Miami New Times
With Fidel on his death bed, journalist Carlos Otero is more critical than ever
By Our Woman in Havana
Published: January 11, 2007
Carlos Rios Otero is trying to write a note, but his black pen has run out of ink. He shakes it furiously, tries to scribble on a piece of thin white paper, and then tosses it on the table.
He shoots the pen a nasty glare, grabs it again, and flings it high into the air.
Carlos is frustrated. The pen is just one more thing that doesn't work in Cuba.
He is trying to change that, one word at a time. He is the rarest of rare on the island — an independent journalist.
But this writer doesn't work for a state-run communist-mouthpiece rag like Granma or Juventud Rebelde. His articles are penned sometimes by candlelight, always in longhand, on the unused side of printed sheets of paper. When he's finished, Carlos whispers his words across crackling phone lines to Miami, where Cuban exiles make sense of them and put them into magazines read by other exiles around the world. Sometimes he appears on Spanish-language radio stations like Radio Mambí (710-AM).
He hopes he doesn't get caught. "It's a brutal way to live," Carlos says matter-of-factly.
We're sitting around a table in the back yard of Carlos's house, a 100-year-old Mediterranean-revival with an iron gate, peeling paint, and pink roses growing in the courtyard. The dry pen is lodged in an overgrown bush. The table is covered with a threadbare red cloth that is pockmarked with holes.
Carlos's wife, Irene — shy and tired-looking — brings us coffee in delicate floral-patterned demitasse cups. She offers a glance that apologizes for not offering more.
It's a critical time for Carlos and all independent journalists in Cuba. As Fidel Castro's illness becomes more mysterious by the week — it's cancer, it's not cancer, he's got a colostomy bag, he's dead and cryonically frozen — Cuban exiles crave news from the island more than ever before.
Years ago Carlos and Irene were young professionals with a baby girl. They could graciously entertain guests — she was a teacher, he was a specialist in agriculture economics who once worked for the government. Carlos's father was a revolutionary, and Carlos himself fought in Angola.
He was rewarded with a post in the Ministry of Sugar — an important government office because sugar was, and remains, one of Cuba's few commodities. But in 1983, he criticized the regime, saying the communist model didn't work. At first, Castro overlooked Carlos's comments because of his family's revolutionary ties. But then the young man made similar remarks in 1986 and again in 1990. He had waded into the dangerous waters of activism in Cuba — he started and joined several groups calling for change.
The government began to pay attention. He was removed from his job and ostracized by the Cuban bureaucracy. The fallout extended to his wife's job and their daughter, now age 21, who has not been able to enroll in college because of her parents' activism — even though she's a top student.
If Hollywood were to film a movie about Carlos's life, he would be played by Lou Reed. When he dons his sunglasses, Carlos is a dead ringer for the singer (circa 1985 Honda scooter ads); he's cool and calm, and more than a bit paranoid about the world around him.
Carlos began his underground reporting sometime in the 1990s; all media in Cuba is state-run and has been for 48 years, so his dispatches are all on the down-low. He is published regularly on www.nuevaprensa.org, an exile-run Website in Miami. When his phone line isn't too fuzzy with interference, he calls dispatches into Miami radio stations and, on occasion, Radio Martí. This past year he was quoted in a report about the sorry state of Cuban journalism published by the international group Reporters Without Borders.
He achieved rock-star notoriety in Cuba and around the world this past December 10, when he and a dozen other dissidents marched in a Havana park to commemorate International Human Rights Day. A mob attacked the demonstrators, and a Spanish news agency photographed Carlos being restrained by a half-dozen government-supported thugs.
During our visit, Carlos shows me a photocopy of the picture and then pulls out a few dog-eared magazines. They contain his writing, but many of his articles are mere briefs about how conditions are deteriorating on the island. Longer stories just aren't easy to report or write. It's a bit sad and surprising to see that a man is risking his life for this.
"It's hard to have sources in Cuba," admits Nancy Perez Crespo, manager of Nueva Prensa Cubana in Miami. "And sometimes they don't even have paper to write on."
Like many of Cuba's journalists, Carlos doesn't usually see his own work, especially if it runs on a Website. He can't afford to use the Internet (it costs about six dollars per hour, about half of the average Cuban's monthly salary). Besides, the Internet is so tightly controlled on the island it's unlikely that Carlos would be able to get near a computer without harassment.
"He's risking his life every time he gives us information," says Perez Crespo.
Yet he writes. He writes about political prisoners who are slowly dying inside Cuba's jails; he writes about the failed distribution of rice cookers to citizens; he writes about the country's dengue fever crisis. He shows me a piece he is working on; this one is about Castro's health.
"His life is in limbo," Carlos says. Then he laughs, as it hits him. "Castro is in limbo, just like the Cuban people."
Carlos's house, located in Santo Suarez, a quiet and once gorgeous Havana suburb, is alternately grand and decrepit. It's filled with books, empty plastic jugs, and some withered root vegetables. At least one room is devoid of any furniture.
Carlos never knows when things will worsen in Cuba, and his stockpiles just might allow him to survive the next rough patch. Indeed this winter he couldn't afford meat for a traditional New Year's Eve meal, and he fretted about his phone bill. (Those dispatches abroad are costly; calls to the United States, for example, are about $2.80 per minute).
He's trying to amass a reference library for budding journalists and anyone interested in human rights. So far it fills three meager shelves.
After talking for a few hours, we decide to visit another independent journalist, Jaime Leygonier, who lives down the street. Carlos's neighborhood is something of a hotbed of dissident activity, with activist and doctor Darsi Ferrer also living nearby. Before we walk out the door, Carlos looks around outside. He wants to know if anyone is watching.
He continues to peer from side to side as we walk down the street together. When we arrive at Jaime's house — another once-great abode with tired furniture — the new host sums it up in a few words: "We're half-crazy with paranoia here."
Jaime used to be a teacher. That career disappeared when he was arrested for writing about Cuba for foreign publications. His relationship with his daughter was also affected by his anti-government stance; when he and his wife split up, they waged a nasty custody battle that was later published in international human rights journals.
"Due to Leygonier's dissident views, his daughter's elementary school has taken a position in the mother's favor and has refused to acknowledge his parental authority, denying him access to the school premises and the opportunity to speak with his daughter," wrote the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in 2004.
These days Jaime also writes for publications around the world and receives a few dollars in return.
Jaime and Carlos are among the lucky independent reporters in Havana. They have phones, which means they can call their dispatches to people "outside."
Around the time I met with Carlos just before Christmas, acting Cuban President Raul Castro appeared on state-run television at an event at the University of Havana. He told students they should debate "fearlessly." Raul didn't say anything about freeing the journalists who "fearlessly" tried to report; indeed there are no indications he will encourage a free press.
Just days before my trip, the Cuban government issued new rules for foreign journalists — including an edict that said a reporting visa could be revoked "when [the reporter] carries out improper actions or actions not within his profile and work content; also when he is considered to have violated journalistic ethics and/or he is not guided by objectivity in his reports.''
The situation, of course, is worse for independent reporters in Cuba. The island jails more journalists than any other nation except China. There are 27 journalists currently imprisoned on the island, according to the IAPA. This past December, Raymundo Perdigón Brito was sentenced to four years in prison, convicted of "conduct that is in manifest contravention of the standards of socialist morality." Also that month, 21-year-old Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia was arrested at home in Havana, and according to the IAPA, police confiscated a mini tape recorder, a computer, a fax machine, two radios, a flashlight, cassette tapes, pencils, sheets of paper, CDs, books, and magazines during a raid on the man's house.
Maybe the fact that Carlos doesn't have notebooks, a computer, or a working pen is a good thing.
New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.