Unfit to Print

How the Arab Spring made life even harder for foreign journalists in Cuba.


HAVANA — The bartender winked at the reporter before saying, almost in a whisper, "You’re not going to write that I told you this." And the journalist, thinking himself wise, limited himself to citing the date on which he’d talked to an economics graduate who prepared daiquiris in a Varadero hotel.

Weeks later, that same foreign correspondent learned that the bartender had been fired, suspected of collaborating with "the enemy." Meanwhile, his colleagues who continue mixing cocktails learned a permanent lesson: To give an opinion is to give yourself away. The next time some curious guy starts asking questions, they will tell him that everything’s fine, that the Revolution is advancing, unstoppable.

For Cuban authorities, any foreign journalist, particularly one from a developed capitalist country, is a potential adversary. This has always been the case, but since recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, the suspicions have intensified. A complicated structure of approvals and constraints tie the hands and feet of anyone with credentials trying to report from inside the country.

The International Press Center (CPI by its Spanish initials) is the agency charged with setting limits and giving correspondents a box on the ears when they cross the line. At stake is a visa to remain in Cuba, and even apparently trivial matters: the ability to import a new car, for instance, or to acquire a home air-conditioner.

The CPI is fickle and worries about almost everything. It will rebuke reporters for straying too far from the official position — or for coming too close to it. A few years ago a correspondent for a major international agency was called in for having included the phrase, "Cuba, the communist island," in a report. Annoyed, a CPI official, in a gesture reminiscent of the political police, rebuked the young journalist for choosing "an adjective with such a negative connotation" to describe the political system of the Caribbean country. The foreign correspondent left the interview even more confused, and only after several months and diligent effort did he manage to work his way back into favor.

The dilemma of foreign correspondents — popularly called "foreign collaborators" — is whether to make concessions in reporting in order to stay in the country, or to narrate the reality and face expulsion. The major international media want to be here when the long-awaited "zero day" arrives — the day the Castro regime finally makes its exit from history. For years, journalists have worked to keep their positions so they will be here to file their reports with two pages of photos, testimonies from emotional people, and reports of colored flags flapping all over the place.

But the elusive day has been postponed time and again. Meanwhile, the same news agencies that reported on the events of Tahrir Square or the fighting in Libya downplay the impacts of specific events in Cuba or simply keep quiet to preserve their permission to reside in the country. This gag is most dramatic among those foreign journalists with family on the island, whom they would have to leave or uproot if their accreditation were revoked. The grim officials of theCPI understand well the delicate strings of emotional blackmail and play them over and over again.

There are times, however, when these mechanisms of control and coercion fail or when the government itself wants to teach the foreign press a lesson by way of its more audacious members. The most recent case was that of Mauricio Vicent, a correspondent for the Spanish daily, El País, who lost his credentials to work in Cuba in September. The authorities asserted that after 20 years as an accredited journalist, Vicent was biased and transmitting a distorted image of Cuba’s reality.

This important reporter’s fall from favor is a direct signal to his colleagues. For the government, the issue of information control has become ever more strategic. Since the ouster of dictators during the Arab Spring, the authorities are aware that international public opinion was informed by the flow of dispatches that preceded the fall of those regimes.

Official analysts warn that reports critical of the Cuban situation could feed condemnation at the United Nations and even an armed foreign invasion. A few months ago an editorial in the newspaper Granma suggested foreign interests were making excuses to drop bombs on Havana as happened with Tripoli. On this topic of "information is treason," it is very difficult to maintain journalistic professionalism.

It is an unfortunate time for a media crackdown, for there is much to report at the moment: The opposition is more restless than ever, and not a week passes without some incident in which small groups of nonconformists organize peaceful protests. These events and the repressive acts that follow come to light publicly because every day there are more and more independent journalists and because the protagonists themselves have learned to report them using the most creative tricks imaginable to connect to social networks, especially Twitter.

The new avalanche of information coming from the hands of citizens has also pushed foreign correspondents to address certain topics they’ve avoided up until now, forcing them to choose between preserving their place while waiting for the great story of the new century, or reporting what is really happening and risking expulsion from the island. And if they choose the former, they risk being scooped by the information interlopers. Opening the world’s eyes to the real Cuba, after all, no longer requires a wire service dispatch; it can be done with a cell phone.

<p> Yoani Sánchez is the Havana-based author of the blog Generation Y and the recently published book Havana Real. This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter. </p>