Enquiry: Martine Jacot
A trying experience
How do foreign journalists in Cuba manage to do their job of informing the public using the profession’s normal principles and rigorous standards?
A Reporters Without Borders survey of a dozen foreign media correspondents who have had the experience found it was often like trying to do the impossible.
Getting the simplest official information is much like going into battle, they said. The obsessively secret and distrustful regime is very anxious to closely monitor all information destined for Cubans and people abroad. And relying on third-hand sources, after laborious cross-checking, exposes journalists to the risk of being used or else endangers those who agree to talk to reporters, even anonymously.
Nearly all the journalists interviewed - seven from French and British news agencies, four from French, British and Spanish newspapers and a correspondent for the Spanish TV station TVE(1) - said it was stimulating to have to report in such tough conditions and work in what they called Latin America’s most politically interesting country with a regime unique in the world. It was fascinating to observe, they said, because of its durability and its leader, President Fidel Castro.
On a personal level, working in Cuba was considered trying, to say the least. The regime, in its great concern about its foreign image, uses an array of continual and carefully graded psychological pressures, ranging from mild rebukes about a story to being summoned by the authorities and even denunciation in the official media. The drastic step of expulsion from the country has become rarer in recent years with a stricter visa policy that makes it less necessary. The constant police surveillance, though fairly discreet, extends to journalists’ private lives and pushes even the sturdiest people to the brink of paranoia and schizophrenia.
To do their job according to normal journalistic rules, foreign reporters in Havana - especially those working for news agencies - have to play a cat-and-mouse game within ever-changing parameters, including the regime’s moods, the international situation and other not always evident factors. But some things never change, as the experiences related here show.
Officially, no foreigner is allowed to work as a journalist in Cuba, temporarily or permanently, without a special visa to be applied for at the Cuban embassy in their own country. Officials are increasingly strict about this and in early February 2003 they arrested and detained in secret an Argentine journalist who entered the country on just a tourist visa. His equipment, notes and address books were confiscated. The same thing happened to a French journalist in October 2002.
This policy, which has been strengthened since the passage in February 1999 of Law 88, providing for up to eight years in prison for any Cuban working with the foreign media, enables foreign journalists and media to be thoroughly investigated beforehand. Those who have written articles considered over-critical or containing undesirable information are punished by permanent refusal of a new visa.
There have been few resident foreign correspondents in Cuba since the expulsion of all American journalists in 1962, soon after the Revolution, though there were a fair number from Eastern Europe until the fall of the Berlin Wall. US reporters have only been allowed to return in recent years and then only in dribs and drabs - one from CNN, another from the Associated Press (AP) and, in 2001, two from the Tribune group and the daily Dallas Morning News.
Resident Western media have usually amounted to just a handful - one each from the news agencies Agence France-Presse (AFP)(France), Reuters (Britain), EFE (Spain) and DPA (Germany) and a few correspondents of daily papers. The state-owned Spanish TV station TVE was only allowed to open a full-time Havana office at the end of 1997, a few months before the Pope’s visit in January 1998.
News agencies and visiting foreign reporters have to wait at least two months for a visa. Cuban embassies have to gather maximum information about applicants, their previous jobs in their own country and abroad, what they have written and their political and trade union history.
AFP journalist Bertrand Rosenthal, who had worked in Eastern Europe, had to wait six months in 1987 for a visa from the Paris embassy. He was doubtless already known to the Cuban secret police, having visited Havana in 1977 as an official of a communist youth organisation to help set up a world youth festival there. During a 1986 strike at AFP, he was a leader of the CGT trade union. None of this speeded up his application. His four predecessors in Havana were all deported or declared undesirable residents.
Once a correspondent is accredited, the visa must be renewed each year by the Cuban foreign ministry (Minrex). A simple enough procedure unless you are considered undesirable. Olivier Languepin, correspondent for the French dailies La Tribune, Les Echos and l’Evènement du Jeudi, and Rosy Hayes, correspondent for a Canadian radio station, were among the unlucky ones in 1998 after being sharply criticised for "unfriendly" reporting.
This sword of Damocles hangs over every correspondent year after year and depends on an assessment of their work by top regime officials. "It’s a kind of blackmail," says Corinne Cumerlato, who was Havana correspondent of the French daily La Croix from 1996 to 1999. "Every foreign journalist is on permanent probation."
Tight-lipped official sources
In the mid-1990s, Minrex opened an International Press Centre (CPI) in central Havana to cope with requests for information and interviews from foreign journalists, who continually complained about how hard it was to get any and about the impossibility of obtaining official confirmation or otherwise of news and events. An officially weekly press conference, on Thursday mornings, is organised at the centre by the official government spokesman (in Spanish "vocero," which the journalists soon turned into the nickname "voz zero" - useless spokesman).
News control is so tight in Cuba that very few officials dare to comment on anything without permission from the very top. "It’s a wall of silence," said one English-speaking journalist who spent four years in Cuba. "An impenetrable watertight wall maintained with complete discipline. If a ’leak’ reached our ears, we had to be very suspicious because chances were it was deliberate and the government was using us."
The degree of government silence varies over time. "Official sources got better because of the country’s urgent need to open up to the outside world, especially Europe, so as not to be crushed by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and communism generally," said Antonio Raluy, who was in Cuba for AFP between June 1992 and August 1996. "The then foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who often spoke in officialese but was fairly accessible to foreign journalists, was the main architect of this new attitude." Appointed in March 1993, he was suddenly dropped in May 1999, a year when the regime tightened up.
New "interest" in correspondents
Until the "Special Period in Peacetime" launched in the early 1990s, after the end of the sugar-for-oil barter agreement with the former Soviet Union that was the Cuban economy’s lifeline, Castro was not very interested in foreign journalists, apart from what they wrote. "He saw them as irritants," said Raluy. He has always very carefully read, morning and evening, all articles about Cuba in the foreign media (sent in by Cuban embassies all over the world) and especially what is put out by the news agencies the regime subscribes to, he is not very interested in giving other than informal chats to resident foreign journalists and reserves formal interviews for "specially chosen media, mainly communist papers, but also occasionally visiting reporters from CNN or CBS," says Raluy.
A big turning-point was the Pope’s 1998 visit and then, after a period of great tension, at the end of the Ibero-American summit in Havana the following year, both moments when the regime had a great need, diplomatically and materially, to repair relations with the outside world. So foreign journalists got different treatment and attention was paid to their reactions as they were seen as representatives of their countries’ public opinion.
Since 1998, the most important press conferences held at the CPI in Havana have been filmed by Cuban TV. "The questions, attitudes, reactions and reporting of the correspondents are analysed" by experts at the CPI and other government decision-making bodies, says Vicenç Sanclemente, the first resident correspondent in Cuba (1997-2000) of TVE. The other, more sinister, use of the filming is thought to be "establish the responsibility of correspondents towards the Cuban people" by broadcasting if necessary extracts from the press conferences on the state-controlled Cuban TV.
For the past several years, foreign journalists have interested the regime so much that at one point officials tried to recruit a foreign news agency journalist to find out what his colleagues were thinking and keep an eye on everything they did.
Immediate adoption and going over every word
"From the time you get there, you immediately understand, or they make you aware, that your work is being minutely examined and analysed," says AFP correspondent Noël Lorthiois, who arrived in Havana in October 1985 and was expelled exactly a year later. "You learn that if you report anything not in line with the official propaganda, you will be cut off from official sources, which is pretty rich when you know how unhelpful such sources are."
"There’s no pre-censorship of news in Cuba," said Rosenthal, who took over from him. "I was never prevented from investigating anything, meeting anyone, writing on any subject or doing what I liked. If you’re to be punished, it comes afterwards your work has appeared." Other journalists agreed.
Before the first "reprimand" and by way of "warning," foreign journalists are "taken in hand" by Cuban colleagues or by other foreign reporters who have been in Cuba a long time. "Two Cuban journalists were particularly doing this," said André Birukoff, who went to Havana for AFP in July 1984 and was expelled in June 1985. "They were Gabriel Molina, who worked on the Sunday edition of the official daily Granma, and Luis Baez, the star reporter of the official news agency Prensa Latina, who was always invited to follow Castro around wherever he went. They’d pass by your office and talk to you."
Lorthiois adds: "These two acted rather like chaperones to the foreign press. They were always around and would appear out of nowhere, usually very cheerful, ready to accept a mojito [Cuban cocktail] or a cigar. Their job was to inform the regime about the mood among the foreign press, pass on so-called "reliable" information to the journalists - material the regime wanted published without having to officially endorse it - and slip in the odd bit of advice "between friends and colleagues" about the way to operate in Cuba. And every story you put out, one or other of them would comment on it the same evening at one of the daily embassy cocktail parties (a must to keep abreast of all the rumours), either in person or in a sufficiently public way that you got the message."
"The first remarks I got were about how what I wrote could be interpreted," said Birukoff. "It was a kind of textual post-mortem I found insufferable. You can always pull apart every word, every phrase."
"A whole group of people are assigned to influencing the journalist and frightening him if necessary," says Rosenthal. "Havana is a small world with its 45 or so embassies. The few journalists there have near-diplomatic status and what they write is very important because it’s the only news that gets out of the island." Foreign journalists’ cars have special number-plates which make them easier to spot.
Little seems to have changed over the years. During his first spell in Cuba, TVE’s Sanclemente was immediately "briefed" by the famous Baez, who he said "spelled out very clearly the limits to press freedom in the country. He said in effect that "you can play as much as you like with the chain but not with the monkey holding it [Castro]." The same point was made to Rosenthal a decade earlier: never criticise in any way the person of the "Maximum Leader" in what you write, or you cross the red line.
The other sources to protect
How then can journalists do their work when official information is sparse, rumours very hard to confirm and the limits to "freedom" clearly defined? Denis Rousseau, who was in Cuba for AFP from 1996 to 1999, says:
"There are the other official sources, such as the newspapers, where you sometimes have to know how to read between the lines, and the radio, TV and the official news agencies Prensa Latina and AIN (Agencia de Informacion Nacional), as well as Castro’s speeches, chance encounters with Cubans, and contacts with dissidents, priests, Catholic activists and the few NGOs working independently in Cuba. Finally there are personal contacts, sometimes half-secret, with government workers, university people, managers of state firms and foreign businessmen."
One English-speaking journalist who asked to remain anonymous said: "The best sources are still word of mouth, what’s known as ’Radio Bamba’ or ’la Bola,’ from the people in the street."
Rosenthal says "journalism in Cuba is definitely a minimalist art but in this Caribbean society, everyone talks. Like anywhere in the world, human relations take time. Once someone trusts you and Cubans see you’re like everyone else and you enjoy eating, drinking and laughing, ties develop and discussion becomes possible and along with it information. But using such information sometimes means very strictly protecting your source.
"In 1989, I heard some alienated youths were deliberately injecting themselves to get HIV/AIDS so they could go and live in the AIDS hospitals where life was better than living in the street. Only three people knew about this - Castro himself, the head doctor of the AIDS hospital and my source. So it was impossible to publish such dynamite. I couldn’t say what my source was, so I would risk expulsion. A year later, I managed to get the deputy health minister to confirm it and only then was able to publish it after keeping it to myself all that time."
There are indeed all kinds of sources, but as Rosenthal says, along with most of his colleagues: "I had to assume that everyone I met in Cuba was going to be interrogated afterwards by police to find out what I wanted from them and what had been talked about. It didn’t always happen, but you had to assume it would."
Journalists in Cuba are constantly watched, in both their professional and private lives. Lorthiois gave one example. "My wife and I had become friendly with a young Cuban couple. He wrote songs and poetry and they had a young child. We went to their house one evening, quite openly, just to have a drink with no journalistic intent. A week later, after dark, I was driving home when the woman in the couple stepped out from behind a tree near our house. I saw her face, white with terror, as she leaned towards the car window for just a few seconds and shouted, or rather screamed: ’Please, I beg of you, never come and see us again, never, or we’ll lose everything!’ I’ve never forgotten that face twisted with terror."
"Surveillance is usually done discreetly," says Rousseau. "You only find out about it through some bungle or if it’s deliberately revealed because the government wants to intimidate you. Cuba secret police call it ’Japanese-style’ surveillance."
Sanclemente was targeted in this way. "One day," he said, "I was greeted by a man who said his job was to analyse my TV reports for the government." He also ran into a person who said he tapped his phone calls, a man called "Doncel," who asked him straight out, at a reception after the November 1999 Ibero-American summit: "Tell me, how come you’ve used your mobile phone so little during the summit?" All foreign journalists in Cuba know their phone calls, both fixed line or mobile, are listened to.
At about the same time, Sanclemente began wondering why he had stopped getting e-mail on his office computer when he was expecting an important message from a colleague in the Dominican Republic. He contacted the communications ministry technician who had set up his e-mail connection, thinking there had been a technical problem. The official reminded him he had not turned on the computer at his home for the past few days and informed him that waiting for him on it were "three messages from the Dominican Republic, two from Barcelona, one from Montse and another from Margaret." No e-mail messages have escaped the eye of the Cuban police since the Internet arrived in Cuba, with all the associated restrictions.
Because of the problems finding a "legal" apartment, French journalist Languepin decided to get an unofficial place to stay, at a time (1998) when Havana residents did not risk a $1,500 fine for illegally putting up foreigners. Three days after he moved in to his new lodgings, he got a phone call from the International Press Centre informing him of a press conference later that day. It was a way of letting him know the authorities knew all about his moving.
"There were also these guys who kept following me," he said. "I was also burgled while I slept and my laptop computer and diskettes were taken, along with some clothes. You end up becoming paranoid. And then there are these gorgeous Cuban women who turn up at receptions or cultural evenings." Other resident journalists and visiting reporters also mention these "encounters" that are not accidental. Unmarried journalists are the first to "benefit" and married ones are targeted when their wives go away on holiday. At embassy receptions, these women may ask journalists to come home with them.
Rosenthal says "a big part of the security apparatus is for spying on foreign journalists," especially those working for news agencies because of how fast their reports go round the world. After he left Cuba, he met up again with Cubans who had meanwhile managed to leave the island. They told him about 30 people were assigned to each agency journalist, sometimes more at busy periods.
How do the journalists cope with it? "You have to pretend it isn’t happening and just live normally," says Rosenthal. "It’s typically Stalinist surveillance. When you want to get rid of someone, you don’t attack them for what they say or write but on the basis of their personal behaviour. If the journalist’s an alcoholic, you can set up and film a drunken party and then use it against them later. In the 1970s, one journalist was expelled for supposed sexual involvement with under-age teenagers. The authorities had known for years he indulged now and again, so they saved up the knowledge until he wrote something that really annoyed them. The system was wonderfully described in the 1978 French film ’Dossier 51.’
"In my case, they never used against me the material they could have. I was burgled four times at home for no apparent political reason. But they didn’t touch my computer or the diskettes which contained some of the book I published, with Jean-François Fogel, after I left Cuba in 1993."
"An insult to the Cuban nation"
After the remarks from "Cuban colleagues," foreign journalists get "cautions," usually from the CPI spokesperson. Rousseau was sharply called to account in late 1996, a few months after arriving in Cuba, for writing a story about an egg shortage in Havana headed "Cuban chickens don’t obey the government’s Five-Year Plan" (see story in Appendix). He implied they were stressed out by the rigours of the Special Economic Period. "You don’t joke about things like that," he was told.
Birukoff was reprimanded for writing about the black market and about the beach resort of Cayo Largo the government was building for foreign tourists and that only Cubans employed there could go to. Pointing that out drew a rebuke, but without a threat or warning.
Birukoff’s expulsion in June 1985, after 11 months in the country, was based on another article. It was a scoop, involving long and difficult investigation, about the existence of a Cuban body called Interconsul, which facilitated marriages (for money) between foreigners and Cubans who wanted to leave the island, with passports arranged as well.
"The report came out on the eve of an international women’s conference in Nairobi, to be attended by Raul Castro’s wife, Vilma Espin, leader of the Cuban Women’s Federation." A few hours after it appeared, a Minrex spokesman called in Birukoff and read him a short statement that said: "Your article is an insult to the nation and to Cuban women. You are being expelled. You have three hours to leave the country." He was forcibly taken to the airport.
An English-language journalist posted in Cuba for four years in the mid-1990s said he was summoned about every three months by Minrex to go through what he had written. "At first, I justified it point by point and reacted to each reproach because they seemed so absurd. I was criticised for example for using the term ’communist country’ in a negative way. Then I decided to listen very carefully to their argument to try to understand why they were offended by one thing rather than another. It was a very interesting exercise deciphering their vision of the world."
An English-speaking colleague was ordered to "justify every word" of his economic reporting in the 1990s, when Cuba was trying to attract and then keep foreign investors in joint ventures where the Cuban government retained a 51 per cent interest.
Dissidents do not have a good press
The attitude to resident foreign journalists only really got threatening when articles began appearing about the taboo subjects of dissident activity and, most of all, anything to do with the person of Castro himself.
In October 1986, two journalists, one from Reuters and the other from AFP (Noël Lorthiois), were expelled without warning. For the first time, a political dissident had spoken to them allowing his own name to be quoted. The dissident, Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, confirmed in the name of his organisation (the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission) the existence of labour camps and gave an estimate of how many political prisoners there were in Cuba, which was another first (see story in Appendix).
"My article was confirmed by other sources since I’d spent long and painstaking months getting close to the dissidents," said Lorthiois. "I had contacts with two of them and Sanchez came to see me one morning and said he’d decided to risk speaking out in his own name. He asked me to call in colleagues from two other news agencies, but one of them, from the Spanish news agency EFE, was out of the country on holiday."
As soon as his report of this came out, Lorthiois was called to Minrex, where he was told he was being expelled for giving a platform to "anti-social bandits" and "working with enemies of the Revolution." Despite his protests, the authorities kept his wife in Cuba for a further week for what they said were "formalities." He said he thought this was to "force me to keep silent while my wife was still in Cuba."
His successor, Rosenthal, was summoned three times in five years, always about dissidents, who became bolder while he was there. "The first time was a few months after I’d arrived. I think it was part of their method, to show they were there and reading what you wrote. The offending story was about the arrest of four dissidents who tried to lay a wreath at the foot of a statue of independence hero José Martí, after dark at about 8 p.m. They told me they were going to do it and I was there. They were arrested just as they were about to lay the wreath.
"I told the Minrex officials who called me in that I’d simply described what I’d seen. They didn’t question the facts but said I’d given too much importance to dissident activity. I said that wasn’t true and that the AFP news file showed plenty of other subjects were reported on. I said: ’I cover the dissidents when I think coverage is needed and I’m the only judge of that."
Rosenthal was summoned against about the dissidents, this time concerning Ricardo Bofill (who founded the Cuban Human Rights Committee in prison in 1976), but he was not expelled. "We were being flooded with press releases from all kinds of small groups and we had to decide what importance to give them," he said. "When we did too many stories about them, the authorities reacted."
"Too much focus on dissidents" is still a regular criticism by the authorities of foreign journalists, whatever their nationality. They are still reproached and sometimes threatened. Sanclemente said he was asked not to report on any dissident protests before the 1999 Ibero-American summit. But journalists are rarely expelled these days, because simple non-renewal of visas is more effective and draws less attention and because the main dissidents have, since the summit, been more and more frequently sought out by visiting ministers and prime ministers and the foreign press cannot decently not report that.
The big taboo: Castro’s health
"The major problem journalists have covering Cuba is Castro himself. What can you say about him and how do you say it?" asks Rosenthal. He managed to write, without being criticised, an article called "Castronomia," describing the daily food problems of Cubans, based on the cooking recipes Castro liked to recommend in times of shortages.
Agency journalists usually avoid wording, except for quotes, that could be described as value-judgments, but newspaper journalists have more latitude. Languepin was severely reprimanded for writing "the ageing caudillo" in one of his economic articles. "How can you write like that about our Comandante?" one official asked him. "I’m doing my job honestly," he replied, "and I’m ready to make a correction if I’ve written anything untrue." His visa would probably have expired much sooner if he had used the word "dictator."
The health of the Maximum Leader, who will turn 77 in August this year, is one of the most dangerous topics to deal with and can result in a summons by Castro himself. Even though he sometimes completely drops out of sight for lengthy periods, it is considered bad taste to speculate why.
Agency journalists learned this to their cost after the Miami paper Nuevo Herald quoted an alleged doctor on 21 July 1998 as saying Castro had been operated on in October 1997 for a serious brain condition, hypertensive encephalopathy. The Havana correspondents of Reuters and AFP investigated and found that around the time of the supposed operation, Castro had had an official meeting with a Vatican envoy. The government strongly denied the story and the journalists reported the denial, adding the result of their own investigations.
However,when he opened the Cuban parliament on 22 July, Castro launched a fierce attack on the foreign media, accusing them of "denigrating socialism, demoralising the Revolution and fighting against it with lies and tricks of all kinds." He then asked journalists and guests to leave the building to allow deputies to "discuss matters in complete freedom to avoid any of their words, whether critical of others or themselves, being used to fuel the disgraceful campaigns being waged against the country"( see article in Appendix).
Rousseau of AFP reported this episode, quoting Castro’s words and adding: "Castro however made no mention of the report that appeared in a US newspaper (...) which was denied by the Cuban government, which called it "scandalous."
He and his colleagues from Reuters and EFE were summoned by Castro to his office around midnight and Rousseau was made to justify his story word for word until 5 in the morning. The most serious charge, in Castro’s eyes, was use of the word "however," which the Cuban leader said "revived in an insidious and deliberate way the wildly false rumours" about his health. (The Nuevo Herald itself later knocked down the operation story and reported that the doctor was not a doctor after all).
At one point, Rousseau said, Castro "exploded" and shouted "Who do you think we are? We can read. We’re not stupid. You think we’re idiots!" Rousseau’s reply ("I’ve never thought that about you") suddenly calmed things down but he had the feeling that he had "become an undesirable from that moment on."
The political climate in Cuba became much tenser at the end of 1998 and even more the following year, in the run-up to the Ibero-American summit in November, and there was a crackdown on dissidents, prostitutes and journalists.
Law 88 (quickly nicknamed The Gag Law) came into force in February 1999, targeting anyone who "collaborated in any way with foreign radio or TV broadcasts, magazines or other media" or "supplied information" considered likely to serve US interests and providing for imprisonment for up to 20 years, confiscation of all personal property and fines of up to 100,000 pesos (about 4,800 euros).
Attacks on the foreign media grew increasingly fierce. The official daily Granma said on 4 March 1999 that "some resident foreign journalists and some foreign agencies were deliberately spreading news of all the plots, insults and dirty tricks launched by paid agents" of US imperialism.
Journalist and member of parliament Lázaro Barredo Medina wrote in the official trade union weekly Trabajadores attacking by name Rousseau and Pascal Fletcher, correspondent of the British daily The Financial Times and former Reuters correspondent in Cuba. They were accused of "using their profession in a disgraceful way to discredit Cuba (...) collaborating with a section of the US Information Agency" and of willingly being the main propaganda mouthpiece abroad of the dissidents.
These stepped-up attacks were accompanied by more visible surveillance and clear ostracism. "First we found police apparently on guard in front of where we lived," said Corinne Cumerlato, the La Croix correspondent and Rousseau’s wife. "There had always been one because we were near the Libyan embassy, but now there were three walking up and down. After the Cuban press attacked us by name, people we used to socialise with ignored us and colleagues and diplomats would say ’oh, so you’re still here!’ Cuba officials would make fun of us."
Paranoia grew and one day the brakes suspiciously failed twice on a fairly new Peugeot car Rousseau had. The couple finally left in July 1999 after Rousseau got another job in France. A few days before he left, the head of the CPI told a French diplomat that the journalist had become "an undesirable."
The English-speaking journalists cited here have been able to return to Cuba as tourists, but Rosenthal was later refused entry at Havana airport (even though he had the same tourist visa they had) with French writer Jean-François Fogel, six months after publication in June 1993 of their book "Fin de siècle à La Havane, les secrets du pouvoir cubain" (Twilight in Havana, the secrets of the Cuban regime). They had returned to the island once before the book was published. "I later learned that Castro personally ordered us to be kept out after the book appeared, because he reportedly saw me as a traitor."
The Castro’s regime’s control of information is nothing new. It dates right from the start of the Cuban Revolution. Jean Huteau, AFP’s first-ever resident correspondent, who opened the agency’s Havana bureau in July 1960, describes today, with the same indignation he had at the time, how his "cables" (stories) were altered in transmission, which in those days was quite rare around the world. In Stalinist Russia, outgoing stories were blue-pencilled. Was Castro following suit?
In the early 1960s, telex messages from Cuba were sent by the American firm Western Union, which was soon nationalised by the new regime. With no direct lines, telexes to Paris were sent from Havana to New York and then sent on.
Huteau recalls that "four or five months after the failure of the Bay of Pigs rebel invasion in April 1961, the regime said it would stage a giant demonstration of a million people in the Plaza de la Revolución, even though the square could hold only 400,000 at most. I wrote there were about 200,000 there. That evening, a Mexican radio station I could still pick up in Havana reported that "according to AFP, there were about a million demonstrators." I called our New York office and asked them to read me the cable they had received from me. Under my by-line, the figure was given as one million.
"Then I noticed the Cubans at the Western Union office were secretly changing other things in my stories before sending them to New York. When I wrote "the anti-Castro invaders of the Bay of Pigs," it would get changed to "the mercenaries" of the Bay of Pigs."
Huteau tried to sort out the situation "with the help of a friend of a friend" of one of the Western Union woman teletype operators, "who admitted to me there were censors there and that my cables were read by the only person who knew French, a woman teacher who didn’t work full-time and came by only when she could.
"This explained all the delays between the time I sent a story and when Paris got it and put it out on the wire. When the teacher-censor wasn’t there, my copy wouldn’t be sent. Sometimes there were gaps of between six and 10 hours. Paris said I was being beaten on stories by the other agencies and I thought it was due to technical problems. I understood everything after talking to the operator, who I knew might lose her job if I involved her in any complaint. What to do? I protested about the delays to the foreign ministry press department, where I had the following exchange:
What do you mean? You know there’s no censorship here.
But I know there is.
How do you know that?
Somebody told me.
Bring them here and if it’s true we’ll do something about it.
Huteau was anxious not to expose his source. "So I decided to send all the cables in Spanish from now on. There was no censor to go out and find for those and there would be no more delays. After a month, I sent to head office in Paris, by diplomatic bag, copies of all the stories I’d filed over the previous four weeks. They compared them word for word with the version they’d received from Western Union, assembled the results into a makeshift book and sent it to me.
"The censorship had continued. For example, Blas Roca, secretary of the old Cuban Communist Party and father of dissident Vladimiro Roca, had made a speech saying in effect that ’an effort needs to be made because this revolution is going so fast that people’s minds can’t keep up with it.’ This became ’People’s minds are going even faster than the revolution." It meant nothing any more. 2,000 tonnes of coffee produced would be changed to 25,000 tonnes. To the phrase "Bay of Pigs mercenaries," they’d add "in the pay of the CIA." It was all like that. I was furious. But also astonished that my colleagues could think for a minute I’d written stuff like that."
Huteau then decided to got right to the top and complain to Castro himself, who at the time was his own spokesman. "Castro’s first press conference, held more than a year after I arrived, was called to announce an agreement with the Americans about an exchange of prisoners for US tractors after the Bay of Pigs. About 20 high-level visiting journalists turned up and Castro was in great form and answered all the questions. I and my colleague from Reuters, whose cables had also been altered, asked: ’Comandante, when can we expect press censorship to end?’
"He looked at us intently. ’There’s no censorship,’ he said. ’Yes there is, I’ve got proof.’ I replied. ’OK, send it to me and if it’s going on, I’ll have it stopped,’ he said. Soon afterwards I got an answer through the foreign ministry, which said in effect that ’yes, corrections have been made and we apologise. But the telex operators are revolutionaries who are outraged at what the capitalist press is writing and they alter it. You have to understand them."
To send out his scoops, including the arrival 30 kms from Havana of supposed "agricultural engineers" who were in fact Soviet soldiers come to set up rocket bases, Huteau from then on used human carrier-pigeons - travellers, often diplomats, who would take out and then post or deliver his stories to the AFP New York office. Minrex later issued new press cards that were valid only for Havana. If you wanted to go outside the city, you had to have special permission.
Prior instructions and crisis management
News agencies, like other media outlets, usually give few instructions to correspondents before going to Havana. They recommend, as they would before going to any other place, that they work as best they can, respecting the rules of the profession and the extra rigour required of all agency journalists, sometimes stressing the need to be careful. Above all, since agency journalists are more vulnerable than other media in Cuba, they urge them to avoid "provocations" that might lead to quick expulsion.
Most of the journalists interviewed said they arrived in Cuba determined to operate there as they would anywhere else, without censoring themselves and working openly despite the police surveillance they all knew they were subject to. But the moment often arrived when, as Sanclemente puts it, it gets hard to keep your head amid all the critical remarks, odd visits, clear warnings and press conferences with foreign journalists that are broadcast on state TV.
The atmosphere becomes unbearable when the regime’s attacks increase to the point that you’re publicly named. Rousseau says such pressure confronts the foreign journalist "with two choices, neither of them really satisfactory. Either he pipes down and doesn’t behave any more as a journalist should, opening him to criticism from his editors, or else he tries to continue working normally and everything he writes will be attacked by the authorities as insulting, twisted and aggressive."
Rousseau regrets the lack of proper "crisis management" in the media when the situation becomes difficult - involving a review of past experiences, psychological support and firm backing from editors - though this is done to some extent by the English-speaking media.
Rosenthal sees the latitude foreign journalists have in Cuba as "like a football pitch whose size is always changing. Sometimes it shrinks and sometimes it expands. So you have to listen carefully to understand what the tricky subjects of the moment are. I’ve written some things about sensitive topics when I’ve witnessed events with my own eyes or when I feel very sure of the facts.
"During the first Gulf War, I spotted an Iraqi oil tanker moored 200 metres off the coast near Havana. I took pictures of it and wrote that an Iraqi tanker was lying off Cuba, when that was supposed to be forbidden. Cuban officials swore it wasn’t true. So I showed them my photos. If you can prove what you’ve written about, they’ll take it on the chin and won’t go further, even though they’ll scold you for not having a "friendly attitude."
Rousseau and Cumerlato beg to differ. "Encouraging journalists to try and be clever and especially letting them think they have to ’guess’ what the boundaries are each day is going to ’condition’ them to anticipating the regime’s wishes and so give a freer hand to those in power," they say. "We deliberately chose not to adapt when the regime tightened the screws. You can criticise that approach because it was the source of our problems. But we maintain that if that attitude was taken by more of the resident foreign journalists, it could be better sustained in general."
Isn’t holding back a story at a tricky moment self-censorship? some journalists ask. A European correspondent based in another Latin American country who often has to report from Cuba says "all journalists censor themselves in Cuba," whether or not they admit it or whether they live there or just visit and are thus blackmailed about getting an entry visa. "Through this visa blackmail and the pressure exerted on foreign journalists, the regime manages to partly hide the extent of the repression in the country."
Whether they were expelled, permanently or temporarily stripped of visas, allowed back into the country or ended their posting at the normal time, all the journalists spoken to stressed one point. That what they experienced in Cuba, risking at worst expulsion, pales before what ordinary Cubans have had to put up with every day for more than 40 years, effectively gagged, living in fear and in danger of losing their job or being thrown in prison.
(1) The Agence France-Presse former correspondents in Havana agreed to be quoted by name, as did the French newspaper reporters and the TVE correspondent, but most of the English and Spanish-speaking journalists insisted their names not be used. One European journalist did not want to say anything at all because of a personal relationship with a Cuban official. We did not interview foreign journalists currently working in Cuba, to avoid making their situation difficult.
AFP - 24 September 1986
(Translation Reporters Without Borders ©)
Two members of Cuban Committee for Human Rights arrested
By Noël Lorthiois
Havana, September 24 (AFP) - Two members of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights were arrested "several days" before dissident Ricardo Bofill Pages took refuge in the French embassy in Havana on August 27, the Committee’s vice-president, Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, said today.
Cuban officials confirmed the arrests but said they were "not human rights people" and that their detention, which was unexplained, was not related to human rights. "They were local terrorists undermining the government," a government spokesman said.
Sanchez, 46, who spoke to journalists from AFP and Reuters, said the two arrested - the Committee’s "legal adviser", Domingo Jorge Delgado Castro, and Jose Luis Alvaro - were being held in Havana’s Combinado del Este prison.
He said he was a founder member of the Committee and had already spent six years in prison. He was released last December 29.
The Committee’s offices were raided on August 28, the day after Bofill, the Committee’s president, fled to the French embassy, he said, and police had seized 950 copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a duplicating machine, ink, a stock of paper and two boxes of the Committee’s archives. Cuban officials refused immediate comment on the confiscations.
Sanchez said the Committee said there were about 1,500 political prisoners in Cuba. If those being held for conscientious objection, religious reasons or for refusing to do military service in Angola were included as well, the figure would rise to 15,000, he said.
Cuban Church sources told AFP there were 78 "long-term" political prisoners (those jailed since before 1976) but said they could not be sure who were "political" detainees or not after that date.
The Cuban Church, working with US Catholic officials and various international organisations, was behind the release and departure for the US on September 15 of 68 political prisoners and 43 of their relatives.
Sanchez put at around 100,000 (one per cent of the population) the total number of people in prison in Cuba, either political or common law, and said there were between 120 and 130 prisons or labour camps throughout the country. Cuban officials had no immediate comment on these figures.
Sanchez said the Committee wanted to operate openly, but the government had several times refused to register it as a legal organisation.
"We aren’t doing anything illegal, we aren’t breaking Cuban laws, much less international ones, and were aren’t plotting against the government," he said. "Our Committee wants human rights to be more and more respected, by the Cuban government and by others, such as those of South Africa, Chile and Paraguay."
AFP - 25 September 1986
(Translation Reporters Without Borders ©)
Agence France-Presse protests against expulsion of its correspondent in Cuba
Paris, September 25 (AFP) - Agence France-Presse strongly protested today against the expulsion of its correspondent in Cuba, Noël Lorthiois, as "completely arbitrary and unjustified."
AFP managing director Henri Pigeat, in a message to Cuban foreign minister Isidoro Malmierca Peoli, said the expulsion, decided on a few hours earlier, was "a flagrant violation of the most basic principles of the freedom to inform the public."
The news agency sent another message to the director of the International Press Institute, Peter Galliner, drawing his attention to the expulsion.
Lorthiois, 37, who has been bureau chief in Havana since October 1985, when he replaced André Birukoff, himself expelled in June that year, was deported along with Reuters bureau chief Robert Powell, after being summoned late at night to the foreign ministry where an official read a statement accusing them of writing "lies and false news and campaigning against Cuba."
Lorthiois and Powell had sent stories yesterday quoting former political prisoner Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who said he was vice-president of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, which the government does not legally recognise. He said two members of the Committee had been arrested a few days before dissident Ricardo Bofill Pages took refuge in the French embassy.
Cuban officials had confirmed the arrests but said they were not connected with human rights.
Associates of Sanchez Santa Cruz said in Havana today he had been arrested a few hours after the journalists were expelled. His wife, Margarita de Sanchez, who lives in Miami, confirmed his arrest and that of two other members of the Committee.
AFP - 14 January 1997
(Translation Reporters Without Borders ©)
Cuban hens fail to meet 1996 egg production quota
By Denis Rousseau
Havana, January 14 (AFP) - Cuba’s hens, which have suffered from the food shortages and stress of the country’s "Special Economic Period," did not meet egg production targets last year, according the official Cuban News Agency (AIN).
The poultry industry, which it said was "one of the best organised and managed sectors of agriculture," was not been able to get the required special feed, whose components were imported until the early 1990s from the European communist bloc countries that subsidised Cuba’s economy.
The problem, explained by the agency yesterday, is that a shipload of chicken-feed costs between 4 and 5 million dollars, an enormous sum for the Cuban economy. But "if the birds are given other feed, they lose weight and shed feathers and so have less energy to lay eggs," AIN said.
As a result, egg production was one of the few farm sectors that did not increase output last year.
Before the Special Economic Period (a time of shortages after the collapse of the communist bloc), Cuba had 11 million laying hens (about one for every Cuban) that produced more than 2.7 billion eggs a year. Output has now halved and the hens cannot even rely on being fed regularly, the agency reported.
Havana’s two million inhabitants have been especially hit by the serious drop in egg production and the situation has been critical since the last quarter of last year.
Early last November, more than half the capital’s population were still waiting for their ration of seven eggs for the previous month (the ration has since been cut to six). At the time, Havana had a daily shortfall of between 3 and 4 million eggs a day, with 800,000 collected each day. To solve the crisis, the agency said, two-thirds of the eggs were not put on the market so as to give the hen population a chance to regenerate.
But Cubans see the answer in a "new hen" bred from a cross between Western birds and local varieties and more than 33,000 of these semi "country hens" have been distributed to Havana residents, the weekly paper Tribuna de la Habana said on Sunday.
The new hens do not require special feed and can get essential minerals and vitamins from domestic food waste and back gardens, Dr Manuel Pampin, deputy head of the Institute of Poultry Research told the weekly.
The hens seem to be up to scratch since a survey in a pilot area where 3,000 hens were distributed reported that "only 5 per cent of them died and a satisfactory level of egg production was achieved."
Thousands of Havana residents have private henhouses in their backyards and even on their verandahs and apartment balconies, giving the Havana night a rustic air, with the squawking of the birds upset by the city’s bright lights.
Trabajadores - 22 March 1999
(Translation Reporters Without Borders ©)
What to they want? Carte blanche to pursue their provocations?
By Lázaro Barredo Medina
Seeking an explanation for the activities of the past few days of the AFP correspondent in Havana, Denis Rousseau - his plotting with colleagues and his trying to stir things up in the diplomatic corps - a friend told me Rousseau’s problem was that the "fourth power" doctrine has gone to his head (although in reality he is just a lowly agent) and this has led him into the mistaken belief that he will get away with intimidation unpunished.
Albeit to a lesser extent, this may also be the reason he has found a companion in his fellow foreign correspondent Pascal Fletcher, who uses the Reuters news agency.
As a journalist, I can only react with indignation to the lies and calumnies that these two individuals are publishing in order to denigrate Cuba in the eyes of the world, and I feel fully entitled to denounce this in the column I usually write.
Because of the Granma editorial mentioning certain agencies and their support for so-called dissidents and prisoners of conscience, and the article I wrote two Mondays ago denouncing what I called "A slanderous use of the profession," these persons considered themselves "victims" of the "official reaction," and held meetings to plan "strategy" and requested interviews with ambassadors.
What to they expect? Carte blanche to pursue their provocations? For us to fold our arms like spectators as they act out that story by María Ramos about the feline who throws a stone and then feigns innocence?
It’s not my intention to criticise for the sake of criticising in this article, and it’s not just a difference of views between journalists.
On the contrary, this is about a serious problem of ethics.
In the dispatches they sent to the foreign press in the course of months and months, there are many examples that convincingly prove that value judgments dominate in their reporting and their desire to "create news" takes no account of what should be their concern, namely to reflect reality in the content of what they are sending.
I grant that the foreign press is extremely important. Until the 1980s, AFP’s services went to 147 countries in four languages, while Reuters sent its dispatches in six languages to a total of 153 countries.
For this reason, the harm these two correspondents may be doing not only to Cuba but also to the credibility of their own news agencies is regrettable.
Frankly, when you read all the distortions and political prejudices spread by these gentlemen to stoke up the anti-Cuban campaign, you sometimes wonder if they are really working for the news agencies they represent or if they rendering some service to the United States Information Agency (USIA).
It is no secret in press circles in Havana that these two correspondents - and this is not a criticism - have extremely close contacts with US Interests Section officials (SINA), possibly closer contact that with their own embassies. And this influence is reflected in the fact that hundreds of Reuters and AFP dispatches have deliberately supported the key element of the international propaganda about the so-called dissidents, taking the same line as the US propaganda.
I also don’t criticise the fact that they might want to serve Yankee interests or perhaps become professional analysts used by SINA.
What’s hard to swallow is the pose they adopt of being highly talented journalists when their dispatches are characterized by a clear sensationalist intent, distortion, simplification and concealment of the truth.
Let’s look at two agency dispatches as an example of what I am saying:
By Pascal Fletcher
Havana, Mar 7 (Reuters). - The Cuban state communication media Sunday maintained their campaign of defamation against four dissident leaders who are awaiting sentencing, describing them as political puppets controlled by the United States.
Campaign of defamation? Isn’t this term a value judgment, an impassioned defence? Doesn’t it express an aggressive position and denigrate the Cuban press, suggesting that it is involved in a "witch-hunt"?
Cuban regime confirms rejection of any form of opposition
By Denis Rousseau
Havana, Mar 15 (AFP). - The Cuban regime Monday confirmed its rejection of any form of opposition by sentencing the island’s four most famous dissidents to several years in prison and by enacting a new law that threatens dissidents and "independent journalists" with harsh sentences.
With these repressive measures, the Cuban regime put an abrupt end to the relative tolerance for dissidents that followed Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, and without a doubt jeopardised the spectacular diplomatic successes obtained after the pope’s visit. (...)
The US government and anti-Castro exile groups in Miami (Florida) also condemned the "unjust sentences" imposed on the four dissidents. (...)
At the same time as the verdicts were issued, new repressive legislation - called the "gag law" by various human rights and press freedom organisations - took effect on being published Monday in the official gazette.
The "Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and the Economy" provides for sentences of up to 20 years in prison, stiff fines and the confiscation of property for those whose activities are deemed to favour US policies against Cuba.
No comment is needed on this dispatch.
I return again to the ethical issues at the core of this matter. Because of the requirement to compete, I know many foreign correspondents who have had problems with their head offices and have received complaints, and this is only to be expected when two of the world’s leading news agencies are saying such outrageous things.
I have spoken to many people familiar with the news media in Cuba and abroad and with many fellow journalists and almost all agree - with different nuances, of course - that Denis Rousseau clearly wants to create a problem.
I have to say that, to some extent, the Cuban authorities are to blame, because this correspondent has been escalating his disrespectful approach defiantly without receiving any warning, as is customary around the world. And he apparently has believed the myth of his infallibility. His myth, not ours.