SPECIAL REPORT: New Cuban journalism emerges on the internet, beyond the official and opposition media

By Daniel Wizenberg*

Digital journalism has arrived in Cuba, in the Cuban way.

Rodolfo Romero is 27 years-old. He received money from the government to finance a news site. It was going to be called Cuba accuses (Cuba acusa) but he did not like the belligerent tone of the name, so he decided to call it Cuba denounces (Cuba denuncia) only to discover that was the name of a site created by exiled Cuban dissidents. Therefore, Romero edits the site Pensar en Cuba (Thinking of Cuba) along with a team that depends on the Ministry of Culture. Through it, the various policies of the United States concerning Cuba in the last 50 years are denounced.

Working for official media, Rodolfo’s team has seven computers with ADSL connection (a kind of broadband connection), unusual in a country where connectivity is difficult to come by. With a cutting edge mobile, that costs the equivalent of 20 minimum wages, it is possible to connect through different public Wi-fi points available in 65 squares around the country and at the door of international hotels, but for this you need to buy a card from the state company Nauta that currently costs 2 CUC (a little more than USD $2) and allows for just one hour of interrupted connection, to be used as the consumer prefers.

In September 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the country was willing to invest in telecommunications. President Barack Obama reiterated that sentiment during his visit to the island six months later in March 2016.

The North Americans detected something increasingly evident: there is a demand for change in the media in Cuba, in terms of infrastructure and content.

Only five percent of households have an internet connection and it is estimated that only 27 percent of the population have access to the internet by using public WiFi on their mobile phones. Information flows through the transfer of material from hand to hand. DVDs, flash drives and links through internal chat (WhatsApp is prohibited) circulate at the speed of light.

“In Cuba, there is a sui generis reality, where the disconnection to the network of networks is not synonymous with cultural and informational isolation,” reported El Estornudo, a new media positioned as independent, citing colleagues from site Cachivache.

“In any cafe or car rental, the successes from the Billboard charts resound at all hours, and just five days after the release of the fourth season of House of Cards, in high definition, the show is already traveling from USB to USB throughout La Habana,” expanded Cachivache.

This capillary penetration of content despite difficulties made an impression on the culture of new generations that, unlike their parents’ generations, could learn and indeed consume much more than what the Revolution dictates.

Journalistic geography

The map of Cuban media is comprised of three types of outlets: state – hundreds of outlets controlled by the Communist Party; non-state – alternative media on the internet that are divided between opponents of the system (those that want the end of socialism) and non-opposition (those that criticize the leadership but are relatively in favor of socialism); and lastly, foreign media – the international “mainstream,” on one side, and media financed by Cubans abroad, on the other.

State media are under the supervision of the Department of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies.

Freedom of speech and of the press must be exercised in accordance with the aims of the socialist society and none of the freedoms granted to citizens can be exercised against what is established in the Constitution and the laws, “neither against the existence and objectives of the socialist State, nor against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism.” This is according to Article 53 of the Constitution, that also establishes “the press, radio, television, cinema and other mass media are state or social property, and cannot be, in any case, private property.”

The daily newspaper Granma, the sites Cuba Debate and Juventud Rebelde, the television signal Televisión Cubana and the radio stations Radio RebeldeRadio Reloj (which tells time by the minute while, in also reading the news) and Radio Taíno, are the mass media.

Non-state, opposition media include 14ymedioMartí Noticias and Damas de Blanco, while “non-opposition” media are Periodismo de BarrioEl Estornudo and Cachivache.

As for the foreign media, on the one hand are the correspondents of ReutersRussia TodayThe Associated Press (AP), Agencia EFEAgence France-Presse (AFP) and dozens of other international mainstream media.

In 2007, the International Press Center (CPI), the body in charge of relations with the foreign press, expelled correspondents from the Mexican newspaper El UniversalCésar González-Calero; from the Chicago Tribune, Gary Marx; and from the BBC, Stephen Gibbs, for their works that were “negative for the Revolution.” Such measures periodically were taken until 2014, the year in which they subsided.

On the other hand, are media financed by Cuban emigrants, of which OnCuba is the most important, followed by CubaNet.

Crisis of monopoly

“Here they told us for a long time that if we conceded the Yankees would eat us, but no, we have to be able to say whatever we want without that meaning that the Yankees eat us, and I see that the Yankees eat us equally and blame us reporters,” said a journalist working at one of the four official TV channels where the minimum wage is $20.

She wants to defend the revolution but “not like that”, and she refers to the leaders as “dinosaurs.” She collaborates with other journalists of the new media, which have recently emerged on the internet, passing information that she cannot publish.

In another sense, Laura Becquer, 28, has worked for Granma for six years and "defends the newspaper’s efforts to keep up with the digital age,” according to Univision.

As Univision paraphrased her, “the state media are trying to seduce the audience with stories that do not ignore the failures of the system, like a recent story about price increases of some basic products such as tomatoes and yucca." Twelve million people live on the island, most consume this daily.

Granma is like the wolf, the whole world is afraid, but in the end, there are many young people trying to make journalism from within, with the technological limitations that we have,” she said. Her office, like that of Rodolfo Romero, is one of the places on the island with better internet access.

Competition between the official press and alternative media is felt in the air, it is a dispute over content and informational nuances. Today, it’s not audience or market that is at stake, but discourse. The map of Cuban media is reconfiguring in the heat of the crisis of “what to say” and “what to talk about.”

The thawing of the revolution reheated the discussion about framing. It is melting state control of information and polarization is being disabled.

Before, the alternative media were strictly opponents, they were “the media from Miami,” a simple counter discourse to break up the state. Granma said it “is humbug of the worms” and that was it, but the majority of the new alternative media does not come from Miami, but are promoted by young journalists who intend to democratize the Revolution. They are those who, out of enthusiasm, gave birth to the category of “non-opposition” media.

They asked an Argentine journalist for an article for Cuba Debate about the October 2015 presidential elections in his country in the Latin American political context. After sending it, there was a small correction: “The note is very good (Editor’s note: the article criticized who was elected president, the center-right Mauricio Macri) but Maduro is a friend…we took out this little part where you say that his political power is more complicated every day “ replied the editor.

There are prohibitions on one side (of approaches, sources, citations) and a gymnasium on the other: the editors trained the muscle of correction in the field of self-censorship, following the policy of “best not to talk about certain things.”

No official media has been allowed, for reasons no one explained, to write articles about North Korea. A journalistic culture that avoided angering the leadership was created.

But the new breed seems tired of this: “Now more than ever we have to be more creative and courageous, that many minds open, especially those that stayed in the 60s,” said a photographer who still works at an official digital site. He does not want to give his name, for fear of having something happen to him like it did to a journalist that, like him, worked in one of the State’s digital media. After making some comments and publishing things on Facebook that criticized the discourse of Raúl Castro, the journalist had his internet connection cut and was given twice the amount of work.

The editors and directors of the media of the Revolution have no authority to decide on anything mildly relevant.  They do not create the editorial policy or broadcast anything that has not been approved by the Communist Party.

During the 2015 International Human Rights Day, journalists from 14ymedio – a media outlet founded by Yoani Sánchez – were prohibited from reporting about a protest coordinated by Todos Marchamos, a group that periodically mobilizes against the Castro regime, and Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White), according to Amnesty International (AI). Damas de Blanco is a Cuban citizens’ movement that joins wives and other family members of Cuban prisoners generally considered political prisoners, but considered common prisoners by the Revolution.

AI said that according to a journalist working covertly in Havana with Damas de Blanco, agents of State Security services blocked the door of the building where the journalists work and said: “Today you are not going out.”

In 2014, Danilo Maldonado Machado, a graffiti artist known as “El Sexto,” planned a performance piece where he would release two live pigs that had been painted with the names of Rául and Fidel Castro. Before his vision was realized, he was accused of desacato and spent most of the next year in prison even though he was never formally charged or saw a judge, according to AI.

The new, non-opposition media said nothing about it. The opposition media say that remnants of traditional censorship remain in this position, “an omission of the idea that when the possibility of criticism is opened, it is open to any criticism, but it is a fetish of opening and not an effective reality,” according to a journalist close to Yoani Sánchez, editor of 14ymedio.

There is a democratizing impulse but it appears to be anchored in the expansion of “us” and is incomplete to the extent that it continues to exclude “them.” Despite that, the cracking of the state monopoly on information is evident. Even in the basement of the underground, or broadcasting from Miami, there were always media opposed to the Revolution. But media favorable to it that are critical of the Communist Party, saying that such a thing is good and that another is bad, are unprecedented in Cuba, where journalism had become accustomed to aggregation.

Media of the thaw

The new “non opposition” Cuban media have various things in common. Besides avoiding standing at the extremes, they tell the stories that the official press does not, and make denunciations, but also profiles and chronicles of daily life on the island. They are looking for a place between Miami and Revolution Square.

When, in December 2014, Obama and Castro formalized the thawing of Cold War-era relations between the two countries, none of the new “non opposition” media existed. They were all born in 2015.

One of the most emblematic examples is Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), whose writers are listed in official records as “unemployed.” A symbol that the revolutionary government has become more flexible over time – some decades ago they had been illegal, but now the rejection has turned into indifference, which at least enables it to exist.

The site’s founder, 27-year-old Elaine Díaz Rodriguez, is part of the Global Voices network that links citizen bloggers around the world. She was one of the first Cubans to receive a scholarship to study at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. After raising money and contacts, she returned to Cuba where she began to develop Periodismo de Barrio.

The project is funded through contributions from international agencies such as the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights and the Nieman Foundation, among others. They periodically publish “transparency reports” where they detail all expenses. Several collaborations are paid and the small team that works on the site daily does so full time. They write of contamination in the Delta del Quibú, but also about how fishermen spend hours on the high seas, or how a female judo athlete prepares for the Olympics.

El Estornudo (translated as The Sneeze) is another of the symbols that still stands. After seeing Kerry inaugurate the U.S. Embassy after five decades, it felt as though things were changing and that perhaps there was room to stop fighting the urge, like holding back a sneeze in a formal setting. And they sneezed, are sneezing and plan to continue sneezing.

There, no one receives a penny even though there are rumors in Cuban journalism that they are financed by the renowned journalist of the The New Yorker, John Lee Anderson, who has praised the portal on more than one occasion. A couple of foundations have approached them (one Spanish and another Danish) with interest of helping, but nothing has been done and they think that they will not do anything with either “of these two people,” as they call them.

Cubans living abroad have helped with the design of the webpage, the domain and “most of the technical issues.” They say that is the only cooperation they have received. And sometimes you have to stare at the sun in order to sneeze. All collaborators have to “tough it out” to write for official media in order to earn a living and to maintain El Estornudo, which they define as “home,” in the sense that when they sit down to write there, they relax and say what they want.

Abraham Jimenez, the director, divides his free time between the media he oversees and the consumption of sports. He has waited for summer 2016 for some time: “the Euro, the Olympics, the Copa America, the NBA finals. What more can we ask for?,” he wrote on Twitter.

Both Periodismo de Barrio and El Estornudo are concerned with representing the interests of the coming generations, but they also look to write well, tell good stories, create chronicles, explore the genre of reporting, join (and join Cuban journalism) with “serious journalism” and in the tradition of “New Journalism.”

Meanwhile, Cachivache (translated as Knickknacks) seeks to introduce something they believe does not exist in the journalistic context of the island: the culture of Cuban millenials (those born between 1980 and 2000), or as they call it, “the digital natives, but with USB.” They define them as children “of an education that prioritizes the safe over the new.”

They pride themselves on being the children of the “LAN Party,” gatherings where all young people meet to play in virtual networks (within the borders of the island). They believe there is a kind of nebula for the leadership of the Communist Party that is “this complicated love triangle of culture, technology and society.” They are called Cachivache for “the Cuban reality of today” and seek to not show what happens outside the island, but “how what is happening in the rest of the world is reflected in Cuba.”

The spirit here is that of a publication that goes where it should not – not the content, but the kind of themes – as it tries to discuss questions that many editors of state media could perceive as being too far from the Cuban reality, like television series, skating, Youtubers or video games. David, the director, is defined as a “workaholic.” Javier, an editor, is a lover of videogames. Ania, the designer, chooses instead to be defined more bluntly: “I am young in Cuba.” There are only five people on the team between editors, social media specialists and a designer. Ninety percent of the work is done by collaborators.

The rumors accuse them of being parastatal, of receiving money from Rene González, one of “the five heroes” (the famous Cuban spies that were prisoners in the United States until December 2014) close to the leadership of the Communist Party. Colleagues of the new media point out that Cachivache is frequently “reTweeted” by Cuba Debate and Juventud Rebelde. There is usually no criticism of the Party, but neither fervent defense as in the state media.

David, the director, clarifies that they are sponsored by Resumen Latinoamericano, an Argentine media outlet directed by Carlos Aznarez, a former member of the Argentine guerrilla group “Montoneros” that was active in the 1970s. He said that although they have independence in management of editorial and the team, they generally follow the editorial guidelines of their sponsor. “For this reason, we do not define ourselves as an independent media, we are a rare hybrid media.”

Regarding other new media, OnCuba also has a kind of “godfather.” OnCuba is officially a foreign media, but in practice, it is produced in Havana. Hugo Cancio, who migrated to the United States in 1980 at the age of 15, funds the portal. Since then, he has emerged as an unofficial ambassador of the business opportunities in Cuba, working in collaboration with the governments of both countries. He owns a Miami-based company called Fuego Enterprises, which finances the news site.

The site’s style follows the trend of other new media. Journalism of criticism, chronicles of daily life and cultural developments. The reports feature stories that take the reader to prison or into the everyday routines of farmers in Pinar del Río or glance into the life of singer Pablo Milanés. Unlike other media, such as CubaNet (which was founded in 1994 from Miami by exiled journalist Hugo Landa),  OnCuba is made in Cuban territory, with Cuban journalists who came from state media with which they are dissatisfied.

The new media are a result of a generation that argues with what has been established and that strives to create good journalism. What will happen with them if the island fully liberalizes and they start to be able to receive advertising? The new media survive, on average, with USD$20 a month, dealing with the State but without existing with the market.

They are more children of their parents’ time, a latent challenge of transcendence faces them.


* Daniel Wizenberg (@daniwizen) is a journalist and political scientist (University of Buenos Aires). He wrote reports and travelogues about everyday life in current conflict areas (like Syria, Haiti, Somalia, North Korea or Nagorno Karabakh) in Le Monde Diplomatique (France-Southern Cone edition), Anfibia and Página 12 (Argentina), El Mundo (Spain), Russia Today (Russia) and Las2Orillas (Colombia), among others. He also worked on TV (Argentinian Public TV ) and radio (AM 750- Argentina).

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.