that major I did not have a clear vocation to do journalism or anything like that.

I was just in 12th grade and had to choose something and I was good, especially in the area of writing and I liked sports. And I thought I could do sports journalism. Also, because of that somewhat illusory idea that that being a sports journalist I’d be able to travel a multiple international events.

If you did journalistic internships as a student, could you describe them? Was it a frustrating or a fruitful experience?

When I studied, the curriculum included internships, which were done every semester in a different media outlet depending on the kind of media you were studying that semester. So, we did a total of eight different internships because in the fifth year there were no internships. A one-month internship each semester.

I think there was everything. There were some that were better, others not so much. Because it depended a lot on the kind of media where you were placed. But in general, they were internships where the vision of journalism that prevails in Cuba was reproduced, which is a “loyal facilitator” type of journalism.

In other words, they were not internships where you were going to question power, to mess with complicated things. In this case, it’s not about genre. No. Not even in the big story. Everything, starting with the smallest journalistic notes that you wrote were practically all institutional propaganda. In that sense, I think we practiced the journalism that is done in Cuba. As you progressed though the major, you became aware of the objective problems that Cuban journalism had and what its limits were.

Looking at the development of Cuban journalism and the teaching of journalism in Cuban universities, are there significant changes or ruptures that you could point to? Or is its development during the past 40 years more one of continuity with the press model established between 1959 and 1979?

I can’t answer the question of the development of the teaching of journalism as a specialist because it is not something that I have researched myself, and I think there are people who can do it much better. So, what I’m going to give you is a very, very cursory opinion of what I think of the phenomenon.

I don’t think there have been fundamental changes if we go to the essence. Of course, there have been curricular changes… “Plan E,” for example has important differences with respect to “Plan D,” in matters of the subjects that are taught and how they are taught as well. But in the essence of journalism, of the social function of journalism, I don’t believe that there have been many changes.

And notice that there are differences between the universities. For example, at the University of Havana, journalism is taught with a more open vision than what is taught at the University of Camagüey, for example, which was where I taught. But also, I can tell you what happens with other universities from what we have shared among colleagues.

However, even within the relatively more “open” vision at the University of Havana, the ultimate limit remains the same: the political system. You cannot question the political system. And the teaching of journalism and the research that is done is functionalist. It is to improve the system. And it is precisely the system that causes the problems that journalism has, that what is done is propaganda.

So, I would tell you that in essence there is a continuity. And the press model established between 1959 and 1979, although of course there are changes because technology implies changes, because the country has changed in some things. But the essence of a journalism that understands its role as a “loyal facilitator,” of a journalism that does not question the system, but rather tries to prop it up. That remains unchanged.

What was your first job as a journalist in the official or state sector?

My first position as a journalist in the official sector was as an editor (redactor) at Adelante, which is the provincial newspaper of Camagüey. But with a peculiarity. My social service placement was actually as a journalism professor at the University of Camagüey. But a year earlier a resolution had come out that indicated that those placed at the universities had to divide their social service obligation between the university and a position in production.

And I was placed at Adelante as my production assignment as a cub reporter. And in addition to that, on my own, I managed to get a contract on TV as a scriptwriter and host of a program that we did called “Zona de Encuentro”, which was a show where young people debated different issues.

In Adelante, since I was there part-time, I didn’t have much experience doing journalism. At first, I started with a lot of excitement, trying to do things… to do critical journalism. But immediately I ran into a wall of censorship in Adelante, and from then on what I did was try to write as little as possible in that newspaper.

Could you describe any specific experience of censorship in Adelante? Did they censor an article you wrote?

Yes, they censored me. Censorship of stories I wrote, in which there were ideas that they did not like, that they wanted to modify because they felt they were very critical or that they contained an idea that they did not like. But also, there was a general censorship of subjects.

A specific example that I remember, the one that led me to hang up my gloves, let’s say, and conclude: “I’m never going get published here. What I write is never going to pass muster,” it was with a story that I wanted to do on prices in Cuba, on price policy in Cuba. I even wrote by mail to a vice minister of the economy. And I was doing a lot of research with professors, with companies, looking for cost declarations so that I could later compare that to the prices at which they sold those items to the population.

This all came to a halt, however, when they told me: “Look, don’t keep digging, because we’re never going to publish that here. Here, we’re not going publish that the cost declaration of a certain item or product is mere cents, but that in Cuba it is sold to the population for five pesos. So, stop your digging because that kind of thing is never going to be published here.”

On another occasion, I remember that almost as a punishment, they sent me to do a job at customs, because it was some kind of institutional anniversary and they had asked that we cover it in the media. And they wanted me to do a story, but focused on how they stop people from smuggling important works of art out of the country, you know, “patrimonio.” Or about the drug dogs they use to intercept drug smugglers, and those kinds of things…

And I told them that if I did a story on customs, I would touch on the issues of corruption and theft from travelers as well. And right there, they told me no, that it had to be a story only about those other two issues. So, I said that I wasn’t going to do the story under those conditions. Those are some of my experiences with censorship.

As I’ve already told you. I actually worked very little at Adelante. And this was allowed because I was a professor at the university. But right away, I realized that it was not in that place where I was going to do the journalism I wanted.

And since I had the justification that I was at the university, and ultimately, they didn’t pay me at Adelante, they kind of let me “escape” a bit and I really published very little there. In fact, I published as little as I could, because I had no motivation to publish in a place where I was so heavily censored.

On the other hand, on TV, perhaps because it was a youth-oriented program that was not directly seen as journalism, I did have a little more freedom. Of course, freedom within the limits set by the system itself. And at that time, I was not critical of the system itself. I was critical of manifestations of the system, but not of the system itself. Therefore, I don’t think that my criticisms were so antagonistic as to be censored. Still, I think I said things on TV that would not have been permitted in another medium.

Could you give a specific example of a topic of yours on this youth program that you were able to touch on or express that would have been censored in Adelante?

On that show, we talked about everything. I can tell you, without fear of being mistaken, that we touched on many issues related to problems in the province, with problems in the country. The problem pf employment for young people; the issue of how young people think today. We even talked about the leaders. There were many issues.

On television, I think the only topic that they censored was religion. I remember that at the last minute, just before the show, they told us, “Look, don’t talk about this.” And it was going to be a show about religion but they censored us. But as for the rest, we talked about everything. And like I told you, they were shows where we critically analyzed things, and I think did so with quite a lot of sincerity.

But even these more critical-minded shows did not question the system. Rather, they attempted, from a critical point of view, to make the system work better. They were not “antagonistic” criticisms. But in terms of Cuban journalism and what is normally covered in the Cuban media, well, yes, I think we went a little beyond what is tolerated.

How did these professional experiences match your hopes and ambitions as a student?

Already when you leave the university, you become clear about how things are in official journalism in Cuba because you’ve done internships for five years. You’ve run through all types of media outlets. So, I think that hopes and ambitions are already quite diminished.

Those hopes and ambitions that you might have had as a student during the early years, and as you advance through your journalism major, they die a slow but sure death. And even when you make it to a job still with the hope of doing something, of making a change, in my case at least, that hope was by then very diminished.

In your experience as a journalist in Cuba, what is the role of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC)?

The UPEC is a “para-state” organization. The function of the UPEC is the same as that of all the other so-called “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) that the government tolerates. They are arms, extensions of the Party and the government towards different sectors, whether specific trades or professions, of society, or of another nature. That is its function and that is its main task: to maintain and focus all efforts so that they are in accordance with the political direction of the country. That is the function of the UPEC.

The UPEC does not represent journalists, it represents the interests of the Party. If you analyze its work as an organization, you realize that it does almost nothing to promote the practice of good journalism. Its activity is concentrated on offering some fairly basic improvement courses, organizing softball games, selling journalists a bit of nonsense from time to time, reproducing government harangues, holding repetitive and useless meetings, and punishing any journalist who attempts to challenge or leave the fold.

What are the most common criticisms of the operation of Cuban journalism that have been made during UPEC congresses and what are the suggested reforms?

Generally, there is talk of “the lack of criticism.” It is said that “sources don’t give information,” that “a triumphalist tone prevails in the press.” And the suggested reforms are to “stop doing those things.” But this fails to address the essence of the problem, which is the structure of the system itself: The subordination of the media system to the political system.

So, if you only point out the effect, but refuse to go to the cause, of course you can’t expect any results. And that is why we see that each new UPEC congress is practically a carbon copy of the previous one. The same themes are repeated. The same criticisms are repeated. The same arguments are repeated. And the same problems continue to persist.

Have these criticisms or demands had any impact?

Therefore, those criticisms or demands, those that are of this type, well, their impact is that they say that “now we are going to make changes”; “That the country needs a more critical journalism”; “That the Party demands a more critical journalism.” But in practice, nothing is resolved because journalism is not compatible with totalitarianism.

How and why did you decide to leave official journalism?

I left official journalism when I finished my social service obligation in 2012. I stopped working at Adelante but continued doing my youth debate program on television for a while. For that, I did research. I had to prepare myself to discuss these things, interview people, etc. so it was also a form of journalism. And so, I felt good about what I was doing until there was a point when the show seemed to become exhausted thematically, and so I left that as well.

Really, at that time, I can’t say that I felt the need to do journalism. I was more focused on academics. I was focused on my classes, on completing my Master’s degree. It was really the center of what interested me at that time. In fact, at that time I was less interested in doing journalism than I am now, perhaps because I had not yet discovered independent media.

How and why did you decide to start working as a journalist with independent media outlets, working outside state institutions?

I came to the independent media practically by chance. In 2016, I was in Mexico finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Guadalajara and a friend who collaborated with Cuba Posible, wrote to me and told me: “Look, at Cuba Posible, we are going to do a dossier on ‘agendas’,” which is the main focus of most of my academic research, and she wanted me to contribute a short analytical article, a small journalistic essay, on the relationships between different agendas in Cuban media.

That was my first collaboration with the independent media, which was with Cuba Posible. They liked my article, “Medios, gobierno y ciudadanía en Cuba: agendas, encrucijadas y realidades,” and from there I continued to collaborate with Cuba Posible. And then some other people started asking me for articles. From El Toque, they asked me. I sent a text to La Joven Cuba.

It was a time when I was not working the official media, but was a professor at the University of Camagüey (after finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Guadalajara, I returned to Cuba), and between 2016 and 2018, I collaborated fundamentally with El Toque and with Cuba Posible, which were the media outlets I sent articles. And I ran into no problem with that. For me, there was nothing wrong with publishing things in those media outlets that I knew would not be published elsewhere.

In fact, one of my articles –which I did as kind of a test– before sending it to Cuba Posible, I first sent it to CubaDebate, and they didn’t even respond to me. I knew they weren’t going to answer me, but I did it as an experiment. So, I started writing [for these independent outlets] like this. People even asked me: “Hey, has nothing happened to you?” Because we already knew of people who collaborated with the independent media who had been punished.

Remember that there was a time when the official media allowed people to publish in certain independent media outlets that had emerged, which did not have a frontal position against the government, like the one exhibited, for example, by CubaNet and Diario de Cuba. But with these other new media outlets, El Toque, El Estornudo, Periodismo de Barrio, OnCuba, there was a time when the official media allowed you to collaborate, write in them, as long as what you wrote was not against the government and did not contradict what you wrote in the official media.

So, there was a short-lived climate of tolerance at that time. But that soon came to an end. And then there came a time when they gave the “orientation” that whoever collaborated with the independent media could no longer work in the official media.

And how did that “orientation” impact you? How did your bosses at the University of Camagüey react to your articles in the independent media?

That was the precise period when I was writing for those outlets. But, as I said, I was not then working in the official media any longer. I was working at the university and I don’t think they even knew that I was publishing there. However, when they realized that I was publishing articles there, they immediately expelled me from the university precisely for writing in the independent media. In fact, that’s the time when I have been most active doing journalism because it was when I had the most time to dedicate to it.

And, above all, based on the issue of reaffirmation. I am free. Nobody can tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, especially when I think it’s the right thing to do. So, it was the time when I have published the most as a journalist and collaborated with the largest number of independent media outlets.

What were the costs and benefits of this decision?

I was publishing with these new outlets, working at the university, and nothing happened. But then they suddenly expelled me from the university, and thus the cost became total. My cost was not exacted for deciding to publish in the independent media. In fact, they didn’t even give me the option: “Stop writing or we’ll kick you out.” They simply called me in one morning and handed me a one-year suspension where I had to work as a librarian in a lower-paid position as punishment for writing in independent media. At no time before that did they warn me or tell me anything, so that I could tell you that I looked at this in terms of costs and benefits.

They just kicked me out. They left me no other way out.

Could you give more details about your expulsion? Did they give you something in writing? Was there a clear justification on their part for the expulsion? Were they officers from the same university or state security agents as well? You say your penalty was to spend a year as a librarian, what was that like?

Regarding my expulsion from the university: Really more than an “expulsion,” it was a “sanction.” But I’ll tell you why I call it an “expulsion.”

As I said, they punished me with one year in a lower-paying position. At first, that was going to be as a librarian, but then they transferred me to a university publishing house because they said that in the library, I would be under less vigilance and control.

They gave me my one-year sanction in writing, in which they indicated that I had collaborated with “media outlets that have a position contrary to the Cuban government.” And they justified it because I had allegedly violated an article of the labor code, where it says that professionals, in order to have another job, must first request permission from their superiors. But I had worked on television and done other things, and had never requested permission.

But the funny thing about this, the messed-up thing, is that the arrangement I had with the independent media was not a job. I didn’t have any fixed pay. Nor did I have any set work schedule or tasks. I simply collaborated sporadically. At that time, for example, I had sent (since I started collaborating with Cuba Posible in 2016 until 2018) only 4 or 5 articles. Mine was not even a constant collaboration with these media outlets.

I appealed the sanction. They took me to the labor justice body. There, I presented all my arguments. Everyone thought that they were going to reverse the sanction because it didn’t hold up. However, what they did instead was to lower my punishment to six months. And parallel to that, the rector of the University drew up a resolution (which they later said did not exist, but it did exist, because they communicated it to the students) that anyone who collaborated with El Toque, Cuba Posible, or OnCuba in the future, were to be punished with direct expulsion from the University.

So, since I wasn’t going to stop collaborating with these independent outlets and neither was I going to serve out an unfair punishment, I simply submitted my resignation and they accepted it. That’s why I described it as a “sanction” that ultimately amounted, in practical terms, to an “expulsion,” because I had no other options unless I was willing to completely yield to what they were imposing on me.

So, this was reported to the University professors. But in tandem with all this, was State Security. I was interviewed by State Security officials. I learned that the Party was very much behind all this. And when I’m talking about the Party, I’m talking about the Party at the provincial level: the Party Secretary, Jorge Luis Tapia, who today is the Vice Prime Minister of Cuba.

Also, in a meeting at the University attended by Olga Lidia Tapia Iglesias, who was a member of the Central Committee, she spoke about my case. And two days before I was processed in the labor justice body, there was a meeting in the Party, where they took the professors who were involved in that decision, they took university officials, they took UPEC officials also to analyze my case. It was a case shot through with politics, especially because they were a bit worried about opposition from the students and professors, who at all times, even testified in my favor in the labor justice body. And that worried them a lot.

But, at the end of it all, my decision was, of course, not to spend that year of penance. But to continue doing what I was doing, which was to publish in the independent media. And it’s something I don’t regret. On the contrary, I think it has helped me grow professionally. I have done things that I had not seen in my education as a student, much less in the official media. I have met super smart, super interesting people who have helped me grow.

On a personal level, as I am a media researcher, this relationship with independent media has also allowed me to learn about my object of study from the inside, having relationships with the leading journalists. And this has opened doors for me when it comes to conducting interviews, conducting research. And above all of having a less idyllic image of the object of study, of knowing it from the inside.

In that sense, the costs were the costs of those who decide to think independently, and to do so openly in Cuba. I had to leave the country because they closed the doors to me everywhere. They kicked me out of the University. They sanctioned me in the UPEC. They removed me from the UJC. They turned me into a “non-person.” They condemned me to an “inxilie,” within Cuba. Then, State Security began to come after me.

Were there other sanctions from the UJC and the UPEC?

Parallel to my expulsion from the university, they also initiated a process of expulsion from the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC). Because at a provincial UPEC assembly, where Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Sexto were present along with Enrique Villuendas as an official representative of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee, some local provincial journalists stood up, especially those of advanced age, and said that I was being expelled from the University for writing in Cuba Posible and that they should also expel me from the UPEC.

I was not at that meeting because I was working at the University. They had assigned me a rigid work schedule, office hours within the publishing house. I had to work from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and that is why I couldn’t attend that UPEC meeting. And all the things that were said about me, bad things, were in my absence. And in front of the entire Union and in front of those other people who also corroborated that you couldn’t have that type of person (that type of person is me) within the organization. They had to take “measures.” You couldn’t have “mercenaries.” They even turned against Arailaisy Rosabal, who stood up to defend me and they told her many things.

In the end, the UPEC sanctioned me with three years separation in a process filled with technical errors. They did not even consult my base delegation of the UPEC. I tried to challenge the sanction on the technical side, and yet they ignored me. The punishment was ratified by the supreme body of the UPEC, without even one of those people, some of whom knew me and had been my professors, calling me to ask what had happened and to hear my version of the story.

Simply put, I had written in Cuba Posible and they expelled me.

In fact, it is very funny. Because the UPEC sanction says that “he uses academic language” and that “he was very careful when saying things,” but even so, “he had collaborated with enemy media outlets” and that “that was intolerable.” Additionally, now when I read what I wrote at that time, and they are texts that, although correct, did not go to the depth of the problem – which is the system. They held back to simply point out things that were wrong, but they weren’t confrontational articles. In fact, if you read them today, you say, “I don’t really see why they expelled him.”

But simply put, I had collaborated with Cuba Posible, and they decided to clean house and I was part of that house cleaning.

And what were the threats, warnings, summons that you and your family received from State Security? When and how did State Security start to come after you?

State Security also summoned me. They did it twice. They summoned me to the immigration office and handed over blank papers… that is, because they did not say the reason for the summons, or with nor that it would be with State Security agents. Thus, they were invalid citations, to which I went to ignorance. I wouldn’t do it today.

And at all times they tried to show themselves to be understanding. They were in that first stage, that: “we know that you are a good boy.” Above all, they tried to make me feel that I wasn’t the same as other independent journalists. It is a technique that they use with everyone. They try to make you feel that you are better, that you are more intelligent… Even more, they always tried to distance me from Henry Constantín. They told me, “We know that you are not the same as Henry.” In other words, trying to keep you constantly divided against your colleagues, especially those who have a more confrontational position.

Inside those meetings there were also veiled threats. Threats intoned as if they were advice. But they were threatening you. Like: “If one day you do this, well, we’ll come looking for you, riding in the patrol car, dressed in green, and with handcuffs.” Or “we’re going to be hanging around your house in case something happens to your mom.” That type of language, which in the mouths of people from State Security, are threats. You know what they are up to.

And when I tell you that State Security began to come after me, it is because in those meetings they made me see how they were following me. They told me, “no, if we see you on the bicycle, riding there along with your girlfriend…” Once, someone invited me to give a talk on scientific research methods, and two State Security agents were sitting there in the audience.

And how did you come to decide to leave the country?

To tell you the truth, it was a bit of a heavy situation at a family level. And there came a time when she told me: “Look, apply again for a scholarship abroad.” I was already doing my doctorate in Cuba. I had even applied for a doctorate abroad, one where I did not have to be in residence full-time. But I was not accepted because the research I proposed did not match well with the doctoral program to which I had applied. My idea was to stay in Cuba. I no longer wanted to spend long periods of time outside Cuba. I wanted to do a doctorate abroad, but one that would allow me to spend most of my time in Cuba and go in once a semester to present my progress, a doctorate without a strict residential requirement.

When the problems and the struggle with State Security started, my mother told me: “Look, reapply for another scholarship and leave. Leave the country because they are going to put you in jail.” I had already lived in Mexico where I had done my Master’s degree. I knew what the process was like and I applied using the same doctoral project that I already had underway. I applied to the Universidad Iberoamericana and they accepted me and I left the country.

And since then, the cost has been not being in Cuba. And for the benefits on the professional and human level, I think they have been enough.

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

Look, regarding the official press, there is an article I published in ADNCuba in March of this year, which has been published in various magazines. It is titled, “‘We Don’t Understand Each Other’. The Official Press and Publics in Cuba,” which I think is where I make the most precise definition of the one I can give you now. There I talk about what the official press is like, what its main problems are, which essentially stem from a structural conditioning.

And the fact is that the official press is not independent. It does not have autonomy. It is not an autonomous system, but rather a subsystem of the political system, as Julio García Luis says.

And that’s where, well, it begins… from there most of the fundamental problems of the Cuban press emerge. A press with a rather monolithic agenda, with an absence of certain approaches, of certain sectors of the population, especially due to political reasons who will never be represented, unless they are alluded to in a negative way. A press whose agenda is separate from the public agenda; a press that describes the paradise we live in and the hell that surrounds us… A press that doesn’t see itself as a way to question power but as facilitators of the very priorities of those in power.

Is it monolithic or does it have lights and shadows?

It is a press that, if we are going to talk about lights, are ephemeral lights. Someone who is allowed to do something different, always within the limits, of not messing with the system. Moments where there is a little bit of openness, they say, “now we are going to do something critical,” for a moment that advance begins, until they stop it themselves. In summary and in a general way, it is a press that is more like propaganda than journalism.

What fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?

The fundamental difference from independent journalism is structural. The independent press is not controlled by a party. And within independent journalism you can find variety and you can find different points of view. I think that is the big difference… that independent journalism is independent from political control, something that does not happen in official journalism.

How do you compare their working conditions?

The working conditions are also totally different. It is not that the working conditions of the official press are good. That varies. If you compare, for example, a national channel with a municipal station in a province, of course it is day and night. But there are also many problems in the official media: technological problems, computers, video cameras, cameras. The infrastructure has problems. Until recently, the salary was very bad. There are almost no vehicles to use for coverage.

However, in freelance journalism, all this is worse. In independent journalism, almost everything is done with one’s own resources. It’s true that the salary is better, but in independent journalism you work with the equipment you have. You have to move around on your own dime. You don’t have access to sources or events. Moreover, in independent journalism there is no job security because you have no way of accessing social security because in Cuba all this is monopolized by the State. So, inevitably the working conditions in these aspects are very poor in independent journalism.

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

What changes? That you are doing what you enjoy. That you are not subject to censorship. Nor are you oversaturated with useless meetings, constant pressures from political organizations, and thus can manage your time with more freedom. At least in my experience. In my case, most of the jobs I have done have been as a “freelancer.” Maybe a person who has worked in the newsroom of an independent media outlet with a rigid schedule and a set number of articles to produce could give you a different opinion. That is not mine. I’ve never passed through that. So, in this sense I think that is what changes.

And it makes one feel more fulfilled doing independent journalism than doing journalism in the official media because, in the end, you are able to do what you enjoy. And the skills to support journalism, I believe that in the independent sector the aim is that you do journalism, understood as questioning power, as having a critical approach… something of no interest in the official media. In the official media what they want is for you to produce political propaganda.

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

They have different functions.

The political opponent wants a change. He or she works for political change.

The activist works to achieve a change in a particular area or cause.

Independent journalists, however, are not activists or opponents. They are there to tell stories, to narrate, to analyze, from a different point of view.

But what happens? In a dictatorship, such as Cuba, a totalitarian system, there are causes that are transversal. An independent journalist cannot, in my opinion, become satisfied by finding a degree of neutrality, as a journalist in a democracy can do, where certain things have been achieved. In principle, because the first thing we have to conquer is the right to exist as journalists, the right to report and inform the public. That it is a right, not a gift.

And that is denied us in a dictatorship. Therefore, in that sense independent journalists in a totalitarian system are activists for freedom of expression. They are human rights activists in a certain sense, and that impacts their work.

Is it possible to be both a journalist and an activist at the same time?

I think so. Many of us do journalism and at the same time we do activism, and others do opposition. However, I think that you have to clearly differentiate your roles: When I am doing journalism and when I am doing activism, and above all be consistent with the ethics of the profession.

I’m not going to tell lies. Whatever cause I defend, my commitment above all is to the truth, not to a political party, not to a cause. My commitment is to the truth. And if there is a truth that in a certain way contradicts or may not be what that cause expects, I am going to tell that truth.

And mind you, I’m not repeating that thing about the role of the journalist who stands at a distance and wants to find balance where none exists, because under dictatorship there is no balance. There is one side that is at a total disadvantage with respect to power. And I think it is very cynical to try to present the two sides as if they were the same.

I think the important thing is to have the ethics of the profession very clear and the ethics of the profession is the search for the truth with honesty. And that cannot be forgotten. When you disregard the truth based on a cause, your role as a journalist is diminished.

For a time, it was emphasized that some blogs and later independent media outlets were produced “from Cuba” while others were produced “from abroad.” For you, does this distinction still have importance, meaning, or relevance given the increasingly “transnational” reality of journalism and the Cuban nation?

On the subject “outside or inside,” I do not make any pejorative distinction regarding the place journalism is produced. In fact, I believe that we all need to have people inside because the reality that we write about, there is a part of it that requires you to be there to see it.

And I believe that this argument over “outside vs. inside” is often used to delegitimize those who are outside. In fact, this is the exclusionary discourse that the dictatorship prefers. Which, at the same time, is very hypocritical because it is the government that forces you to go abroad in the first place.

A good part of the young independent journalists who have left the country, we have done so due to pressure from the government itself. They force you out and, then, when you continue doing your job from abroad, they tell you: “But you are speaking from the outside. It is not the same as speaking from here.” When they forced us out to begin with. So, in that sense, I don’t give importance to whether journalism is done from the outside or from the inside.

In fact, I think the other way around. That the ideal would be, in the current conditions of Cuba, that a media outlet functions most organically when it has some people inside and other people outside. Because from the outside, there are processes that have to do with the Internet, with the search for financing, with the issue of media hosting, and with the search for and work with certain kinds of information that fundamentally depend on good Internet access, that by having people outside you can do it much more easily than if you did it from the inside.

Unfortunately, there are a number of independent media outlets that have had their entire staff forced into exile with practically no journalists left in Cuba. Other journalists have decided to stay and deal with the repression to which they are continually subjected. It is a decision that deserves a lot of respect.

In all parts of the world the model of media financing is in crisis. In Cuba, there is also an official discourse that independent media start-ups and journalists are really “subversives” and “mercenaries” because they have found alternative financing. Could you make a personal assessment of how you negotiate in this context? What are some of your strategies for navigating within this extremely polarized and politicized context?

On the issue of financing, I do not negotiate anything.

I believe that one has the right to access the same financing that people in the rest of the world access. That’s not something I made up. It is even legislated internationally. It is a right of non-governmental organizations, of the media, to have access to international financing, and that’s the end of it. For me, that is not a problem – as long as the financing does not affect my agenda, my positions, which is something that has never happened to me so far.

I don’t know anyone, a financier who has pressured a media director so that the director pressures me about what I write. On the contrary, I have never felt more freedom than in independent journalism. That is my experience. They have never censored anything of mine. Nobody has told me: “I am not going to publish this.” There was one time that one outlet did not want to publish an article I had submitted. So, I simply took it to another outlet and published it there with no problem. Nobody got angry. Nobody was bothered.

So, in that sense, that’s my experience with financing. First of all, it is a right. And secondly, the Cuban government, which denies the independent media the possibility of legally existing and legally accessing financing, cannot place conditions on me regarding the financing that I access.

And on the other hand, we are talking about financing, what is accessed in Cuba are government funds, they are funds that come from citizens’ taxes. Here we are not talking about taking money from Chapo Guzmán or dirty money from African blood diamonds, or anything like that.

So, no. This is an issue that I refuse give the value that the Cuban government would like. I access the financing that is necessary to do my work as a journalist as long as that financing does not condition, nor does it attempt to intervene in my freedom as a journalist.

What are your experiences of harassment, intimidation, or detention and questioning by State Security?

When I was expelled from the University of Camagüey for publishing in El Toque and in Cuba Posible, I had two interviews… not interviews but interrogations with State Security. As I said before, I went to give a lecture once and two State Security agents appeared at the scene. I was prevented from entering the editorial offices of the province, which I had no intention of doing in any case, since I only went when I had to do something at the University or to see very specific friends that I had in those places.

So yes, especially from the date of my expulsion from the university until my departure from Cuba a few months later. The harassment from State Security was quite heavy and took place within the institutions themselves…

Have you been arrested, harassed, threatened, or defamed? Has your movement been prevented or “regulated” within or when trying to leave the country? Under what legal justification?

I have never been arrested for doing journalism. But perhaps that’s because the journalism that I do most often is analytical journalism, working with data, expressing my opinions. I didn’t have to do a lot of street-level reporting putting me at risk of getting caught going to do interviews with people, so I was never detained. Also, I got out of Cuba pretty fast after I had the problem at the university.

Bothered, yes. I have been threatened online. They have told me that I cannot return to Cuba. Defamed, as well. I don’t know, inside Camagüey they have said everything about me, from labelling me a “mercenary” to claiming that I support an invasion of Cuba, that one day I will land on the beach armed and things like that.

Recently, in the news Humberto López mentioned my name and said that I was a “dependent” journalist. And later, on the program “Palabra Precisa,” Lázaro Manuel Alonso said that I was “sadly famous,” that I used foul language and was a “professional inciter of violent acts,” something that I have never done in my life, because I favor non-violent struggle.

But yes. These have been the experiences I have had with this kind of repression, in addition to the harassment from State Security that I mentioned before.

To date, what has been the impact of the rise of new independent digital journalism in Cuba?

It has had a lot of impact, especially on the visibility of other causes. I believe that the issue, for example, of the empowerment that other kinds of activism and social movements have had, must also be seen hand in hand with the work the independent media has been done providing those causes with visibility.

I do not mean that one is the result of the other. But they have accompanied one another. And that has had an impact. I have been able to demonstrate this in a recent academic article. There has been a clear incidence of the independent media imposing an agenda on the official media. There have been specific moments and issues where independent journalism has set the agenda for the official media and has forced them to respond.

Could you give any specific examples where independent journalism set the agenda for the official media, provoking a response or other kind of reaction?

I’m going to talk to you about some of these instances that I touch on in an article that will be published in the Global Media Journal of Mexico. For example, the case of José Daniel Ferrer: when Ferrer was arrested and later tried, the independent press had spent weeks denouncing it. So, when the case reached the European Parliament more than a month later, the official media campaign against Ferrer was unleashed. He was accused of being a common criminal, that he had kidnapped and beaten up someone… And in the end, they released him.

Around that same time, there was the case of the young girl Paloma who died after getting a vaccine. The official media had not said anything and when the independent media began to raise the profile of the case, when her mother came out talking about what had happened, well after three days the official media responded.

At the end of 2019, this also happened with the issue of exchange rates. I remember that CiberCuba published an article by Carlos Cabrera, where he said that the change was going to take place at the beginning of the year, and he even mentioned an exchange rate of 1 × 50. And the minister of the economy came out in Granma to deny it.

In the period that I analyzed, which was from October to December 2019, I found 16 cases in which the official media responded to the independent media, which had put a particular issue on the agenda. But if we analyze what has happened lately, well I think this has increased. With all this from the section of the news program that Humberto López does and with this from “Las Razones de Cuba,” where they are constantly trying to deny or impose another matrix of opinion than the one the independent media has raised.

And well, a paradigmatic case of recent times was San Isidro. The hunger strike movement members engaged in when they camped out at their headquarters and then the next day, on November 27 (27N), the official media couldn’t, though they tried and waited, they simply couldn’t ignore it and had to come out with a response.

Either to deny, criticize, or whatever. But they were forced to respond and they have been forced to cover issues that at another time would have gone unnoticed and a considerable part of the Cuban people would not have known that they existed, even in a distorted and politicized version like the one given by the official media.

Does independent journalism have a future on the Island?

I think it does, and it will. There is no going back. There is no going back with independent journalism. Despite all the censorship that is being unleashed; despite the fact that they drive more and more people out of the country every day. There is no turning back. People already know how to do independent journalism and society wants there to be independent journalism. At least part of it needs it, and it will help it.

So, future? Yes, it will have a future, with a dictatorship or without a dictatorship, but independent journalism will continue. It has already become something that won’t be eradicated. If they did not eradicate it in 2003 with that dreadful Black Spring, which was a tremendous blow, I don’t think they’ll eradicate it now. Especially when the existence of the Internet makes it much more feasible and given the transnational logic with which it operates, journalism can even be done with an important part of the reporting team outside the country.

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

I think the first thing is that you cannot talk about independent journalism in the singular. There are many media outlets, many approaches, many ways of doing journalism, some better and others worse than… Pardon. Not worse. Some more professionalized, others with more problems. But also, there are many types of public. And what might seem to us at a normative level as the best journalism, sometimes is not the kind of reporting that a certain type of public is going to consume. A public that needs access to another type of news, perhaps more “soft,” or presented in a different way.

So, I think you have to keep doing journalism. Continue working for the audiences that one has; that the Cuban independent media ecosystem continues to diversify even more; that niches continue to be covered; that journalism continues to be more serious, more confrontational; more committed to the truth; taking on big social issues; and continuing to diversify in economic terms, finding access more sources of financing; grow more as media outlets.

But still, what you have to do is keep working. Keep working and things get sorted out as you go. Some outlets will get stronger. Others will disappear. That’s the dynamic in a free system, right? And the future itself will polish, will give way to stronger media outlets, more professional media outlets, which will be the ones that survive. And those that a specific type of public seeks out, although sometimes it is not necessarily the best journalism.

But as I was saying, society is diverse, therefore there must be diverse media outlets.

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

Well, the history of independent journalism before the 2000s, and especially the second decade of 2000 (2010-2020), with the development of the Internet, I have come to know a little about it through my own work as a researcher. This has led me to discover some valuable articles and documents, such as Sarah Beaulieu’s thesis (“Política cultural y periodismo en Cuba: trayectorias cruzadas de la prensa oficial y de los medios independientes (1956-2013)”) which covers the development of independent journalism in Cuba over time, really rescuing the history of its emergence in the late 80s and early 90s with samizdat-type publications, such as those of Eastern Europe. She also discusses the founding of various press agencies that mainly sent their reporting to foreign media outlets, where their work was published. There is the case of Hablemos Press and some important names like Raúl Rivero.

So yes, I have been able to learn a bit about this movement that arrived then, even given the technological conditions of the time, where there was no Internet as there is now, making things so much easier. Even then, they managed to achieve considerable vigor.

And I think that you yourself say in one of your articles that there were some who were professionals, such as Reinaldo Escobar, for example, who had practiced journalism in the official media, even working in the leading state publications, who gradually became disenchanted and joined in this new way of doing journalism. While there were others who were more precisely activists who began to report for these press agencies. This was a movement that was quite strong but that unfortunately suffered a very hard blow during the Black Spring of 2003, which diminished it a lot. But that did not manage to eliminate it completely.

And as an independent journalist now myself, of course, I identify with that movement, with that group of people. In fact, I don’t think you can understand what we have today without seeing what they did before. And much of what we have today, we must also thank those people who worked in much harsher conditions of repression, perhaps, than we suffer today. Some of them spent time in jail for doing journalism. They were victims of abuses, without there being, as there are today, movements that spread the word on the web and allow you to provide visibility so that people protest.

And well, from that time we have media outlets that still exist, like Cubanet, which was founded in 1994. After that, there’s Cubaencuentro. And there remained examples of good work in the fields of journalism and culture, such as the Revista Encuentro, which was a very important and valuable thing where a considerable part of the Cuban and exile intelligentsia came together.

So, I think it is a story that cannot be ignored. We have to learn more about it. And above all, understand the natural bond that exists between these people and those of us who arrived a little later. Even when some of us aren’t even aware of this history. But in a certain way, we are indebted to the path that they opened up and that they facilitated for us.


* This interview is the second in the series, “Saturn’s Children,” which profiles Cuban journalists focusing on their experiences within the Cuban educational system and working as journalists in official Cuban media. They also reflect on their process of rupture, which has ultimately led them to independent journalism. While they now practice their profession outside the institutions of the Cuban State, they are anything but “out of the game.”

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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