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  A LOOK AT ... Changing Cuba

By Elise Ackerman

Sunday, March 9, 1997; Page C3

Last month, shortly after President Clinton announced that the United States would give massive aid to a post-Castro Cuba, a representative of Cuba's state security agency visited a dilapidated Havana walk-up that houses Raul Rivero and his independent news agency CubaPress.

The 51-year-old journalist was ordered to appear before a committee of neighborhood activists. He refused. The next day about 100 government supporters mobbed his apartment building, screaming insults and accusing him of being a counter-revolutionary, a traitor and a CIA agent.

On the island, these verbal lynchings, known as "acts of repudiation," usually are directed at dissidents. Rivero, the president of CubaPress, was an odd target: He has explicitly distanced himself from the opposition movement, publicly stating that he aims only to provide an accurate, reliable alternative to the strictly controlled government press. His "counter-revolutionary" actions include articles about the damage wrought by Hurricane Lili and wry essays on the funeral perks granted to deceased Communist officials.

The heat on Rivero is a measure of the light he and some 60 other independent journalists are shining on Cuban society. Maverick scribblers operating out of makeshift news bureaus, they are the inheritors of a revolutionary journalism that has helped shape the history of the Americas since Thomas Paine galvanized support for the American Revolution with "Common Sense" and Jose Marti – the Cuban patriot, journalist and poet – rallied his countrymen to seek independence from Spain.

Lacking basic supplies, the Cuban journalists chase down leads by bicycle and scrawl their reports on scavenged scraps of paper. They do not produce traditional newspapers or magazines; rather they collect information and then distribute it mostly by sending it abroad so it can be transmitted back into Cuba via radio or the Internet. They also publish frequently in Spanish-language publications in Miami and elsewhere. The journalists try to fill the gaps left by the official press, following up tips on arrests of opposition members and reporting critically on local governments' actions. They also produce scathing opinion pieces, humor and an occasional man-on-the-street opinion survey.

While the quality of their reports varies wildly, the fact that they try to present the truth as they see it has begun to capture at least part of the populace's imagination. In Cuba, salsa music sung by exiled performers like Willy Chirino or Gloria Estefan is taboo. Spanish-language newspapers published in Miami are "enemy propaganda." And Cubans have been threatened with arrest for watching a bootleg video of a debate last August between exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa and Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly. As Rivero has written, "The world's poverty is brought to the foreground [by the official media], along with robust party leaders, happy and healthy, sporting guayaberas [Caribbean sport shirts] and mustaches, who swear by Karl Marx that the next economic plan is sure to succeed." Although the independent journalists do not propose grand solutions to Cuba's problems, they reflect its reality in a way that is revolutionary for citizens weaned on the official press.

Unfettered reporting may not provoke Fidel Castro's overthrow, but it is already serving as a catalyst for change. The Cuban government has struggled for an appropriate response, knowing that a crackdown could lead to international condemnation at a time when Cuba is acutely sensitive to its image abroad. And so the government has resorted to mostly psychological forms of coercion: frequent detentions, threats of prolonged jail terms, internal banishment and systematic impoverishment.

These methods have been unsuccessful. During the past two years, the number of independent news agencies has grown from one to eight, and the number of reporters from a handful in Havana to several dozen around the island. Their efforts have attracted international support from press-freedom groups such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Last year the Inter American Press Association, a coalition of Western Hemisphere editors and publishers, awarded the independent journalists the Grand Prize for Press Freedom.

The journalists attribute their growth to a visceral need to act as witnesses after decades of denial. "Cuban society has a hunger to know the truth about Cuba," Rivera says. "There is, at this very moment in this society, an eagerness for a change, for a transition, which you can practically reach out and touch with your hand."

A compact, heavyset man who smokes incessantly, Rivero is one of the most prominent members of the independent press. He is an acclaimed poet who spent nearly 30 years working for state-run Cuban magazines and newspapers. But he became increasingly disillusioned and quit his job with the state in 1989.

He and a handful of disaffected colleagues tried to form an independent press association. But publishing an underground newspaper was both illegal and logistically impossible, given the government's control of all aspects of daily life and the scarcity of basic supplies. It wasn't until late 1994, following a significant upgrade in telecommunications between the United States and Cuba, that the systematic practice of independent journalism became possible.

Rather than attempt to produce a publication within the country, Rivero and his colleagues began calling in daily dispatches to Radio Marti and Miami radio stations. Lacking word processors or faxes, they also dictated their handwritten articles to sympathizers in the United States and Puerto Rico, who painstakingly transcribed them. By the fall of 1995, five independent news agencies were operating in Havana. Volunteers in Miami and Europe also have built a Web site (http://www.cubanet.org) for the journalists, and they e-mail articles to a list of more than 700 subscribers, including many in Cuba. (Internet access in Cuba is restricted to official institutions, but those with access sometimes share it with friends.)

The Cuban government has accused the independent press of collaborating with its enemies and, in particular, of receiving money from the U.S. government. The charges are ironic: The truth, as Rivero says, is that "members of the independent press spend the majority of each month without enough money to eat." Jobs in Cuba are provided by the state, so when the independent journalists renounced their official positions, they cut themselves off from their livelihood. Except for occasional payments from foreign newspapers, independent journalists receive no money for their labor; they survive with the assistance of family, friends and Reporters Without Borders, which sends $1,100 each month to be divvied up among the independent news agencies.

At the CubaPress office on a hot, narrow street in Central Havana, Rivero jokes about the lack of resources, describing the agency as "an abstraction." In reality, the office consists of an antiquated typewriter and a cardboard box full of manila folders (the CubaPress archive) stored in a bedroom. Still, Rivero proudly displays sheaves of handwritten articles produced by bureau reporters.

"I think, in the beginning, the government underestimated us, because they thought we were doing this in order to obtain a visa from the American government so that we could leave the country [as dissidents seeking asylum]," he says. "A year and a half later, they see that we are working in a way that is professional and impartial, without politicizing the news and without receiving money from the U.S. government or from any political parties, and they realize that the majority of the independent press ... wants to continue to work inside of Cuba. And they have begun to fear us."

The government may be right to do so. More citizens are asking the agencies to report on cases of perceived corruption or injustice – including members of the Communist Party. Jose Rivero, a CubaPress reporter, says a well-known Communist Party militant asked him to denounce the government's indifference to widespread pilfering in the state-owned warehouse where he worked. Rivero warned him that he would have to use his name in the report. "He said, 'I don't care. I am a communist. Fidel Castro is not a communist.' " The man eventually agreed to an on-air interview on Radio Marti.

It's unclear whether such reporting is illegal. The Cuban constitution specifies that only the "official" media are guaranteed freedom of expression and that all media will be owned by the state. Furthermore, the penal code provides that anyone belonging to an unregistered organization can be imprisoned for one to three months. Rivero hoped to avoid that penalty by attempting to register CubaPress soon after the agency was formed. He applied Oct. 3, 1995 – and is still awaiting an answer.

But the Cuban government has hardly ignored CubaPress or the other independent agencies. The journalists' phone lines are routinely disconnected, forcing them to make elaborate arrangements to call abroad. Foreigners are discouraged from associating with them. Last fall, for example, a reporter from Miami's El Nuevo Herald was detained and then expelled from the country after visiting Rivero's apartment.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Cuban authorities detained Cuban journalists 28 times between January and October 1996. Rivero has been detained twice since founding CubaPress. Olance Nogueras, an investigative reporter who has documented flaws in the construction of the Juragua nuclear plant, has been detained 16 times. Last February, Rafael Solano, former head of Havana Press, was held for 42 days. After an international outcry prompted his release, Solano received an ultimatum: Either stand trial on charges of "association with persons with the intent to commit a crime" or go into exile. He now lives in Madrid.

While in custody, independent journalists have been threatened with arrest for charges such as "contempt," "rebellion" and "spreading false news that threatens international peace." The government has not followed through on those charges, but journalists say the climate is increasingly hostile.

In December, the Cuban National Assembly passed the Law of Reaffirmation of Dignity and Sovereignty, also known as the "antidote" law to America's Helms-Burton Act, which tightened economic sanctions against the island. During the act of repudiation at Rivero's apartment on Feb. 10, an official read aloud the portion of the law stating that it is illegal to provide information to the U.S. government or to "collaborate" in efforts to implement the Helms-Burton Act. "The person that lives here has violated this law!" the official reportedly declared. Identical scenes played out in front of the homes of six other independent journalists.

"I think that the government has resolved to do away with the independent press," Rivero says. "They are taking these measures in order to prevent anyone from being surprised," he adds, referring to the recent waves of repudiation and detentions. "The moment this turns into information that through repetition becomes trivial or quotidian, they are going to incarcerate us all." If that happens, the Cuban people will be the losers.

Elise Ackerman is a staff writer for the Miami New Times.

DISPATCHES FROM THE UNDERGROUND CUBAN PRESS

HAVANA, Jan. 7, 1997 (BPIC)

The year 1997 has started off with anti-government graffiti in the San Martin neighborhood in the capital's San Miguel del Padron municipality, according to information given to the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba by a resident of the area who preferred to remain anonymous. On Second Street between Central and Guarina, as well as Central between First and Second streets, popular discontent was manifested when someone painted walls, columns, and porches with slogans such as "Down with Fidel," "Freedom for political prisoners," "We want democracy and free elections." – Luis Lopez Prendes

HAVANA, Jan. 7, 1997

A state tribunal at the site of tourism transportation in Trinidad, one of Cuba's most important sites for this purpose, concluded with the expulsion of two Communist Party military officers. They were accused of corruption and illicit enrichment. The center's director, Jorge Munoz Macavi, and his wife, Laura Terreiro Linar, periodically subjected the taxi drivers at the Transtur S.A. job site to labor evaluations with the premeditated objective of firing them and later selling their vacant slots in dollars on the black market, at high rates. Munoz and Terreiro, who are affiliated with the Interior Ministry, were stripped of all their previous distinctions and appointments, some of which they had held since 1980. They will soon stand trial for corruption. – Olance Nogueras Rofes

HAVANA, Jan. 9, 1997 (BPIC)

Hector Palacios Ruiz, president of the Democratic Solidarity Party, was subjected to a search of his home and then was arrested at 8 o'clock today, Thursday, according to Adolfo Fernandez Saiz, a Democratic Solidarity Party leader. Fernandez Saiz added that during the search, which lasted three hours, agents confiscated documents concerning minutes of party meetings, lists of political prisoners, and documents involving the Cuban Council and the Feminine Front. ... Once the search ended, the Democratic Solidarity Party leader was taken to the police unit located at Zapata and C in Vedado, by a lieutenant who did not want to be identified but whose police badge number was 1257. ... – Luis Lopez Prendes

From Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC) reports, transmitted by CubaNet. Translation by Lourdes Arriete.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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