Continued hardship for Cuba's independent journalists
Those contributing to U.S. government-funded media face toughest sanctions

Claudia Márquez walked the aisles of the Miramar dollar store, her eyes darting right and left. Her arms were packed with food she would later bring to her husband Osvaldo Alfonso, a dissident languishing in Guanajay prison, 45 kilometers from Havana.

"Soap, toothpaste...I need sardines. Where are the sardines? The authorities give prisoners almost no meat," said Márquez.

Márquez, is an independent journalist and lately she has been taking special note of her husband's prison conditions, because she knows that if she is not careful, she could soon be there too.

Despite the fact that almost 30 independent journalists have been jailed since March of last year, many like Márquez continue to ply their trade, short of basic supplies, without official sanction and under constant police harassment. Like most of the approximately two dozen independent journalists who operate in Havana, Márquez's life is a constant struggle.

In Cuba, journalists are considered political workers. Only those licensed by the state are accorded the credentials that give them access to public officials and government documents. Those who aren't licensed are repeatedly brought in for questioning by police and their typewriters, computers and tape-recorders are seized.

Earlier this year the Cuban government introduced tough new measures restricting the use of Internet making it almost inaccessible. For example the provincial capital of Holguin has only one Internet café at the Pernik Hotel and the rates (U.S. $5.00 per hour) are the equivalent of one week's salary to the ordinary Cuban.

Cuban independent journalists fall into three broad categories: those who contribute to U.S. government financed media, those that sell stories to private media outside of Cuba and those who operate and publish within Cuba.

Journalists in the first category are subject to the greatest danger by far. Most, if not all of journalists that are currently in Cuban jails worked for U.S. government financed media such as the Web-site Cubanet. Journalists who contributed to Radio and Television Marti were also heavily targeted, although the stations claim their Cuban contributors are not paid for their work.

These journalists were convicted either under Law 88 or article 91 of the criminal code. Law 88 protects Cuba's "independence and economy," and punishes "subversive activities," that further U.S. "imperialist interests." Article 91 punishes "actions against Cuba's independence and territorial integrity,"

Cuban officials, well aware of how little the U.S. government finances public journalism stateside, view journalists associated with media organizations funded by American tax dollars with great skepticism.

"They are not independent," said one Cuban official. "How can you be independent if you get paid by a foreign power?"

Despite protests from the Cuban government, U.S. government funded media directed at Cubans will get a significant boost under new proposals made by the Bush administration earlier this month in response to a report issued by the Commission for Assistance to Free Cuba.

The proposals made an additional $36 million available to the State Department and USAID "to aid in the training, development and empowerment of a Cuban democratic opposition and civil society."

Fara Armenteros is perfect example of the new post crack-down generation of journalists, who are taking the place of the 30 now in jail. Armenteros works for Cubanet, which receives much of its financing from USAID. As such she operates under constant scrutiny.

"We work with the DSE (Department of State Security) behind us all the time," said Armenteros, 64, who was last arrested on April 16th, for a three hour grilling. "But we continue anyhow. We just want to get the news out."

Armenteros has no computer or Internet connection. Instead she writes out her reports by hand and faxes them to Cubanet's offices in Florida.

Márquez belongs to the second category of journalists, those who write only for private foreign news sources. Márquez took over as editor of DeCuba, a dissident publication after its previous editor Ricardo Gonzáles was jailed.

Márquez also used to do work for Cubanet, but lately she curtailed her activities under threats from the police. In October of last year she was arrested and told that she would be imprisoned if she published another edition of DeCuba.

"They asked my husband constantly about my activities and I was worried that his prison conditions would worsen if I continued," Márquez said. "They also asked me if I loved my child, to make me think about who would take care of him if I got arrested."

The police made enough of an impression on Márquez that she now only accepts assignments from non-U.S. government funded sources such as the San Antonio Express-News, Diariometro.com and Elveraz.com.

Márquez's plight has attracted international attention. She has appeared on CNN broadcasts by Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman, has been published in the New York Times and her client the San Antonio Express News wrote an editorial about her plight late last year.

Reporters Without Borders also picked up on Márquez's case highlighting it in its 2003 annual report, a period it labeled "a black year for press freedom (in Cuba) and civil liberties in general"

"She is the best known independent journalist in Cuba right now," said John Virtue, of the International Media Center of Florida International University and one of the top authorities of the Cuban independent journalist movement.

Virtue got to know many of the Cuba's independent journalists close hand during training seminars he conducted for 18 them in Havana in December of 2002. Five of the journalists in attendance were later imprisoned and three of them turned out to be government informants.

"It's sad," Virtue said. "They could not even trust their closest associates."

Ironically, probably one of the most effective independent journalists operating in Cuba is almost unknown to the outside world.

Dagoberto Valdés Hernández is the editor of Vitral, a journal funded by the Pinar del Rio diocese of the Catholic church. Vitral contributors tackle a variety of subjects including books, poetry, the arts, law and education. But the magazine's most read articles are Valdés's editorials, which often take on tough subjects like the government, corruption and emigration often in indirect ways. But few readers miss his point.

Unlike U.S.-funded media, which is for the most part blocked to ordinary Cubans, Vitral is printed and published in Cuba. Copies are delivered by hand, not by Cuban post where they could be "lost."

There is no centralized distribution list, so that readers cannot be traced. Each distributor passes out his copies to other readers, who then pass them on to others. Unlike North American magazines, Cuban magazines are extremely rare and are never thrown away. They are passed hand-to-hand, often for years.

Valdez takes great care to maintain his independence so he will not be lumped in with other journalists. He takes no money from the paper, to which he devotes all of his evenings and lives solely from income from his day job picking Yaguas.

Although the Catholic church funds Vitral, it does not interfere in its content, which for the most part has little to do with the church.

All of the church's 14 diocese's publish magazines but Vitral is the only one that is distributed across the country. In another sign of its growing influence, circulation has doubled in the last two years to 7,000 issues.

But although there are wide differences within Cuba's independent journalist community, according to Armenteros they are all under threat. Yet despite the pressure she refuses to stop.

"I am an old lady in an old body," she said pointing to Márquez. "She is young. She is taking much more risks than I am. What can they take away from me?"

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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