The Price in Cuba of a Journalism that Reaches More People
By Yusimi Rodriguez
December 13, 2016
Lisbey Lora (l) and Manuel Guerra (r),
While tributes to the recently deceased former Cuban president Fidel Castro continue and the European Union drops its Common Position with regard to Cuba, restrictions of freedom of speech and press still exist here.
On Monday November 28, Manuel Guerra and Lisbey Lora, the director and editor of Cimarron de Mayabeque, the newsletter of the Cuban Institute For Freedom Of Expression and The Press (ICLEP), were arrested. Their families didn´t know anything about this until Thursday night. They were unable to visit them as people arrested in their unit could only receive visits seven days after their arrest. Both of them were released on December 5th.
Manuel: I go to Mayabeque four or five times a month to talk to people, to take pictures, to verify information. As the director, I’m charges with verifying everything that is published. I can’t create a newspaper on Mayabeque if I don’t go there.
We began in May and we’ve been arrested on several occasions since June, Lisbey, twice and me three times. We go almost undercover; I normally leave my phone here (Mantilla, Havana). This time, an activist from Mayabeque called me who was interested in collaborating with the newsletter and I told him that we might go on Monday.
From the moment we left, we could tell that there was an operation in place on the road: people in long sleeves, talking into their fanny packs. At Calvario Bridge, we noticed the same thing; they stopped us at the first control point in Mayabeque. They headed straight towards us by our names, they made us get out of the taxi and took us to the National Police Station of Criminal Investigations and Operations in San Jose de las Lajas. A place where the arrested men said there has been a lot of physical and psychological violence.
HT: Did you experience any violence?
Manuel: You feel the psychological violence from the beginning, I have never been locked up for eight days; they interrogated me five times. With regard to physical violence, I felt like one of the guards was going to beat me on Sunday because I got up at 6 AM and began to sing the national anthem; I believe in it and I sing it in the cell whenever they arrest me. State Security knows this. I thought that the guard was going to beat me, but three prisoners woke up and asked what was going on and in the end, nothing happened.
HT: What did they charge you with?
Manuel: The Head of the Station said that we were going to see somebody that they had investigated, to create unrest. However, the man had never been detained. The next day, State Security agents appeared and talked to me about the newsletter; they said that I would be processed in accordance with Law 210, to do with Underground Press. They couldn’t prove any of the news published to be false, but journalists that had been convicted during the Black Spring wouldn’t (2003) didn’t publish lies either.
Lisbey: They didn’t charge me with anything. I never saw the State Security agents. On the second day, I asked the Police Chief what the charges were for me to be locked up there. He responded with a pile of gibberish which made it clear that they were investigating me.
HT: What were the conditions of your imprisonment like?
Manuel: The cell was very humid, there wasn’t any light. I had read about places like this, you can’t have a shower every day. I had one every two days. They have to take prisoners out to see sunlight for 15 minutes, every two days. In the eight days that I was there, they took me out once, along with another 8 prisoners. We were all suffering the same fate.
Lisbey didn’t see the sun. Manuel and him were kept in separate cells.
Manuel still doesn’t know whether he will be put on trial because of his underground press. On Monday the 5th, at midday, he was released.
Manuel: It was visiting day. They gave me clothes that my mother had brought, who had come beforehand but they didn’t let her see me. I thought that it meant that I would be kept there longer, but they sent me to collect all of my belongings. They took me to the Capri Police Station in a State Security car with my mother. They gave her lunch because she is diabetic and she wasn’t feeling very well. At Capri, a State Security official from Havana interrogated me. They had searched my house and had seized my computer and printer. They drafted a document for receiving stolen property and let me go four hours later.
They had searched his house on Friday 2nd, at 8 AM; Manuel found this out from his neighbors. He doesn’t want to ask his mother anything.
Manuel: She’s destroyed; I don’t want to talk to her about this. I’m in shock myself. I don’t have the paperwork for my computer and printer because they weren’t purchased in Cuba. They must prove that they have been stolen or that they were State property, and they can’t, so they should have to give them back to me, but they’ll look for a way so as not to do this. I’ll file a complaint anyway.
Lisbey: In my case, they didn’t give me back my valuable belongings in Mayabeque: watch, wallet, etc. because they were being kept in a safe and the girl with the key didn’t show up. I need to go another day to get them back. My phone is being investigated and that can take between 30 and 40 days. The Police Chief said that I had to go to Capri today to see the lieutenant colonel who he doesn’t even know the name of. I didn’t go.
HT: And Cimarron’s future?
Manuel: It´s very hard to think that we’ll be able to continue without our equipment. I need to think about a lot of things, my family. I haven’t been repressed this much in nearly the last ten years that I’ve been working as an independent journalist. I’ve been arrested three times in the last seven months.
HT: What do you credit this with?
Manuel: Until now, I had always worked for online press. In Cuba, nearly nobody connects to the Internet and goes to independent media websites; plus, the majority are blocked. Printed newsletters reach more people. We distribute them at night under people’s doors, without knowing who we are giving them to. We’ve distributed them twice in the day on the street. It’s a drop in the bucket, just 500 newsletters, but it seems like it’s worrying the government. At the end of the newsletter, we’ve printed our phone number and email address. We have received phone calls and emails from people who want to say something.
HT: What are the main problems you’ve seen in Mayabeque?
Manuel: Financial crimes, corruption. In May, we published a story about high-ranking officials in the provincial government, both military and civilian, who had been arrested for corruption. At the aluminum factory, they eliminated the pay for production system for the flat low pay salaries. There is a deficit in school teachers because of low incomes. We wanted to find out what people thought about Fidel Castro’s death, but we couldn’t. At the prison we were in, they handed out Granma newspapers and I saw that Mayabeque was the second province to have the least amount of signatures in the condolence book, the first was the Isle of Youth. Of course, we have to look at how many people there are in the province and what percentage of people did actually sign.
HT: You said that in your neighborhood, everybody knew what had happened. How have they reacted?
Manuel: They hug me, they kiss me, even people who have never spoken to me. My neighbors have always known what I do. Maybe the elderly keep their distance a little. But young people ask me lots of questions. I know that they want to read the newsletters, but I need to distribute them in Mayabeque. We have also received gestures of international solidarity and calls from several newspapers.