Freedom of the press in cuba: state criminalizes journalism

In Cuba, a subpoena from authorities is a repressive act. Evading the pressure is difficult, as our author knows from his own experience.

Street scene in the Cuban city of Trinidad Photo: Georgiy Rozov/imago images

On February 11, I was handed a notice at my front door from the Cuban Interior Ministry’s Foreigners and Immigration Department. A uniformed official of about 35 years old, corpulent and with a child’s face, handed me a piece of paper informing me to present myself at the office of the authority at 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 13. According to the signed and sealed notice, I was threatened with a penalty under Section 5/88 of the Penal Code if I did not appear.

With the note in my hand, I went back into the house and discreetly showed it to my wife. My parents, with whom we live, are members of the Communist Party. They know that I make a living from filmmaking and writing, but they have no idea that the political police might be interested in me. My father, 84, is healthy; my mother, 74 – whom he cared for – suffered from advanced dementia and perceived little of the world that surrounded her. A few days ago, she passed away.

Remembering that these subpoenas are usually flawed, I read them again. I found the error: it had not been issued and signed by the proper authority. The same paragraph cited on the note also states that a subpoena can be declared invalid if it was not issued by an investigating judge, prosecutor, or court. This subpoena here was signed by a captain of the Migration Department. It also did not say what the reason for the subpoena was.

A lawyer who advises me in such cases from exile explained to me that I must declare an irregular summons invalid immediately upon receipt. I hurried back to the front door – but the officer had already left.

The subpoena Photo: private

The Cuban state criminalizes independent journalism through the "Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy." The purpose of which is to "establish and sanction acts that serve to support, enable or collaborate with the objectives of the Helms-Burton Law, the blockade and the economic war against the socialist state and the independence of Cuba." This makes a delinquent anyone who "collaborates in any way with radio or television stations, magazines or foreign media."

But at the same time, the independent media exist, and some, like El Estornudo, were created without any financial help, simply out of vocation and rebellion of those who wanted to do it. These independent Cuban media are not allowed to do any business within the country. Thus, they are forced to look abroad for financial backers, which the Cuban state, in turn, can denounce as foreign interference at will. The issue is the content that is published outside the control and censorship of the state authorities.

The Cuban state persecutes independent journalists or keeps them on an unobtrusive leash, and the discomfort that this causes is in turn criticized by, let’s say, the "empire," and so oil continues to be poured on the fire.

So I assumed that it was not the immigration authorities who summoned me at all. Not only because I knew the stories of arrests, interrogations and threats against journalists from other media, which can be read about every week in the digital media. But also because two friends had been ordered to the exact same address as me to be interrogated by state security officials.

Three months earlier, on November 14, 2019, I had received a summons from the migration office, and I had not gone there. On it there was only the address of this office. I didn’t go, on the one hand, because this summons was also not according to the rules, but also because on that day my second son was born and I was the only one who could stand by my wife. But above all, because of the psychological pressure that such conversations leave behind.

In July 2019, I had followed an equally irregular subpoena to a police station in the city. I had been informed by telephone without following the protocol already mentioned. The interrogation began with the two officials telling me that it was an informal conversation. Six hours later, they demanded that I sign two official letters. One stated that I refused to cooperate. In the other, that my activity was attacking the fatherland. I did not sign either of them.

After this summons, I found myself in a permanent state of paranoia towards my friends and relatives. Although I do not belong to any political group, I accused myself of cowardice because of the self-censorship to which I subjected myself. I was finally accepting circumstances in which I was denying my identity. Becoming a stranger to myself frightened me. They made me not write what I wanted and how I wanted.

On the way to the office of the migration authority, I tried not to formulate any thoughts or arguments. It is recommended not to say anything, you do not have to convince anyone. But I did not manage to calm down, on the contrary, I was overcome by an abstract, dark oppressiveness. When I opened the barred door to the building, an old burghers’ residence built before the revolution, my hands shook. I suspected that entering visibly nervous would make me even more suspicious. I had to answer in monosyllables, avoid getting my companeros in trouble. I wanted to be on my toes.

At the reception desk, there was a uniformed man who was far too tall and wide for the office. Other empty offices dotted the rest of the hall in a somehow symmetrical arrangement. The man disappeared with my ID and came back with the same officer who had given me the notification at home. He asked me if I had my cell phone with me. I answered in the negative.

The officer led me into an office and explained that they had issued me a random, random summons. My frequent travels had caught his attention. He wanted to know why I had traveled and what the events I had attended were about. He mentioned these trips as if they were about a vaccination against the political virus that one can catch on these trips.

I suggested that he request information about these workshops from the State Security, who already knew all about it. I tried to make it clear that I had nothing to do with political activism, and he asked me, frowning, why I was so insistent on distinguishing myself from it. He also wanted to know, off the record so to speak, if I wore the thick full beard to look like one of the martyrs of the revolution. I said no, I only left the beard because I was too lazy to shave. And that my relationship with Fidel the Bearded was complicated, that part of me felt for Fidel out of respect for my parents, but that I couldn’t identify with his legacy at all.

Big differences

The conversation lasted 20 minutes. My demeanor was not cool and tough, as my friends and I would have liked. I couldn’t respond with elegant one-syllable sentences. I don’t know if I talked too much, although I actually believe that saying any detail or even nothing at all can be used against you, given the laws in force in Cuba that suppress freedom of expression.

In view of the mistakes in the July interrogation, I explained my motivations. I said that I personally liked the letter as a migration officer personally likes being a migration officer. I was not exact. There is a big difference between me, an official journalist and a migration official: the person I want to be, who has found a small margin in the independent media, does not follow orders.

Translated from the Spanish by Bernd Pickert

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