The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, May 15, 2004

They take the risks to tell Cuba's story

 
Journalism a growing field despite Castro's crackdown on writers

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA Cuba has jailed more journalists per capita than any nation in the world, yet the number of people willing to take up the risky profession is growing, American officials say.

More than a dozen new writers and reporters have begun work in recent months despite the government's imprisonment of 26 journalists last spring, said a senior U.S. official in Havana.

"They're not only courageous, they're good journalists," he said.

Cuban authorities contend that the reporters are U.S.-paid dissidents and "mercenaries" intent on toppling the socialist government. And they vow to prosecute them vigorously for breaking Cuban laws.

To be sure, experts say, Fidel Castro has long realized that controlling the flow of information in Cuba is key to the survival of his government. His efforts began with the founding of rebel newspapers and radio stations in the 1950s and continue today with what the Cuban leader calls the "battle of ideas."

Mr. Castro's goal is simple, analysts say: to convince 11 million Cubans that the socialist system, with its free health care and schooling, is more equitable and humane than capitalism.

Granma, the Communist Party's official newspaper, and other state-run media outlets reinforce that message every day, recounting the government's latest accomplishments.

But that gives people a distorted, one-sided view, contends Ernesto Roque, 36, an independent journalist in Havana.

He writes about another side of the story one in which things aren't so rosy. And for his troubles, he said, he's been jailed six or seven times.

A dangerous balance

"As a journalist here, you work with one foot in your door at home and the other in prison," he said. "I am afraid. I'm not any braver than anyone else."

His employer is Cubanet, a nonprofit Miami group that distributes news about Cuba on the Internet. It is financed by the U.S. government, private organizations and donations.

Cuban officials say Cubanet meddles in the country's affairs in violation of international norms an accusation the news agency denies.

Mr. Roque said it's only natural that independent journalists and dissidents receive foreign support. The hero of Cuba's independence movement, Jose Martí, raised funds in New York in the late 1880s. And Mr. Castro sought financial backing for his revolution in the United States in the 1950s.

Cuba has a "historic dependence" on its northern neighbor, said Mr. Roque, whose wife is also a journalist.

He's been a journalist for four years. He said his most exciting moment on the job came in March 2003 when authorities rounded up 75 dissidents, journalists and others as part of the biggest crackdown on the political opposition in decades.

A story to tell

Mr. Roque said he filed continual reports, barely stopping to sleep or eat for 72 hours.

"At one point, security agents knocked on my door," he said. "I was pretty sure they were going to arrest me. I sent a fax to Cubanet and wrote, 'This is the next-to-the-last report I'm going to file. The next one will be from prison. Long live freedom of the press!' "

Authorities spared him. He said he's not quite sure why, but says, "When I'm old, I'll tell my grandchildren about the experience."

Such pressure prompts some journalists to leave.

Warned that he might be jailed, Omar Darío Pérez Hernández, a writer for Nueva Prensa in the central town of Camagüey, left with four others on a boat on Dec. 7. He and the others haven't been seen since.

Cuban officials are unapologetic, and they assert that the U.S. government is responsible for creating and financing the opposition.

U.S. officials in Havana deny giving cash to reporters and say they supply only notebooks, pens, tape recorders, radios and other items.

American officials work out of the former embassy building, called the U.S. Interests Section. Its resource center offers books and free Internet access to Cubans and usually is bustling. But for weeks after last spring's crackdown, the center was practically empty, employees say.

Now it's busy again, they say, and Cubans must make advance reservations to use the Internet.

Many of the visitors are independent journalists.

"The movement is recovering," said one Interests Section employee, a Cuban citizen. "If the growth keeps up, the Cuban government is going to have to arrest another 75 people and the U.S. Interests Section didn't create that."

Whispered questions

The 26 jailed journalists received prison terms of 14 to 27 years after summary, one-day trials. Three other journalists are awaiting trial. That gives Cuba a total of 29 imprisoned reporters, exceeded only by China with 39, according to the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists. Trailing are Eritrea, with 17; Burma, 10; Vietnam, nine; and Turkey, five.

Cuban journalists say they often work in secret, whispering questions to people on the street and quietly jotting down notes. It's a hazardous job, they say, because they are certain some fellow reporters are actually spies.

When authorities rounded up the journalists last spring, a dozen security agents who had been posing as writers and dissidents emerged to testify against them.

Cuban officials say many more agents remain in the ranks of the political opposition. Even some of the jailed writers and dissidents may be "sleeper" agents, placed behind bars to boost their credibility in the political opposition, some experts say.

With all the spies afoot, it's hard to confide in anyone, said Myriam Leiva, an independent journalist in Havana.

"Sometimes I don't even trust my own shadow," she said.

Under such circumstances, many reporters asked that their bylines be taken off their stories after the spring clampdown. Now though, more and more are saying they want their names used, Ms. Leiva said.

"I want my name to be seen on my work," she said. "My main goal isn't money and I do need the money. My goal is to inform."

In a March press appearance, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque questioned the legitimacy of the independent journalists and dissidents.

Resisting 'subversives'

Of the 75 arrested last spring, he said, only five had jobs. All the others were officially unemployed.

"I'd like someone to explain how they lived," he said. "Almost no one talks about that."

He added that only two of the arrested writers had journalism degrees.

Countered Ms. Leiva: "What I'd ask is whether Felipe Pérez Roque has a degree in foreign relations." The foreign minister has a degree in electronic engineering, his official biography shows.

What matters, he says, is that the Cuban government be allowed to operate without interference from U.S.-financed "subversives."

U.S. officials publicly acknowledge that they spend millions of dollars every year to try to force Mr. Castro out peacefully and bring about democracy.

Helping the next generation of journalists will only make the post-Castro transition easier, the senior U.S. official said.

The question is, "Who are the journalists going to be the day after Fidel's gone?" he asked. "Is it going to be the nonjournalists of Granma? Or is it going to be these guys, the independent journalists?"