‘Independent journalists in Cuba are dying out and those who are left are tied up’: 5 questions for Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa

A year after arriving in Spain to live in exile, Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa feels that his immediate professional future lies in the long-form literary crónica. This is the Latin American genre he chose to tell his country’s complexities in his first book, "La Isla Oculta" [The hidden island], which was published in Spanish in January of this year. And this is also the genre in which he plans to approach his next project, "Aterrizar en el Mundo [Landing in the world]." He will write this book as part of the Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Fellowship — awarded by the Gabo Foundation, the Hay Festival and The Michael Jacobs Foundation for Travel Writing — of which he is the 2023 winner.

Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa

Although he has distanced himself from journalism, Jimenez Enoa, one of the founders of El Estornudo, the first digital magazine of narrative journalism in Cuba, continues to write about the reality of his country and the world through his opinion columns. He has been writing them since before leaving Cuba for The Washington Post and he now publishes in European media, such as Revista 5W, from Barcelona, and Der Spiegel, from Germany.

This past November, the journalist stirred the international journalism community with an emotional speech when he received the 2022 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which he dedicated to Cuban journalists who are in prison or who face harassment by Cuban authorities for practicing their profession.

In conversation with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), Jiménez Enoa once again asked his colleagues in Latin America not to forget their colleagues who are still on the island, fighting against all odds, to continue doing independent journalism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Why did you choose the chronicle as a genre to talk about Cuba in your book, "La Isla Oculta" [The hidden island]?

Abraham Jiménez Enoa. Because I believe it’s the ideal genre to deal with complexity. I believe that the chronicle has the measure, the pause, the ability to go deep into the stories, to navigate through the tunnels of stories and from there to touch, investigate, comment and also rehearse. I think it is the ideal genre to speak about Cuba.

A curious thing happens: It is true that right now the great landmarks of chronicle journalism — at least those most well known within Latin America — are Latin Americans themselves. But, in reality, the great landmarks, at least the ones I read, are North Americans; those in the school of Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Jon Lee Anderson... Of course, obviously, we also have those in the mold of [Latin Americans] Rodolfo Walsh, Martín Caparrós, Leila Guerriero, who are more contemporary. But in the United States, there is a long tradition of that type of journalism.

But it’s [also] true that in Latin America there is much more room [for the chronicle] than here, in Spain. I’ve been here for a year now [and] it’s true that I don’t find this type of journalism in the Spanish press, it’s few and far between. There are a couple of news outlets, and that’s saying a lot, that are dedicated to this type of journalism, and the rest do more of a day-to-day journalism. Every once in a while there’s a piece with the color, a piece with the flavor of a chronicle, but they’re still very short chronicles, more of the moment, more topical. There’s no space to linger, to investigate, to spend time with a source, [to spend time] in the places... You find that in very few spaces here.

2. In your thank-you speech at the CPJ awards, you dedicated your award to the journalists who struggle to continue doing independent journalism in Cuba, where according to the regime it is illegal to do so. How is independent journalism still alive?

It’s alive precisely because there are people — in this case journalists — who believe there’s no option but the truth, to go after it and tell it. And something that’s extremely sad is that these people are becoming more and more rare in Cuba. I’m part of a professional generation that was born with the Internet in Cuba and most of my colleagues are outside, as I am. In fact, I was one of the last ones to leave and today there are very few left. That's why I dedicated this award to the few who remain inside. Those few who remain inside are completely tied-up.

How does it survive? It’s very difficult. I wish I had a strategy at hand to say: "How to survive a totalitarian regime in seven steps." But I don't. I think you have to take care of yourself, you have to take care of the information, you have to take care of your sources. You have to live practically as if you were a terrorist because that’s the way the State treats you. Beyond that, I wouldn’t know what to say. You have to make your way by pure intuition and obviously taking care of your body, however you can, and little by little, that will cue you in.

Each case is different. Even inside Cuba each journalist had his own strategies, his own ways, because treatment was different towards each one. In short, the government is biting like that, it repressed some more, some less. With those who had more voice, [the government] was more condescending, or sometimes it was even harder. So you have to test the waters and play with what that repression gives back to you.

3. According to the judges’ report of the Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant of the Gabo Foundation, in your project for that program you plan to narrate your own journey out of Cuba. How do you plan to approach that personal journey through the journalistic chronicle?

In fact, I’ve already written down some things. It’s really going to be about my first year outside Cuba, which in addition to arriving in Barcelona, I was also able to go to Madrid, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, Washington, Mexico, and Brazil for work. I'm going to revisit those places looking for new characters, to clarify details and so on.

Cover of the book "La Isla Oculta", by Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa

"La Isla Oculta", Jiménez Enoa's first book, is a collection of chronicles about Cuba. (Photo: Libros del K.O.)

It’s a chronicle that’s going to be in the present, with an unknown character — obviously, it’s me —, and so the reader begins to wonder why this character is dazzled by traffic lights, why he rides a subway for the first time, why he has never had a credit card in hand, why he is anxious about entering markets and stores. He wonders why he doesn't know anything about capitalism... And all this present going forward is also going backwards. There will be flashbacks to Cuba all along, in order to understand why that person came to this point.

I tell a bit of what life in Cuba is like, what life was like during my childhood, my youth. How I became a journalist, what it’s like to be a journalist in Cuba, how I left Cuba, why I left Cuba, in which manner...

So it is a journey forward and a journey backward as well. It’s a journey towards capitalism by someone who doesn’t know anything about it. But it’s also a journey from the Cuban dictatorship, towards other dictatorships: The dictatorship of consumption, the dictatorship of racism, of xenophobia, of the West, in some way.

4. What message would you give colleagues in Latin America who are suffering repression and aggression, different from what you experienced in Cuba, but which in the end also undermine freedom of the press?

I believe that, above all, without ceasing to seek the truth, without ceasing to pursue the truth, without ceasing to monitor power, without ceasing to tell the stories that people do not want told, without ceasing to do journalism, we have to take care of our physical integrity and the integrity of our colleagues. We cannot continue to make martyrs of our profession. Unfortunately, life is like this now and I believe we have to protect ourselves. And, in the face of threats, we have to take all measures, we have to take care of ourselves, we have to be proactive. And I believe that this profession deserves courage, it deserves a lot of strength, but it also deserves a lot of caution and we cannot continue to suffer the death of colleagues. If there’s one thing I ask of you, it’s to take care of yourselves and to watch over your wellbeing.

5. How can we Latin American journalists help in the struggle of Cuban journalists, in their effort to continue doing independent journalism?

I believe the first thing you can do is to look more towards Cuba. Since Cuba is a regime that has been in place for almost 65 years, it’s a given that it’s not going to change things. People forget about incidents of abuse. So, I’d ask them to see that these are their colleagues, that they pay attention to what is happening there, that they at least give them a voice, that they at least care enough to take a look, to support, to use a loudspeaker to talk about what is happening in Cuba.

It’s true that our region is engulfed in flames right now. There are places where it’s almost impossible to do journalism. But there are also others where the same thing has been happening for a long time with other characteristics. If there’s a way to give them a helping hand, it’s to pay attention to them and not abandon them.

Banner photo: Cubanmedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons