Two Journalists, Two Countries
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on May 4, 2001)
In America, journalism is easy. I enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. But in Havana, journalism is hard and potentially life-threatening.
Just by talking to me on the telephone, and expressing himself the way he did from Havana, dissident journalist Jorge Olivera was taking the risk of exposing himself to humiliation, human rights violations, incarceration – the wrath of the Fidel Castro dictatorship.
It takes tremendous courage to be a dissident journalist in Cuba.
“For doing what I'm doing right now [speaking to a journalist abroad] there are many people in prison, among the more than 300 political prisoners currently in Cuban jails,” he said. “There is a very prolific penal code sanctioning people like myself who try to express themselves freely.”
So why does he do it? I asked.
“Because the truth has to get out,” said Olivera, who heads Havana Press, a small group of independent journalists – one of many groups emerging in Cuba – trying to tell the world what is really happening there. Several of the group's members have been imprisoned and then expelled from the island. Like most Cubans who declare themselves dissidents, all of them have lost their jobs.
Olivera said dissidents are also subjected to “acts of repudiation,” like the one he suffered in 1997, when a government-organized mob surrounded his home and shouted obscenities until they drove him from the neighborhood.
I called Olivera because I wanted his reaction to the recent condemnation of the the Cuban government by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. I expected a somewhat measured reaction, given the risks involved. But I was surprised with Olivera's courageous candor.
“The Cuban government is claiming that although it lost the vote, it gained a moral victory,” but in fact the moral victory was for the dissident community, Olivera said.
He said both Castro's lobbying effort in Geneva and the propaganda in Cuba was so strong that even many Cuban dissidents sadly expected Cuba to avoid a U.N. human rights condemnation this year. But he said the 22-20 vote “has given hope and pride to the dissident community in Cuba. In the end, the truth won.”
I asked him to describe how human rights are violated in Cuba, and he didn't know where to begin.
“The government here controls everything,” he said. “Here you can't dissent even in your own home. Every citizen is a policeman watching everyone else. You don't know who is who. You are constantly watched. It's like that famous book, ‘1984,’ a complete police state.
“It's a totalitarian government like the ones that existed in the former Socialist Europe,” he added. “But I believe this one is more reactionary, more ultra-conservative.
“There is no independent administration of justice,” Olivera went on. “You can be taken to court on the assumption that you may commit a crime in the future, and if they determine that you are dangerous to the system, they can put you in jail. You can be fired from your job just for disagreeing with the dictates of the Communist Party, which has guided the destiny of this country for 42 years.”
Olivera said he was fired from a Cuban TV station eight years ago, simply for having a mind of his own. “I know Cuban censorship from the inside,” he said. “Cuba is paradise, but only in the official propaganda.”
He explained that while the government claims tremendous advances in health care, only foreigners get adequate treatment in Cuba. He named all the hospitals where some wards are “for foreigners only.”
“These wards are very modern, with all the right equipment, exquisite attention, and even diets,” he said. “But none of this is available to the Cuban patients in the same hospital.”
He said that when the Cuban government sends doctors abroad, it is purely for propaganda. “While they export doctors and pretend to be humanitarian and benevolent to people abroad, there are people here who can't find an aspirin and lack the most minimal medical attention,” Olivera said.
He said many people go there as tourists, stay in good hotels, eat fine food, swim in beautiful beaches, and never see the real Cuba.
“The tourists come and they see the window dressing,” he said. “But what is happening in the rest of Cuba is monstrous, a real concentration camp. Those who visit Cuba should come to the part that is not showcased in the official government propaganda. I know that it will seem like fiction to them, but they will realize that this is a tropical Gulag where millions are living a regrettable period of history.”
There we were, two Cuban journalists, two voices on the telephone – one free and the other yearning to be free. I told him I admire his courage.
“We have met in an artificial way,” Olivera told me. “But I'm convinced that I will hear your voice here in Havana, when democracy finally comes to Cuba.”