“No One Applauded”. Interview with Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez

Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez (Placetas, 1991) earned his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas (UCLV) in 2015. His first job was as a reporter for the newspaper Vanguardia, the official mouthpiece of the Provincial Committee of the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC, Cuban Communist Party) in Villa Clara. In 2017, he began working as a reporter for the independent magazine Tremenda Nota, a publication that covers minorities in Cuba with a special focus on the LGBTIQ community. He quickly became the editor of this news site.

However, while working at Vanguardia between 2015 and 2017, he periodically collaborated with a number of other independent media outlets like El Toque, Periodismo de Barrio, and OnCuba. This was during the brief period when there was a certain “tolerance” for journalists from Cuba’s official media to also publish in the then emerging independent digital press.

That tolerance no longer exists.

In fact, Carlos Alejandro was a member of a group of nine young journalists who staged an unprecedented protest within the official media in June 2016 defending their right to publish in independent outlets. Upon learning that they would be publicly attacked for collaborating with the independent press during the Provincial Plenary of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) of Villa Clara that summer, these nine journalists wrote what would later become publicly known as the Carta de Santa Clara.

Calling themselves the “Comité de Base de la UJC” (Union of Young Communists) of Vanguardia, these journalists spoke clearly and openly in the letter about censorship in the official press, the structural distortions of Cuba’s media system, and the “uncritical media dedicated to presenting always triumphant versions of events.” Additionally, they exposed what they saw as a true “anticipatory witch hunt” unleashed against them by Cuban State Security agents.

When the day of the plenary arrived on June 7, 2016, the group did not intend to read the letter aloud if they were not attacked first. So when they were publicly condemned for their “counterrevolutionary” collaborations with “the enemy press,” they stood up as a group to read the document directly facing two members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and several national journalists and UPEC officials.

Since each person had just three minutes to speak, the young woman who read the letter asked to use the time allotted to the others as they stood behind her as a group. As she read, the faces of the officials present went from astonishment to anger, and from anger to fright and fear. She was able to read the letter in its entirety. Then the group sat down.

But no one applauded.

As Carlos Alejandro recounts in our exclusive interview, “that day marked the beginning of the end,” not only for him, but for all his colleagues in Villa Clara who had begun to collaborate with independent media. “A few weeks later,” he says, “a State Security official recognized that the reading of the letter, which was considered the first protest by a group of journalists from the official media, had been unforgivable.” But it became even worse when the letter was leaked and published in Diario de Cuba on July 1, 2016.

Since May 2019, Carlos Alejandro has resided in Miami and works as an editor of digital newspaper CubaNet and reporter and gender editor at Proyecto Inventario. He says that exile hasn’t forced him to give up journalism: “in fact, having to leave Cuba brought several of my colleagues and me even closer to the independent press. We lost the ability to do fieldwork on the island, but we gained the peace of mind and Internet connectivity necessary for us to launch investigations into archives and databases so we could track sources and do a series of stories on Cuban social networks.”

In his particular case, exile has also allowed him to discover that the emerging media model with reporters inside Cuba and editors, programmers, and webmasters abroad works and saves independent media startups from hacks and other systematic government attacks. “Because of this,” he clarifies, “even when journalists are detained on the island, we can publish their work.”


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

Despite the fact that my father was a civilian worker for the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), in my house we did not normally talk about the government, either bad or good. Both my parents and I were, of course, subjected to the intense propaganda of the Cuban regime, but strictly political issues were never a daily concern, as was, for example, food shortages. I have tried to purge some of my memories from that time, but they return from time to time: my parents not knowing how to put a plate of food on the table and me crumpled up in a corner of the house, crying from hunger.

Although they never indoctrinated me in favor of the regime, neither did they ever speak to me with criticism of the government. Even today they would never say that Cuba is a dictatorship. However, I can’t blame them. They have no other access to information other than the official newspapers and television. They have never traveled abroad. My mother has never even been to Havana.

How politically “integrated” were you as a teenager?

I, on the other hand, was raised and educated within the guidelines of revolutionary “political correctness”: I participated in political-cultural events, I attended the conferences for young “Pioneers,” I belonged to the Union of Young Communists (UJC). That’s how it was up until my college years. At one point that I can’t precisely remember now, I began to see censorship, people’s fear of speaking out of turn, and my own fears of contradicting the dominant discourse. Unlike most of my classmates, I learned about the repressive nature of the system firsthand and quite early. During my sophomore year at UCLV, a State Security agent began to harass, interrogate, and threaten me so that I would give him information about my partner at that time, a journalist who worked for the official media but was “too critical of the Revolution.”

How and why did you decide to study journalism at university?

When I was 15 years old, my Spanish literature teacher suggested that I study journalism. Having spent my entire life in a rural community, I had never thought about journalism as a career, but I liked to read and write. So, it seemed to me that the journalists who appeared on television and those who had bylines in the newspapers were necessarily prestigious, cultured professionals. I thought that’s what I wanted to be as well.

In this way, I started high school convinced that I would at least take the entrance exams for journalism. Three years passed, I took the exams, and they allowed me to major in journalism and in 2010 I entered UCLV in that school.

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

I chose journalism lightly, without really knowing what it meant to be a journalist under a totalitarian system like Cuba’s. Much less did I think about the limits of practicing the profession on the island. It took me at least two years before I realized that what my professors expected me to do after graduation was not journalism but partisan propaganda.

Still, once I got to know the Cuban journalistic scene and was able to analyze it with more rigor and maturity, I realized that I would have chosen a career in journalism anyway. Even when I broke forever with the state media and Cuban officialdom, and even the times they arrested or threatened me for practicing the career I had studied, I did not regret having chosen journalism as my career.

Did you gradually become aware of what you call “the repressive nature of the system” while you were studying journalism at UCLV? And are you saying that you were pressured and threatened by State Security as a sophomore?

Yes. When I was just in my sophomore year at UCLV, several friends and professors warned me that the “compañero from State Security who ‘attended to’ the university community” was asking about me. Even a young woman who worked in the Teaching Secretariat of my school told me that the agent in question had visited her office to check my academic record. News of this guy’s interest in me reached me from every quarter. Even though it was the first time coming into contact with a State Security agent, the day he finally crossed my path I wasn’t surprised.

Around noon at some point during the 2012-2013 academic year, I was walking from class to the cafeteria. Suddenly, a plainclothes policeman –I no longer remember the false name he used– appeared before me and asked me to follow him to his office, which was located in one of the student dorm buildings. As I entered that dark room, with the blinds closed so that no one could see in from outside, a long monologue began that I don’t have the heart to remember.

In essence, the agent “informed” me that I was spending time with a potentially counterrevolutionary person (my boyfriend at the time) and asked me to collaborate with State Security. He was really irritated by my silence, but I said I was a man of few words. After an hour of that unpleasant “conversation,” I realized that he wasn’t going to let me to leave that dark room until I wrote on a piece of paper, in my own handwriting, a stupidity that to him seemed a resounding proof of my political commitment:

“I, Carlos Alejandro Rodríguez Martínez, promise to collaborate with State Security until my last drop of blood.”

I wrote what I had to write and, before leaving, he asked me to send him my autobiography later. “Slide it under the door so that no one sees us together,” he instructed me. He also gave me a pseudonym to use in communications with him and wrote down the phone number I should call to give him information that I considered valuable.

I left that room trembling, but also convinced that I would never meet with this guy again. Then, of course, he hunted me: since I did not follow any of his “orientations,” a few weeks later he followed me again and asked me to provide, in his opinion, what I owed him. On that same sidewalk, where other students were passing, I told him not to keep harassing me, that I was not going to give him what he wanted, and that I had no interest in talking with him again. And now totally furious, he threatened me:

“Now you will learn who we are.” And with that he left, still grumbling.

That same afternoon, I reported to the office of the dean of the school. I told him what had happened and said that if he did not stop that stalker, I was left with no choice but to publish, however I could, what had happened. In my remaining years at UCLV, neither that agent nor any other harassed me again, at least directly.

In your experience, do Cuba’s journalism programs prepare their students to be “monitors” or “facilitators” of those in power”? In other words, are they taught the liberal principles and practices of journalism as a “fourth estate” that holds power brokers accountable to the public but run into a wall of censorship and normalized obedience when they start working in the official press, or are they already trained to be “loyal facilitators” of state power and policies already from the university?

Some of my teachers were themselves journalists who spread state propaganda, so they couldn’t very well teach anything other than that. Undoubtedly, they prepared us to be “facilitators” of those in power, but at the University there was still a kind of “romantic halo” around the profession of journalism.

For example, at the University there was a class called “Great Figures of Journalism” where we studied the journalism of Gabriel García Márquez, Ryszard Kapuscinki, and Oriana Fallaci, one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, according to the liberal canon. In this way, the journalist model for my generation was never in Cuba.

However, once you begin to actually work in the media all romanticism was squashed: we were quickly welcomed into the kingdom of propaganda.

As a journalism major, in your opinion, what is the reason for this phenomenon of “rupture” that leads young graduates to abandon state journalism and move to independent journalism? State journalism has always been boring and propagandistic. Why are they abandoning it now and not before?

Because the effect of propaganda on journalists has been cumulative. At 20 and 30 years old, we were already burdened by decades of pseudo-journalistic propaganda. When we left the universities, independent media outlets already existed, but soon after, new ones emerged. The publishing ecosystem diversified and our possibilities of practicing real journalism, far from the radioactivity of the Central Committee of the Party, was much more attractive compared to working in media outlets that, someday soon, they will have to dissolve.

What was your first job as a journalist?

I always knew that I wanted to work in the newsroom of a print newspaper, as if I were not part of the digital generation. (I am by age, but not by birthplace. The first computer I saw arrived in my hometown of Placetas in 2002 when I was 11 years old).

Until then, my contact with technology was limited to turning on and off our Krim-218 television. That computer amazed me, to the point that I thought, for many years, to study computer science or another related career. Luckily that idea evaporated over time and I opted for journalism. I say “luckily” because, if I had persevered with computer science, I would have surely ended up at the University of Information Sciences (UCI), the training ground of the so-called “ciberclarias” (trolls).

In general, I spent my entire five years in college convinced that my dream was to work at Vanguardia, the official newspaper of the PCC in Villa Clara. From my very first internship in the Vanguardia newsroom, I continued to publish there. Even before graduating, I had already been assigned a permanent section on the newspaper’s culture page.

After five years, he had a place waiting for me at the newspaper, even though I lived in Sagua la Grande, 50 kilometers from Santa Clara, and would have to travel almost daily to the newsroom.

In some way, I had arrived exactly where I had always wanted to be.

Indeed, I was the last of a group of young journalists who had graduated from UCLV who came to Vanguardia with the intention of changing that environment, deeply boring, conservative, and afraid to touch the issues most relevant for Cuban society.

Chronologically, I was the last to graduate and join the group of would-be “innovators” that was coming together within that publication. After the group was dissolved, things went back to the way they were before. With the most rebellious journalists expelled, the newsroom was overtaken once again by the same well-oiled propagandistic machinery that had always reigned there.

Fresh from college, we believed that the poor journalism typical of the official media was the fault of the reporters, not the system. That was what the regime has always tried to make us believe. In fact, at that time we assumed that Cuba’s state media system could be reformed from within. And that’s what we intended to do, consciously or unconsciously.

But, as is now obvious to all, we were deeply mistaken. The Cuban propaganda system (it is not journalism) is a machine that, “until recently”, swallowed up talent or at least the will to generate better journalism, and shit it out in the form of ideological propaganda, the simplest and most embarrassing that is still published in this part of the world.

(I do not say “until recently” because the panorama within the official press has recently changed, but because young journalists with a desire to do journalism no longer join, or leave soon after joining, the official media. It’s enough to just look at the journalists who populate Cuba’s independent press and compare them to those who have remained in the state media).

In 2011, the London-based Cuban writer Juan Orlando Pérez published a reflection on his blog “Juan sin nada” entitled: Profesión, periodista. Cubano. Perdón,” 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 own experience, how do you understand Pérez’s contradictory description?

Before today, I had never read that reflection by Pérez. I didn’t realize that the feeling that I have today about my time at Vanguardia was similar to that of other colleagues, even from previous generations. In that newspaper, at least during the first months of work and despite the frustration, censorship, and incessant clashes with my bosses, I lived some of my happiest months after graduation. Perhaps it was because I had, as I said before, the satisfaction of having arrived where I then thought I wanted to go.

Surely, most of us fondly remember our first coverage and other work experiences, even if they took place in the state media. At the same time, at that time we thought we could do important investigative reporting or memorable news coverage. Ultimately, none of that happened, at least not in the state media.

But, even so, I do not regret having worked at Vanguardia: there’s no better way to know how reality is manipulated and lied about, how information is concealed, or data is hidden than working on the inside of the state propaganda machine.

A few months after arriving at Vanguardia, I had come to realize that nothing we had in mind was possible. Nd after a year and a half, I was desperate to leave the newspaper. I wanted to get out, but I was afraid that my university degree would be invalidated for no completing the obligatory two-year period of social service, as our bosses threatened. Today we know that fulfilling that requirement was not worth it, because after those two years who would want to continue working in the official media.

We are not journalists because we studied journalism. We are journalists because we want to practice journalism, and we have done it despite the obstacles.

So, that is my response to your question about how the “deep dissatisfaction” and “tremendous frustration” of being a journalist in Cuba was accompanied by memories of those few initial “happy” months. However, when the newspaper where I intended to start my career became the place where a pair of State Security agents interrogated me, I knew that the time had come to put an end to that state of my career. I had to escape.

So, how and why did you decide to leave the official media and become an independent journalist, outside state institutions? Did you finally quit on your own or were you expelled?

I was desperate to get out of Vanguardia: for two years I yearned to complete my social service obligation so I could work anywhere else, even if that would have meant no longer working as a journalist.

And this is how I got to that point:

The printed edition of Vanguardia, a weekly newspaper, came out every Saturday. Normally, on Fridays I would leave the newspaper quite late after reviewing my articles as they would appear the next day in the print edition. And I only left when I was confident that they had passed all the “filters” and, the next day, I would read exactly what I had written published in the paper, with only the changes I had agreed to.

However, when I woke up on Saturdays and managed to get ahold of a newspaper, I would realize that after I had left, my articles had been changed. These changes included the censorship of both the language I used and the data I shared, as well as modifications made not for stylistic or factual reasons, but for plainly political ones.

In those moments, I would become convinced that there was no point in continuing to work in that kind of newsroom. And so on Mondays, I would make the one-and-a-half-hour journey (by truck) between Sagua la Grande (where I moved in 2013 or 2014 to live with my ex-boyfriend) and Santa Clara, intending to resign upon arrival. But when I got to the newsroom, I always allowed myself to be persuaded by my colleagues to stay with the argument that I risked the invalidation of my university degree if I quit before completing my two-year term of social service. This same cycle was repeated over and over again, until State Security entered the picture once again.

On April 15, 2016, I published the piece, “La soledad de la mujer pez” (the loneliness of the fish woman) in OnCuba. A week later, the deputy editor of the Vanguardia ceded his office to a lieutenant colonel from State Security so he could interrogate me about the repercussions of the article I had published in OnCuba and about the handful of other articles I had published by then in other non-state media outlets (that included El Toque and Periodismo de Barrio).

This interrogation took place at newspaper itself because State Security agents had full access to all offices and spaces in the building. That day was the first time I saw the face of Lieutenant Colonel Adrián Vega (that’s what he called himself). He entered the newsroom and stood behind me for several minutes, looking for a way to interrupt me. Then he tapped me on the shoulder, introduced himself, and asked me to accompany him to the office of the deputy editor of the newspaper, which had been surrendered to him for our meeting. Before entering, a second agent accompanying Vega snatched my cellphone right out of my hands, and thus began my first session of “friendly” threats.

(There are two posts from “La aldea maldita” (The cursed village), the blog I published back then, from April 2016, “Milagros en todas partes” (Miracles everywhere) and “¿Por qué escribo?”(Why do I write?), where I try to explain part of what happened after the publication of “La soledad de la mujer pez”.)

And as I explained to you before, that was not the first time that a State Security agent interrogated me. However, this time I left the meeting convinced that I was never going to free myself from that dire pressure.

As always, they asked me to collaborate by working as an informer for them. They offered to “top up” my cellphone account so that I could stay in contact with them. They assured me that they had the power to put me wherever I wanted (the carrot). Of course, they also threatened me (the stick) saying in the same breath that they could close all the professional roads open to me until I was buried working in some municipal radio station or, worse still, prevent me from working as a journalist at all.

How did you avoid getting caught up in this dirty game of theirs?

I always used the same strategy, which was not calculated, but natural: resounding silence. I let them talk, threaten me, make proposals, and barely nodded when it came to trivial matters. I suppose that my silence seemed to the State Security agents like the acceptance of something, but it was the exact opposite. “We can help you a lot, make sure you get wherever you want to go,” Vega told me. Then he added that he could also remove me from that path with a simple command.

***

Less than two months after that episode, in June 2016, my colleagues and I prepared to participate in the UPEC’s Provincial Plenary in Villa Clara. The then president of the UPEC warned us that we would be attacked during the meeting because we had published articles in the independent media and asked us to defend our right to write in such newspapers and magazines.

Knowing that they would attack us and tired of being pressured by State Security, we sat down to write what would later become known as the Carta de Santa Clara. The day of the Provincial Plenary arrived [June 7, 2016] and, even that morning we had no intention of reading the letter aloud if we were not attacked first. But, of course, they came for us. So, we stood up to read the document in front of two members of the Central Committee of the PCC and several renown national journalists and UPEC officials, including Rosa Miriam Elizalde, the current vice president of the UPEC.

Since we were allotted just three minutes each, the one who read the letter asked to use the time given to each of us (we were nine, if I remember correctly). We stood behind her as she delivered our declaration.

As she read, the faces of the officials went from astonishment to anger, from anger to fright and then to fear. She read the letter in its entirety. We sat down. But no one applauded.

A well-known radio journalist from Villa Clara took the floor and said that he couldn’t believe the denunciations that we had just made, particularly those aimed at State Security. So, I asked for the floor to respond to him and shared the story I described to you earlier: that a few weeks earlier two State Security agents had questioned me in the office of the deputy editor of Vanguardia, with his consent. I asked the director of the newspaper if I was lying, but she responded with silence.

That day marked the beginning of the end, not only for me, but for all of my other Villa Clara colleagues who had begun to collaborate with the independent media. A few weeks later, a State Security official acknowledged that the public reading of the letter, which was considered the first protest by a group of journalists from official media, had been unforgivable.

After several weeks of pressure, my Facebook and Gmail accounts were hacked directly from Vanguardia’s own newsroom. (The newsroom was the place where I connected to the internet at that time. Moreover, the newsroom’s network operator had the ability to intervene remotely in our sessions from the server he controlled. He often did this to solve technical problems we periodically experienced. So, it would be easy for him to do the same under pressure from State Security.)

That day I assumed I was leaving for good. I consulted a lawyer and was able to confirm that I had already completed my period of social service (which, along with my year of compulsory military service, equaled three years). I submitted my resignation and it was accepted, and I left Vanguardia forever. After my last day at work, I never returned to the newspaper building, where I had very few friends left.

My colleagues –the majority of the signatories of the Carta de Santa Clara– were expelled within a few weeks of the UPEC Plenary for different reasons: some were sanctioned for alleged journalistic malpractice and temporarily separated from the newspaper. When they tried to rejoin, the director warned them that they could only be reinstated if they stopped collaborating with the independent media.

It is not for me to reveal the identity of each of the signers of the letter. Some of them caved to the pressure from the Vanguardia administration, the Provincial Committee of the PCC, and the UJC and stayed at the newspaper promising to “behave.” Others like me are in exile or were punished and kicked out of the newspaper.

Still others were expelled for their participation in an investigative journalism workshop given by the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) for a week in Lima, Peru, in 2017. It was the second round of the workshop organized by IPYS, where 10 of us Cuban journalists had participated.

I have read in 14ymedio that the publication of the letter was like “a fragmentation bomb” being set off within the journalistic profession of Villa Clara. Can you describe the impact?

After we read the letter, there were a few days of calm. On that same day we read it, I returned to Sagua la Grande on the same bus with a group of journalists from the municipal radio station. It was very funny, because during the entire hour and a half trip no one dared speak to me or even looked in my direction. Just then, other journalists were more afraid of speaking to the authors of the letter than we were of the consequences of writing the letter itself.

Then, on July 1, 2016, the letter appeared on the Madrid-based news site Diario de Cuba. That immediately caused the cloud of silence that had formed around us dissipate. Immediately, the Provincial Committee of the UJC, the provincial Party, and the newspaper’s administration called meetings with the authors of the document to “analyze what happened.” In all cases, we were threatened. The representatives of these organizations said that they would find out who had leaked the letter and that they would pay the consequences. One of the signatories, who later accepted the conditions of State Security and kept her position at the newspaper, went so far as to say that the person responsible for the leak should be “crucified.”

In the meeting with UJC cadres, one by one we had to declare that we regretted that the letter had been leaked. That day, the Provincial Committee of the UJC came up with the idea that we should publish a mea culpa on our social media accounts. I was against writing or signing something like that. Finally, by group consensus, I agreed to write it on one condition: we were going to regret the leak, but also reaffirm each of the demands of the original letter. I wrote up such a mea culpa, knowing that State Security, which had to review it, was never going to allow us to publish it. And that was exactly my plan.

We reached a climax when Miguel Díaz-Canel, the then first vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers, traveled to Villa Clara and met with the Board of Directors of the newspaper to discuss the letter. According to two of the people present in that meeting, Díaz-Canel wanted to meet with the signatories of the letter, but the Provincial Committee of the PCC set up an “ambush” so that he would only meet with the members of the Board of Directors –on which just one of the signatories sat– and not with the whole group.

At that meeting, the Díaz-Canel specifically referred to my denunciations of the State Security’s harassment, saying that they had tried to “save” me back when I was still a student at UCLV.

In the last meeting following the publication of the letter, it was again I who threatened the deputy director and the secretary of the newspaper’s PCC nucleus with making public the harassment the group had experienced. Lower-ranking officials are terrified of getting publicly involved in scandals of this kind; therefore, sometimes the threat of exposure is the only weapon that we can use to defend ourselves.

The matter eventually became part of the past but those of us who signed the letter were never forgiven for what we had done. There were only two ways out: either accept the pressure of the political police, lower your head, and become the most docile sheep at the newspaper, or burn your bridges forever back into the official media, either because you were kicked out or because –like me– you resigned.

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

The criticisms from journalists in the official Cuban media, although superficial, have been repeated from congress to congress, with nothing changing. Like all other organizations of its kind, the UPEC exists to control journalists and serve the regime. It does not advocate for freedom of the press or for the right of journalists to report the facts. It rather represents the interests of the holy Cuban trinity: the Government-State-Party.

What do you think of the official press? How would you describe it? Is it monolithic or does it have nuance?

To be fair, I don’t think the state produces something we can call “the press.” It is a propaganda apparatus that has been well oiled over the last 60 years: it condemns journalism and rewards obedience. Exactly the opposite of what the press should be.

What fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?

All the differences between independent journalism and the state propaganda system can be summed up in this one: one wants to tell Cuba’s story with all the tools available in the 21st century. The other wants to maintain the appearance of the “best of all possible worlds.” The independent media opens the path to the practice of journalism. The propagandistic media is living through its terminal state. It has reached the point where nothing can flourish there anymore, because when you try to enact reforms, you realize that you have to simply put them out of their misery and start over again with something new: the independent press.

You are a journalist, but practicing journalism outside the official media in Cuba makes you a kind of “dissident” in the eyes of the state even when that is not your intention. Is it possible to be both a journalist and a dissident at the same time?

The last time the police detained me in Cuba for practicing journalism (September 6, 2017), a State Security agent assured me that I had lost the opportunity to do “revolutionary journalism” the day I left Vanguardia. When State Security agents say “revolutionary journalism” the exact opposite should be understood: the propaganda published in the state media.

Being a dissident journalist was not a plan I had at the start. But then you end up realizing that journalism is necessarily dissident: it criticizes, questions, and holds to account. Whoever wants to be a journalist, in Cuba or anywhere, is naturally a dissident. And I also intend to be one.

Of course, the conviction that the island is governed by a dictatorship should never hinder the practice of the profession. As journalists, we don’t have to reject opposition to a regime that violates the human rights of millions of people. The standards of journalism must be fully complied with, but none of them contradicts the exercise of the profession carried out by the independent press: we want to report on Cuba, just as it is. And that, whether you like it or not, makes you into an opponent, a dissident.

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

No, none. Cuba is spread over the archipelago and its diaspora, in exile. In fact, independent Cuban media outlets have survived because they keep a part of their teams outside the country, allowing them to evade repression, hacks, and constant harassment. That is, whether we like it or not, the independent press model that has worked the best so far.

How has it been different for you professionally now as a journalist who covers the current situation on the island from outside vs. doing so from inside before? What are the costs, challenges, and benefits of each position?

When you leave Cuba, you leave behind the possibility of reporting from the field. But over time, if you continue working as a journalist, you realize that social networks open up a new possibility for reporting. It is not ideal and never will be, but it is the alternative that has allowed all we exiled journalists to move forward. Likewise, you gain access to the internet and greater peace of mind for researching and writing. Thanks to the fact that Cuban independent media have multiplied and diversified, the possibility of publishing in one of them is almost certain.

Furthermore, from the outside we have been more aware than ever that, in order for the Cuban independent media to work, they have to have a part of their team in exile. Editing, programming, publication on different web platforms and other basic needs of the media are achieved outside the physical territory of Cuba, which has ensured that these new independent digital outlets can’t be closed down.

All over the world, the economic model of the media is in crisis. In Cuba, there is also an official discourse that claims that independent journalists are actually “subversives” and “mercenaries” because they rely on alternative financing. What is your personal assessment of this controversy? What are some of your strategies for navigating within this extremely polarized and politicized context?

Before starting to work in the independent media, we were flooded with the official Cuban discourse, from which we have had to free ourselves little by little. Among many things, we feared that the agenda of these other media outlets was dictated by foreign interests, as the regime had led us to believe.

But anyone who has worked in independent media knows that just the opposite is the case: the agendas of the many different Cuban independent media outlets are dictated by their editors.

However, when we denounce human rights violations in Cuba, the regime says that we serve foreign interests. The regime could never recognize that, in effect, it violates human rights. Then it declares us “mercenaries,” which is the only way it has to try to invalidate what we do and say.

What do you think of the funds of foreign entities that are dedicated to promoting social and political changes in Cuba (so-called “regime change”). That is, funds aimed at promoting democracy, an independent press, support dissidents, etc. Are these funds and programs legitimate?

The first thing we should ask ourselves, before evaluating the legitimacy of the funds, is whether or not there is a democracy in Cuba. With that question resolved, I believe that the issue of legitimacy will also have been resolved. Obviously, I believe that in Cuba we live under a totalitarian system that represses not only independent journalists, activists, opponents, but the population in general as well. As long as such funds promote democracy, and donors do not interfere in the editorial policies of the media outlets, for me there is no conflict.

Now, it does strike me that many researchers and academics tend to be interested in the financing of independent media that comes from programs dedicated to promoting democracy. However, we are never questioned about the payments we receive from the Cuban Communist Party, a criminal organization that has led the repression on the island for almost six decades. Almost all those who work currently as independent journalists were previously paid by the PCC, that is, we received funds from the same organization that holds political power in Cuba and that sets the repressive agenda of State Security, in addition to all the other repressive bodies of the Cuban state.

As an independent journalist who now works for an outlet that openly receives these funds (CubaNet), how do you ensure that your content is not influenced by the interests of those who provide the funding? That is, that the editorial line of CubaNet is really independent from the interests of those who provide the financing?

The editorial lines of each of the independent media outlets where I have worked are put together by the consensus of their journalists, editors, and other professionals. In none of these daily, weekly, or monthly meetings does any representative of foreign organizations intervene. If there are points of agreement in the programs of the organizations that finance Cuban independent media and the media outlets themselves, it is due, above all, to a single inescapable fact: a totalitarian government reigns in Cuba. And I don’t believe that any organization, pro-democratic government, or journalistic media outlet can support such a system.

Apart from what you have already describe to me above, what are your experiences of harassment, intimidation, or detention and questioning by State Security? Have you been arrested, harassed, threatened, or defamed? Has your movement been prevented or “regulated” within or outside the country? Under what legal justification?

I was arrested twice for practicing journalism: the first time was on October 11, 2016, in Baracoa, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. The second time was in September 2017, in Isabela de Sagua, for interviewing the residents of a coastal community that was preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

As I said before, when I was in my second year of university, I was threatened for the first time by a State Security agent (in charge of repressing the university community). Then, I was interrogated at the headquarters of the Vanguardia newspaper in April 2016.

I was also prevented from traveling abroad in 2017 for the first time. This travel ban was repeated several times, until I finally went into exile in the United States in May 2019.

Given that you now live outside of Cuba, what led to your decision to emigrate? Why do you use the word “exile” and “emigrate”?

If I had been able to withstand the levels of repression I suffered in Cuba, I would have continued reporting and writing there. Therefore, I did not emigrate: I had to go into exile.

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

Thanks to independent journalism, the Cuban press has once again become part of the map of cutting edge journalism in the region. In recent years, Cuban journalists have won two García Márquez awards and were nominated two other times. Cuban independent journalists have also been awarded the King of Spain Prize and the Don Quixote Prize.

The best stories that have been told about Cuba in the last 10 years had their home in the independent press. If the multiplicity of Cuban voices is present anywhere, it is in the press that has been published in / from / about the island in the last decade.

Does independent journalism have a future in Cuba?

The only journalism that has a future in Cuba, not only because it is the only one that exists as journalism, but because it has proven its value, is independent journalism.

What do you know about the history of Cuban independent journalism before the current digital phenomenon? 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?

Today’s independent journalists owe our existence to others who led the way years ago, enduring much higher levels of repression, including prison. The fact that after the “expansion” of Internet access in Cuba, independent media outlets on the island have multiplied and diversified also has to do with the fact that there were trailblazing independent media ventures that came before.

This short testimonial, which I wrote at the end of 2019 for the tenth anniversary of the founding of Diario de Cuba, best illustrates my answer:

Three years ago, from an Internet café in Cuba, one of my friends sent two brief news articles to Diario de Cuba. He did not know any journalists there, nor did he have any contact with the editors or the director. He simply went to the “Contact” section of the website, introduced himself, copied his texts into the space provided, and hit “Send.”

I, who then worked at the weekly provincial newspaper Vanguardia, the official mouthpiece of the PCC in Villa Clara, had still not let go of my many prejudices about the so-called “opposition” or “enemy” press. For example, I still did not dare to say words like “regime” or “dictatorship,” to refer to the Cuban government, although I had already accepted, silently, that Cuba was not a democracy, nor a state constrained by the rule of law.

‘Why do you want to collaborate with Diario de Cuba?’ I asked my friend. Now State Security is going to make your life impossible.’

At the time, I couldn’t know that just three years later I myself would become the youngest journalist working at DDC.

Right now (December 5, 2019), at the very moment when the reporters and editors here celebrate a decade dedicated to journalism in Madrid and Havana, 72 hours have passed since I joined the newspaper. Until today, I had never participated in the routines of a daily newsroom, nor had I subjected myself to the slavery of the news cycles that are constantly renewed in the age of the Internet.

Since I left college, it took me three years to get to the real school of journalism that comes only after rehearsal. Three years later, I have come to taste a well of journalism committed not to a single party, but to the dictatorship of rigor and immediacy, the only one possible.

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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