By Vanessa Bauza | [url=http://www.Sun-Sentinel.com]http://www.Sun-Sentinel.com[/url]
HAVANA · Like many independent journalists here, Ivan Garcia is on a first-name basis with the government agent assigned to keep tabs on him.
Agente Jesus summoned Garcia to a police station in his Havana neighborhood twice last year and warned him not to attend gatherings with other reporters who work outside the state run media. But in their most recent encounter a couple of weeks ago Jesus had a more direct message.
“I was given three options: to stop writing, leave the country or go to jail,” said Garcia, 37, from his second-floor apartment where he writes his stories in longhand. “The government is unpredictable. They may summon you and nothing happens, or they may arrest you.”
In the wake of the Cuban government’s crackdown on dissidents, independent journalists such as Garcia who are still filing reports to foreign Web sites say they have been visited by state security officials and issued stern warnings to stop writing or face the consequences.
“They said they were warning each of us so that when something happens, no one can say we weren’t warned,” said Ernesto Roque, 36, who writes for CubaNet, a Miami-based Web site that is partially funded by the U.S. government and blocked on the island.
“Many journalists have become inhibited and have stopped writing,” Roque said. “Those of us who continue say we are going to keep writing; what we do is spread the truth.”
Before the April summary trials that saw 28 independent journalists—about one-fourth of those working outside state media—sentenced to up to 27 years in prison, many had carved out a niche for themselves with relatively little government interference. Designated journalists’ homes were used to fax or dictate stories abroad, and small workshops were organized to train those with no reporting experience. One group had even founded a new magazine, De Cuba, which offered opinion pieces from the dissident community as well as stories about the island’s economy, sports and culture.
Today the magazine’s founder, Ricardo Gonzalez, and its consultant, Raul Rivero, are each serving 20-year sentences in prisons halfway across the island, convicted of “spreading false news to satisfy the interests of their sponsors in the U.S. government” and “acting against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.”
In their recent warnings, state security agents have repeated the Cuban government’s refrain that independent journalists are merely tools manipulated by American diplomats set on undermining Fidel Castro’s government.
“They said we write what the U.S. Interests Section wants,” said Fara Armenteros, referring to the American mission in Havana.
With its dedicated fax line, Armenteros’ home was a “transmission center” used by several reporters to send stories to CubaNet. Following her meeting with state security last month, Armenteros no longer uses that line.
CubaNet editor Rosa Berre said the Web site has stopped publishing reporters’ bylines in an attempt to protect their identities and “show the state security that we don’t want to provoke a problem.”
She said many of the 30 reporters she publishes have been visited by security officials in the weeks since the crackdown.
Like other Miami organizations that support the Cuban opposition, CubaNet is funded in part by hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government’s Agency for International Development. The Web site has received $833,000 in federal funds since 1998, but Berre said that money is used to run operations in Miami and does not go toward paying independent journalists for their articles. Their stipends, which range from $5 to $15 per article, are paid from other sources, Berre said.
Government agents who for years posed as independent journalists and testified in the trials have accused the unofficial reporters of being “information terrorists” who are trying to hurt the socialist system and foment counterrevolution.
But many of Cuba’s independent journalists say they would prefer their stories be published in Granma, the Communist Party daily, any day instead of on Web sites and magazines that most average Cubans will never see.
During his recent meeting with Agent Jesus, Garcia asked a question often posed by independent journalists who say their only crime is to write what they feel.
“I asked, `What legal way is there for me to disagree with Fidel Castro’s government, to write what I think and not be accused of being an annexationist?’” Garcia said. “He said, `The one who asks the questions is me.’”