Wilfredo Cancio Isla: “Nothing journalistic is alien to me”

Wilfredo Cancio Isla (Sancti Spíritus, 1960) has a degree in Journalism from the University of Havana and a doctorate in Information Sciences from the University of La Laguna, Spain (1998). In 2010, he published Crónicas de la impaciencia. The Journalism of Alejo Carpentier (Colibrí).

After finishing his military service in Cuba, he worked as a teacher for a whole generation of Cuban journalists from 1983 to 1994. Meanwhile, he collaborated with official media such as TrabajadoresJuventud Rebelde, and El Caimán Barbudo. He was also an editor and member of the editorial board of Cine Cubano and directed a section of the magazine Revolución y Cultura between 1987 and 1993. He also collaborated with the foreign agency Inter Press Service (IPS).

Currently, he is a writer and editor at CiberCuba. Since his definitive departure from Cuba in 1994, he has worked as a journalist in several of the most important Spanish-language media in Miami: El Nuevo Herald (1998-2010) (reporter); CafeFuerte (2010) (co-founder, along with journalist Ivette Leyva), an independent news and information blog; América TeVe (2010-2013) (editorial producer and analyst of Cuban affairs); Diario Las Américas (2013-2014) (deputy director and editor); Telemundo (2015-2017) (producer) and Radio y TV Martí (2017-2018) (news director).

He recalls his five years as a Journalism student at the University of Havana (1977-1982) as a time of growing frustration with the classes’ systematic ideological content, combined with pronounced deficiencies in professional and cultural training. “It was an orthopedic and dogmatic curriculum inherited from Lomonosov University that we could only get around thanks to the talent and teaching of some professors.” At that time, “the journalism course exhibited a curriculum that would have delighted George Orwell.” Not only were many of their classes useless, but the distribution of hours was also disproportionate to the practical needs of future journalists, presenting them with a dilemma upon graduation. 

Just the mention of a few names of those “formative disciplines” gives an idea of the challenge of practicing the profession after fulfilling such a lonely journey: History of the International Communist Movement and National Liberation Movements; Contemporary History, which began with the October Revolution of 1917 and ended with the construction of socialism developed in the Soviet Union; two semesters of Propaganda and Agitation; another two of History of the Communist and Workers’ Press; three semesters of Political Economy of Socialism and another three of Scientific Communism. As a colophon, it imposed Russian as the only language.

Although Cancio’s intention upon graduating –once again as the first of his class– was never to become a professor of Journalism, he decided to make changes in this stultified curriculum when he had to practice after finishing his military service. “It was a monumental challenge for which I was not prepared and from which I tried to escape several times during my first years at the university. Today I think it was the best thing to have happened to me.”

Looking back, Cancio is gratified by three accomplishments as a professor. First, he was able to work as a journalist while teaching at the university, a “double task” that was enriching because the journalistic exercise substantially nourished his work as a teacher. In addition, the fact that he did cultural journalism “without having to be part of or be tied to the staff of a specific media outlet, gave [him] a certain flexibility to operate” that was not allowed to the permanent journalists of those same media outlets.

Secondly, he was able to participate in the creation of a non-ideological admissions process that substantially raised the quality of journalism students. At the same time, it contributed to the transformation of the school curriculum with the adoption of the so-called Plan C, which came into effect in 1990, creating a generational legacy of modern, broadly informed, intellectually rigorous, and theoretically grounded graduates. Thus, he collaborated in reorienting it towards subjects more appropriate to the specialty, such as Communication Theory, Communication, and Society, Investigative Journalism, and New Communication Technologies, so that students would have more curricular alternatives and broader intellectual and cultural stimulation. In addition, the syllabus included topics that once were taboo within the framework of investigative journalism and the New Journalism movement.

This “radical” curricular approach and institutional independence provoked many political conflicts for the School of Journalism. For example, the Ideological Department of the Central Committee –headed by Carlos Aldana until 1992– tried to fill the admittance committee with “trusted journalists” who wanted to eliminate or politically condition the selection of students. The selection criteria preferred by the Party leadership even aimed at limiting the admission of so-called “bland” students, a homophobic reference to homosexual applicants. However, Cancio considers the victory of many of these academic battles by his faculty group as his third major accomplishment, which still gratifies him today.

An orthopedic and dogmatic curriculum inherited from Lomonosov University that we could only get around thanks to the talent and teaching of some professors.

Could you describe your family and social origins? 

I was born and raised in a typical middle-class Cuban family. Diverse Spanish roots: Catalans and Asturians on my mother’s side; Galicians and Canarians on my father’s side. I had the best parents imaginable. My mother was fervently Catholic, and my family never trusted the Revolution that came to power in 1959. Born in 1960, I was forced to live between those two antagonistic worlds: the daily life of my home and the devastating reality imposed on the country at a fast pace.

What job or profession did your parents have? How “integrated” was your family in the revolutionary process during your childhood? 

My mother was a teacher who graduated from the Normal School of Santa Clara, Las Villas, and developed a high capacity as a specialist in Calligraphy and Visual Arts. She was a teacher at the School of Commerce in Sancti Spíritus and lost her professorship for not being integrated and maintaining her Catholic faith. My father became a novice of the De La Salle Brothers; he was perhaps the man who best mastered the subject of rice processing and milling in Sancti Spíritus. He was the founding administrator of the Los Cipreses Rice Mill, renamed Angel Montejo after the nationalization. He finished his working life there as a clerk and accountant, recognized for his work and efficiency. 

Nevertheless, my parents never joined the revolutionary process or militated in mass organizations as the CDR or the FMC). The ideological coordinates in my home were always evident. We had “applied” to leave the country, but we were never officially allowed to do so; and we know what that meant in those years.

On my father’s family side, my aunt-godmother was married to a wealthy landowner from Sancti Spíritus, and both left the country in 1960. In my house, we received letters from both branches of the family, which we knew were unscrupulously checked by the police filters of the Post Office. A first cousin, Jorge García-Rubio Cancio, was the protagonist of a failed double assassination operation against Fidel and Raúl Castro, aborted by State Security in 1962. The case is documented in a film made by ICAIC and shown in Cuba, entitled Patty Candela (Rogelio París, 1976). My cousin was able to slip away, go into exile in an embassy, and leave Cuba alive. He was another family “stain” that did not escape the government authorities.

How much did you “integrate” as a youth and teenager? 

I had a happy childhood, guarded by affectionate parents and grandparents. We openly celebrated religious dates and practiced the Catholic faith. I took my first communion in 1967 amid the worst repression and exclusion of Catholics in the country’s life. In my house, we kept religious symbols in the living room, the Papal Letter in a picture, and there was a Christmas tree and a celebration of The Three Holy Kings every year. We had Christmas Eve dinner, even if it was with a piece of foraged mutton or a turkey brought by a guajiro friend of my grandfather, and we went to Midnight Mass every December 24. 

The president of the CDR would visit us to see why we were not part of the organization. My father would always give them the same answer: “Because we do not want to, and I have never participated in any organization.” We did not live with double standards. The discourse of our private life was not split into public life because we were not obliged to appear what we were not to legitimize ourselves in society.

In my house, we received letters from both branches of the family, which we knew were unscrupulously checked by the police filters of the Post Office.

What were your educational experiences like up to pre-university?

I was a good student, with really exceptional intellectual mentors and teachers. My parents encouraged my discipline and dedication to the school. My mother handed over the pioneer’s neckerchief that they hung on me one day, so I cannot say, like many Cubans of my generation, that I was a pioneer. I do not know how many of the emigrants of my generation in Miami can say: “I was not a pioneer.” 

We were marked as disaffected. However, I must admit that we were respected. Maybe because my parents were extraordinarily hard workers and did not get involved in active demonstrations against the government. But they listened every night to Cita con Cuba on La Voz de Las Américas, which mobilized my fondness for the radio from an early age in a home where there was no longer any television. The old Zenith television, which had been in my grandparents’ house since 1954, had broken down, and my family opted to take refuge in reading and listening to the radio. My grandmother said she stopped watching television the day Che Guevara appeared to announce food rationing.

When the opportunities to leave the country were closed, my parents not to obstruct my aspirations to study and excel. Since I was not a Communist Youth (UJC) member, I had to be overly dedicated in my studies. At 14, I was enlisted in the CDR [Comité de Defensa de la Revolución], the first cederista in a family of five, counting my two maternal grandparents. I received indoctrinating teaching those years. And I had excellent results, particularly in Mathematics and Science. At the end of high school, I was one of the best-ranked students in the province, and I obtained the only degree in Journalism that was granted in 1977 in Sancti Spiritus.

Why did you decide to study journalism in college?

It concerned my initial passion for baseball and sports in general. I started by becoming an official baseball scorer, something I did with knowledge and skill. I was the youngest scorer of the then regional Sancti Spíritus team, which led me to become a sports correspondent. I started by sending notes thanks to the generosity of two exemplary teachers, Arnaldo Prado and Alberto Águila. Also, as a commentator of the sports programming of Radio Sancti Spíritus, it was very generous of them to welcome a 14-year-old teenager to talk about baseball, boxing, cycling, and chess in a radio program. 

Until then, I was oriented to study Medicine, Civil Engineering, Nuclear Physics, or Mathematics. But the seduction of sports and journalism weighed more in the long run. So did the encouragement of classmates and neighbors who insisted that this was my natural vocation since I was a child. I told stories about events in the neighborhood, weddings, and so on.

What attracted you to being a journalist in a country like Cuba?

I already had the background of my experiences as a sports correspondent and radio practice, so I had the illusion of training as a journalist. The academic results and support I had made me feel enthusiastic. I had family members and mentors who put critical readings on socialism in my hands early on. Among them, The Great Swindle, by Eudocio Ravines, and China, the other communism, by K. S. Karol are both unforgettable.  

I do not know how many of the emigrants of my generation in Miami can say: “I was not a pioneer.”

My journalism studies began to be difficult once I completed the first two years of my degree because of the ideological burden, the deficient contents of professional teaching, and the short teaching hours of cultural formation. It was a syllabus inherited from Lomonosov University, orthopedic and dogmatic, which we could only overcome thanks to some professors’ talent and teaching. I was first in my class at the 1982 graduation. I understood the reality of the state-owned media. Reading newspapers of the republican period at the National Library was revealing and essential for my awakening in many things. 

How did you come to teach journalism at the university level?

I thought about going into sports journalism, but I also had an interest in arts and culture. Becoming a professor was not in my plans in those days, but an unforeseen and perhaps providential twist in my career path led me to take a teaching position at the School of Journalism. So, from being the editor of the magazine Cuba, at Prensa Latina, I suddenly became a professor of my former colleagues. It was an immense challenge for which I was unprepared and tried to avoid during my first years at the university. Today I think it was the best thing to have happened to me.

What was your first job as a journalist in the official/state sector? 

I had only one job in Cuba as a professor at the Faculty of Journalism, University of Havana, between 1983 and 1994. I had to spend a period of military service as an infantry lieutenant in a tank unit in Quemado de Hilario, in Santa Clara. This experience was definitive in becoming aware of many dramatic situations in Cuba, unknown to me until then. It was also a turning point in my perception of the terrible things hidden in the propagandistic cloak of the system. But that is a subject for a memoir. 

Parallel to my academic activity, I developed an intense journalistic work as a theater and film critic in leading cultural publications. I would accept the teaching position on the condition that I could keep working as a journalist, and I kept that up to the end. As a film critic, I traveled to festivals in Bulgaria and Colombia and was a member of international juries such as the International Federation of Film Press (FIPRESCI). I was also a member of the organizing committee of the Havana International Theater Festival in 1987. And I won a research award from the Carpentier Foundation in 1990.

Keeping my double function as a teacher and journalist was rewarding. The journalistic practice substantially nourished my work as a teacher. There was a side of training, research, and academic rigor that the professorship imposed on me and, at the same time, a practice that legitimized my teaching role. I believe that my growth as a professor and journalist was linked to this double condition, which took me hours of sleeplessness but made me mature in both fields. Besides, being a professor at a prominent university in the country when I was very young forced me to set very high goals for myself, even unthinkable for a student. At the same time, I was doing cultural journalism without having to be part of or be tied to the staff of a specific media, which gave me some flexibility to operate.

How would you describe your experience as a Journalism professor at the University of Havana? 

My consolidation as a professor materialized in my colleagues’ trust and participation in two tasks that I believe contributed to my time at the Faculty. First, my contribution to the Admissions Committee. Second, participating in the transformation of its syllabus; the so-called Plan C, fully implemented by 1990.

My grandmother said she stopped watching television the day Che Guevara appeared to announce food rationing.

I was in charge of the methodology and exams in the Admissions Committee. It was exhausting work at a national level but very comforting and essential. Between 1985 and 1992, we were able to select exceptionally talented students, according to their real potential for the profession, not based on the applicant’s political-ideological views or pre-university transcript grades, not always indicative of relevant knowledge and skills. 

As for the new curriculum, it was an opportunity to radically change the course of Journalism and strengthen it with subjects and teaching variants more in line with modern communication, offering alternatives to the student. It was the moment to introduce the Theory of Communication at total capacity, which had an invaluable pillar in Professor Rafael Rivera. And to teach investigative journalism workshops. Finally, “historical-ideological” subjects that used to cover a significant part of the curriculum were suppressed. 

Were there political-ideological conflicts during your time as a professor? 

Yes, there were conflicts and challenging moments. The independence that the Faculty was gaining, the presence of more demanding and critical students, and the autonomous role of the admission committee were breeding grounds for controversies and dilemmas that ended up affecting the teaching performance. 

The Ideological Department of the Central Committee took action to “reinforce” the commission with “reliable journalists” from the provinces, who tried to eliminate and condition the selection of candidates based on political criteria. The upper echelons of the Communist Party went so far as to try to limit the access of “lazy” students, in shameful allusion to homosexual applicants.

It was a fierce battle, which we firmly weathered in the core group of the Committee. However, I am not confident that no excesses and injustices were committed in specific selections entrusted to the groups supervised by the Faculty of Oriente.

The trigger for the Faculty was the meeting of the students with Fidel Castro in October 1987, which unleashed a real witch-hunt, purges, and settling of scores in the student collectives, the classrooms, and the dynamics of the Faculty. Hopefully, sometime -I hope- we will be able to have access to records jealously kept in the vaults of the Council of State to understand the dimension of those long hours’ meetings, our “Battle of Hernani” in Cuban journalism.

Was it pleasant or troublesome to be a professor of journalism?

I am proud of the students I contributed to form, thoughtful and alert. There is a distorted criterion, still repeated in circles outside Cuba, about the formation of journalists. Of course, there is everything in the bag. But much of what happened in the classroom depended on the teacher. And in the classes, journalism workshops, and the research carried out. We put into practice many desacralizing initiatives and penetrated taboo areas against the official discourse. We dusted off figures of the Republic’s journalism, brought buried stories of the past, produced graduate theses with a high level of questioning on the statements of the Cuban press, and so on. In general, students knew that the situation of the press was lamentable and that, upon graduation, they would face a scenario of enormous contradictions. 

There was a side of training, research, and academic rigor that the professorship imposed on me and, at the same time, a practice that legitimized my teaching role.

I think it was a period of transformations and challenges, at least in the twelve years of work I dedicated to teaching journalism in Cuba. Despite the unfavorable political context, there were more satisfactions than rebuffs. I want to think that my contribution as a journalism teacher in Cuba was not in vain. We were able to advance in multiple initiatives, projects, and research, which left a mark on my students today living worldwide. I receive messages from dozens of students from Cuba and the diaspora, and it is a source of deep satisfaction for me to express my gratitude for the efforts and dreams we shared in the classroom.

Why did you leave official journalism and come to work in the non-state or independent media? 

I did not write for independent media in Cuba; I only collaborated with special dossiers for the IPS agency. At the same time, never having been a permanent employee of an official press gave me a certain degree of distance to avoid assuming commitments and orientations that I disagreed with. I believe that some interviews and articles that I published as an author or helped to include as an editor in the state media were able to pass on arguments and ideas that did not coincide with the predominant discourse. Many of them still retain their journalistic and historical value.   

Have you participated in the founding of an independent Cuban media? 

My only founding work of independent media has been CaféFuerte, created on July 5, 2010, with journalist and editor Ivette Leyva, who was the idea manager. The site is currently being restructured after a long period of inactivity. 

Why did you create this media, and what economic and technological factors facilitated it? 

I have described the reasons for its foundation before. I was leaving El Nuevo Herald, dissatisfied with the newspaper’s direction, misguided editorial policy, and incompetent management, and I was going into television production. I felt that I could continue contributing to the coverage of Cuban issues and didn’t see that happening on television, at least not as I intended. 

CaféFuerte was born as an independent news and information site to cover current events in Cuba and Miami. The objective was to penetrate with its vision in areas of the news and to produce unique content not found in other publications. I believe this was the reason for its distinguishing effort until it maintained its original dynamics: to seek information –or the angle and complexity of it– not found in other printed or digital sites. 

We took advantage of the blogger phenomenon and common technological alternatives for its initial impulse. CaféFuerte was a straightforward site without significant complexities. It was delivered by two writers/editors who worked on the site part-time, taking hours out of their sleep, as each had other jobs and work responsibilities. 

I was leaving ‘El Nuevo Herald’, dissatisfied with the newspaper’s direction, misguided editorial policy, and incompetent management.

The focus or editorial line is prioritized to complete information, all that which generally has another focus or is under censorship―more or less underhanded―from the state press in Cuba. There was no defined political line nor space for political propaganda on any side. 

What were the most critical obstacles in this process then and now?

It was a publication made by hand and strong will, with no financial backing, and sustained by its editor’s income. In the seven years we covered the news, the donations received amounted to 75 dollars! Financing in this environment is marked by politicking, levers of cronies, and the grants of clientelism, almost always destined for dysfunctional projects. 

Perhaps that made us completely independent. CaféFuerte was maintained for seven years, then became inactive. My new job responsibility, assumed in 2017, could represent a conflict of interest. At the moment, it has been redesigned. I hope to resume it as a personal blog, open to the contributions of friends and interested parties, but without the pressure of news immediacy.

Did you participate in the blogging phenomenon? What was the impact of this experience on you?

As I said, CaféFuerte is a legitimate child of the blogger phenomenon. It wasn’t until 2012 that it made a format change to be able to admit Google Ads. We hoped to bring in some money to allow at least the minimum payments for site maintenance or phone calls or give symbolic support to a collaborator in Cuba, such as recharging his cell phone. We had moments of collaboration with Havana Times but at the level of sharing articles of our production. I have not had the slightest relationship with other blogger phenomenon publications.

Could you describe your career as a journalist over time, both in Cuba and abroad? What media have you published or worked with as a producer, and how have your journalistic collaborations changed? 

My functions in journalism have been diverse since I made my first incursions as a sports correspondent in Vanguardia, in 1974, at 14. I have done almost everything in all media regarding writing, production, and editing. Nothing in journalism is alien to me.

In Cuba, I collaborated with official media and with the foreign press. I was a journalist in the newspaper Trabajadores,where I was a film and theater critic. I directed a 22-page section as editor and publisher of the magazine Revolución y Cultura between 1987-1993. At that time, I also collaborated in the daily Juventud Rebelde and the monthly El Caimán Barbudo. I was an editor and member of the editorial board of Cine Cubano magazine. I also contributed to the Inter Press Service (IPS) agency.

Currently, I work as editor of CiberCuba

In the seven years we covered the news, the donations received amounted to 75 dollars!

My first full-time press job outside Cuba was as a reporter for El Nuevo Herald newspaper in Miami, starting in 1998. Still, since I arrived in the United States in 1994, I have been a correspondent for Radio Bilingüe (California) and the AFP and IPS agencies, and I collaborated with the arts and culture section of El Nuevo Herald. In addition, I have worked as a journalist, producer, and editor at América TeVe (2010-2013), Diario Las Américas (2013-2014), Telemundo 51 (2015-2017), and Radio y TV Martí (2017-2018). 

What do you think of the Cuban official press? How could you describe it to me? 

The official press is an organic body of government propaganda, informative distortion, and ideological stereotypes based on the country’s political leadership. It is a phenomenon that has existed in Cuba since the media became state-owned in 1960. Since then, it has been a totalitarian instrument of the power elite under the tutelage of the Communist Party and its Ideological Department, now headed by Rogelio Polanco Fuentes, someone I always like to remember as the opposite face of his famous cousin, the writer Reinaldo Arenas.

Is it monolithic, or does it have lights and shadows?

Obviously, within that mosaic of pro-government publications, there are areas of thematic interest and maneuverability of discourses. Granma is the bastion of official information. Still, you can find other newspapers, magazines, and sites with their differentiation and identity. Nevertheless, we already know that everything responds to a strategic and concentric vertex of diffusion, alien to the values of editorial autonomy, verification and contrast of sources, freedom of opinion, and management independence.

What fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism? 

The emergence of independent journalism in Cuban society means breaking the information monopoly. The proposal of a different vision of reality, breaking the monochord narrative of biased and manipulated information, mobilizes a different attitude toward potential recipients. It means maintaining an editorial line not depending on groups, trends, political interests, or ideological assessments, which may determine not particular text being published or not covering an event.

How do their working conditions compare?

Not having a recognized legal personality, Cuban independent journalism is vulnerable, without access to events of hierarchy in the country, accreditation, or operational recognition. That, of course, implies working conditions of greater rigor for the professional exercise outside the State controls and determinations. Exercising independent journalism in Cuba means a permanent precariousness, which entails exclusion, siege, and a total lack of legal guarantees. 

Rogelio Polanco Fuentes, someone I always like to remember as the opposite face of his famous cousin, the writer Reinaldo Arenas.

Exercising journalism outside of officialdom in Cuba makes one a kind of “dissident” in the eyes of the State, even when this is not the journalist’s intention. What is the difference between an independent journalist and a dissident, oppositionist, or activist? Is it possible to be both at the same time?

That was not my personal experience, but I have followed, recorded, and reflected on the particular phenomenon of independent journalism and political dissent. It was part of my work (2001-2009) as Cuba’s reporter for the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA). 

Indeed, under a system of verticalized control and a utilitarian conception of information like those existing in Cuba, any effort at autonomy stigmatizes you as a political enemy. In the Cuban case, the first manifestations of independent journalism arose under the protection of the human rights movement and the political opposition within the island, so sometimes, it was challenging to choose between journalists and dissidents. 

I am not unaware that the first independent press initiatives, in the late 1980s, were led by figures with a professional background in journalism, such as Raul Rivero, Yndamiro Restano, Bernardo Marquez Ravelo, Manuel Vazquez Portal, and others. Still, their actions in the Cuban scenario were closely linked to civic activism and the fundamental demands of expression and association, pillars of the dissident movement.

Much political activism was channeled from journalism. The ranks of the independent press were strengthened by incorporating quite a few activists and opponents with no other background in communication than the will to express themselves. Therefore, this relationship of communicating vessels between journalism and political activism is in the very origins of the independent Cuban press and continues to this day in contributors of publications and digital sites. I am not saying that it is the ideal professional scenario. Still, the reality is that many have developed both functions simultaneously, by vocation or necessity, sometimes without being fully aware. And, when it is done with honesty and a sense of responsibility to your people, it is valid.

At present, the development of independent events in Cuba is driven by an increase in the number of trained professionals, the thematic diversification of their contents, and access to new information technologies. It seems to me that independent journalism is gaining momentum, projection, and global reach as never before in its history, hence the excessive governmental reactions to discredit it.  

Cuba has a long history of censorship and self-censorship of the press, even before the triumph of the Revolution. Have you suffered it professionally, or have you had to exercise censorship or self-censorship? 

In some way, all of us who worked or collaborated in the official press suffered censorship or assumed self-censorship. At least those of us journalists who were aware of the mechanisms of information control (direct, indirect, or circumstantial) that conditioned our creation. I believe that the tremendous professional challenge is to try to take advantage of the characteristics of an editor, the profile of a publication, and the unforeseen outcome of a news situation, to press the gates of censorship and try to transcend the limits imposed. 

I published in Cuba interviews and articles that I never thought would be authorized in their entirety. I was restrained from writing other pieces knowing they would have no place even in the less scrutinized cultural publications, and I fought to get collaborations from other colleagues who poked the finger at the sore spot on critical or uncomfortable issues for the official discourse. Sometimes I succeeded; sometimes, I didn’t. 

Exercising independent journalism in Cuba means a permanent precariousness, which entails exclusion, siege, and a total lack of legal guarantees.

Could you describe your experiences with censorship in more detail?

The two acts of censorship that I remember most, in my case, had to do with cinema. One was an interview with filmmaker Humberto Solás in 1988. They deleted eight of its 20 pages, cleaning up everything Revolución y Culturamagazine director considered “potentially problematic.” The other was an article cut at will by Alfredo Guevara. As a closing, he even had the kindness to incorporate fragments of his speech about the film Strawberry and Chocolate. There are still living witnesses to both incidents. But, frankly, they are insignificant episodes in comparison with other experiences of prohibition in those years.

Another chapter that may be illustrative is the censorship applied to one of the reports carried out in a marginal neighborhood of Havana by two of my students, resulting from an investigative journalism workshop at the School of Journalism. We agreed with Juventud Rebelde newspaper that two reports produced in the investigative workshop would be published there. The report in question went up to the office of then Vice President Carlos Lage and returned months later with the official refusal. 

How would you describe the ecosystem or spectrum of Cuban independent media? 

It is a map that has diversified and enriched substantially during the last decade. It is essential to highlight that the movement has gained a professional conscience and has gone beyond the traditional journalism of denunciation in favor of dynamism, expressive capacity, investigative commitment, and thematic breadth. 

When I speak of professional conscience, I am referring to the effort to fill the information gaps in Cuban society, to investigate beyond the closed doors and the forbidden reserves of officialdom, and to make it possible to communicate with rigor without the constraints of rhetoric and propaganda. It is a road being traveled with noticeable results, in individuals and publications, inside and outside Cuba. 

How do they distinguish themselves, what are the characteristics that unite them, and what differentiates or separates them from each other?

What unites them is a need to bear witness to a reality banished―or curtailed―in the press and break the hegemonic control of information that has marked the Cuban public space for decades. Of course, some interests make the difference according to the editorial line of the publication, the informative and thematic priorities, the target audience, the closeness with groups, organizations, or movements, the sponsor, the available income, the network of reporters, the urgencies of cybernetic traffic, etc. I think it is an active and growing ecosystem.

For a while, there was a need to differentiate independent media made “from Cuba”  from those made “from outside.”  Does this distinction still have importance or relevance? 

For me, that distinction has been superseded by reality and lacks relevance. The only nuance is that it was more challenging to operate a project from the inside because of the obstacles and harassment journalists are usually subjected to within Cuba. But I believe that the increase in communication technologies, the diversification of media and applications, access to foreign servers, the digitalization of journalism, and the dynamics of social networks have broken down that barrier. 

This relationship of communicating vessels between journalism and political activism is in the very origins of the independent Cuban press and continues to this day in contributors of publications and digital sites.

Having a newsroom, correspondent, or observer in situ is always beneficial. Still, independent coverage of Cuban affairs has spread globally and is not determined today by the dichotomy “from inside” / “from outside.” The proper use of these technological opportunities and social networks is another matter that has to do with the quality of news production, but that is another rather thorny issue.

All over the world, the media financing model is in crisis. In Cuba, there is an official discourse that independent media and journalists are “mercenaries” because they have alternative financing. What is your assessment of this debate?

That’s an old debate, an element of demonization of the official Cuban discourse against everything alternative and dissonant. For years this has been a recurrent tactic: to accuse and demonize all those who receive money to support their projects when entities and organizations under the official aegis also receive it, sometimes from the same sources. 

In reality, the money that the Cuban government demonizes is the one that does not go through its control and distribution or the one that is destined to finance projects or publications that are not in tune with the hegemonic discourse of power. From that perspective, the most questioned money comes from U.S. entities such as USAID and NED, which have boosted several independent sites on Cuban affairs in recent years.

The issue of money understood as an “instrument of ideological perversion” is so enthroned in the discrediting strategies that the official spokespersons and libels have no qualms in attributing funds and financing from Washington without being able to demonstrate a single piece of evidence. CaféFuerte, in its time, was subject to such accusations. They are now being said about CiberCuba, which has practiced a private management model not supported by governments or public contributions.

As we know, global journalism has been going through a funding crisis since the 1990s, when the traditional model of revenue from sales and advertising collapsed, forcing the reduction of newsrooms, the loss of research teams and projects, and the limitation of print editions. The irruption of the Internet influenced this change. So, the problem derives from the subordination of newspapers and audiovisual media to advertisers and accountants in the journalism hierarchy. 

In Cuba, the official press’ minimalization occurred since the beginning of the 1990s. For a very different reason: the economic crisis that paralyzed the country after the disappearance of the socialist camp and the Soviet subsidies. Just at that time, the independent press was beginning to proliferate.

It is absurd to think that independent journalists, agencies, and media could survive without help, with all alternative sources of income within the country cut off. So that necessary financing is not what worries me, much less what the official propaganda, which the public treasury finances, is crowing about. 

What is regrettable in many cases―and for many years―are the criteria for allocating and using those financial resources. In the case of funds coming from the U.S. government through USAID and NED, the examples of unjustified and squandered allocations in projects that are not always effective, driven by political preferences, cronyism, and sometimes inexplicable decisions, are enough. And this is a crucial issue. 

The money that the Cuban government demonizes is the one that does not go through its control and distribution or the one that is destined to finance projects or publications that are not in tune with the hegemonic discourse of power.

The only way to help alleviate these blunders is with a system of scrutiny and supervision of the process of allocating funds and an exercise of transparency in the use of money, with periodic reports by the independent media. This exercise should be assumed as a rigorous practice, also thinking about the future functioning of the press in a democratic Cuba.

As a journalist, how do you ensure that your journalistic content and approaches to reporting on Cuba are not influenced by the interests of the media’s sponsors? That is, how does the editorial line of the media outlet may be genuinely independent of the interests of the funders without dictating, determining, or having too much influence on your coverage as an individual journalist?

I think this is an essential professional, deontological issue. It is about professional duties that you must incorporate to do the job in the most balanced and effective way without losing the intentionality behind all informative production. Within the official Cuban journalism, this discussion is out of place because we already know that the sole sponsorship of the State leaves no room for editorial lines detached from the political instrumentation. However, there may be some isolated examples of valuable professional content. 

In my journalistic experience outside Cuba, except for some individual differences, I have not felt the interference of sponsorship to dictate the guidelines of what I should write. That has been the case as a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, editorial producer of América TeVe, deputy director and editor of Diario Las Américas, until my current performance in CiberCuba, absolutely unlinked to the sponsorship of governments and political entities. However, the Cuban regime insists on attributing financial dependencies that it cannot prove. 

I believe this autonomy also concerns the accumulated experience and my perspective on the Cuban case. I have been fortunate; everywhere, I have felt independent to promote the contents that interest me about Cuba. When I have had some resistance to specific topics or approaches, I have discussed and defended them. My informative concept is to achieve completeness of sources and points of view in any journalistic text. That is sometimes annoying for certain editors and colleagues who claim to defend “objectivity” but refuse to include in a story a piece of contextual information or an opinion that does not coincide with their way of seeing the subject. I believe this constructive balance is the key to journalism that we must defend. 

If journalism can play a revealing role in Cuban reality, I have always said that the best strategy is transparency without falsifying or manipulating a single piece of information. I understand that in this map of media and digital sites dedicated to Cuba, quite a few are devoted to propaganda or responding to the whims of the sponsors supporting them. There are reliable examples―why link them―and not even federal entities in the United States are exempt.

What are your experiences of harassment, intimidation, detention, and interrogation by State Security? 

My police interrogations in Cuba are reduced to three. I am referring to the cases where I have been summoned or detained for interrogation. The first occurred when I returned to Cuba from an academic trip to the United States in 1994. It was an interrogation in a cubicle where all my luggage was subjected to review and correspondence. They withheld press clippings and books. They even read the contents of letters that I had offered to take to relatives and friends, and I did not know what they had written to the addressees. It was more than two hours of humiliation, but it was a scripted move. 

I had been in Miami, participated without consulting anyone in the first presentation with the public debate of the film Strawberry and Chocolate in the United States, and met on my own with academics, political prisoners, and people from the exile community. One of those meetings involved a university professor from FIU who was later indicted as an informant for the Cuban intelligence apparatus and served prison time for it in the United States. So, I assume he provided information about me, and they were waiting for me at the airport.

If journalism can play a revealing role in Cuban reality, I have always said that the best strategy is transparency without falsifying or manipulating a single piece of information.

The second interrogation occurred when I was allowed to leave the country months later. I was summoned to the Identity Card Office of the Plaza de la Revolución municipality to “advise me” in friendly terms and ask about people I knew. 

The third was departing from Cuba after a trip with a humanitarian visa to visit my sick mother in 1997. It included the search and retention of materials, among them official press: a Juventud Rebelde newspaper that is an anthology, with a cover display in which an actor characterized as José Martí shakes hands, in a gesture of admiration, with Fidel Castro; I can imagine the reason for the seizure, but it would be good to revisit that picture of delirious worship that must be in their archives. Since that last occasion, I have kept the ticket of the seized materials. 

I can summarize it as a trio of highly unpleasant and tense episodes.

Was your movement inside or outside the country prevented or “regulated”?

I was considered a “deserter.” There were rants from the University of Havana rector inciting an “act of repudiation” in the Faculty of Communication after not returning from an academic trip at the end of 1994. 

I could not return to be with my mother in her last moments of life because the Cuban Embassy in Washington delayed sending me the passport visa with the humanitarian authorization for seven days. Obtaining humanitarian access to see an elderly woman with terminal cancer was agonizing, and I was finally able to travel to visit her grave and accompany my father in 1998. 

My father died years later without me being able to be with him, either. I have never set foot in Cuba again, nor do I plan to return as long as I have to ask for permission or passport “validation” from the estate foremen. So, I cannot say if I am “prevented” from entering my country because I have not found out and am not interested. I need full citizenship rights to return to a Cuba of democratic guarantees without absurd restrictions.

Have you been arrested, harassed, threatened, or defamed?

The defamations began as soon as I joined the editorial staff of El Nuevo Herald as Cuban affairs editor. I had to take on the Elián case from the beginning, which had a price. Two decades ago, I received the first diatribe from the official media in an article entitled “El pobre Can,” which appeared on the digital site La Jiribilla (no. 2, May 2001). This publication emerged as an alternative response to Encuentro en la Red (Encounter on the Web).

I have never set foot in Cuba again, nor do I plan to return as long as I have to ask for permission or passport “validation” from the estate foremen.

It was only the beginning of a series of continuous attempts at destroying the reputation that had its point of maximum infamy in the intelligence operation injected from Cuba to present me, along with a group of colleagues, as a “paid journalist” of the U.S. government. The point of “ethical discordance” was my authorized collaboration to speak on a commentary program on Radio Martí between 2001 and 2006. 

When I speak of “injected operation” I am not weaving conspiracy theories. It is all duly documented how the case was orchestrated and how colleagues from The Miami Herald newsroom were induced to investigate the alleged ethical violation of their colleagues at El Nuevo Herald. The evidence is compiled, and I have been digging for years on this matter, which was a fabricated strategy to later use as “evidence” to claim the acquittal of the Wasp Network spies convicted in U.S. courts. 

I do not expand further because this has taken me years of questions and inquiries and would never end here. I prefer to conclude a book in preparation for the case. It goes further regarding the relations between two professionally and culturally irreconcilable collectives such as El Nuevo Herald / The Miami Herald

I only point out that in the more than three hundred years of the history of journalism in the United States, there is not a single precedent of a publication investigating professional conduct to scrutinize a journalistic collective of the same business matrix. And where those being investigated know nothing about the investigation and are never called to testify before the story is written. That will remain as one of the inexplicable chapters of the Herald’s editorial decisions and the notable characters―among them several Cuban-Americans between naïve and malevolent―who got involved in that “investigation” that they thought would bring them a Pulitzer Prize. 

I’ll leave it there for now. But what was behind that move was, among other things, to try to nullify my professional prestige. And although things fell apart and they had to backtrack after a crisis in the community that unmasked the clumsiness of the managers, editors, and assigned reporters, the ferment remained to damage the image of those related to the alleged ethical misconduct, as you will see if you check the case through the Internet. Hence my interest in explaining it in a book for those who come after me.

To date, what has been the impact of the rise of the new independent digital journalism in Cuba? 

Independent digital journalism has changed the panorama of information about Cuba, inside and outside the island. 

It is a portentous leap if we look at what were the first groups, agencies, and publications that emerged on the fringes of state officialdom to what is today the map of independent journalism. We will see a change in the relationship with the audience and a dynamization of the contents. The exciting thing has been its evolution and adaptation to the new technological challenges and the diversification of its editorial lines and profiles (from sports, show business, and entertainment publications to other literary journalism, investigative journalism, etc.) That’s a chart that advances the recovery of the public space, offers a new type of dialogue with the Cuban reader, and prefigures the media scenario in a future Cuba.

The experience of freedom, even if it is a fleeting visit to Spain or the United States, inevitably marks you, and you begin to be a person with a different perspective on your place in society.

Does independent journalism have a future on the island? 

Of course, it has been an obstacle race for many journalism entrepreneurs and editorial teams. But also, an assertion of a possible path and that the future is this; there is no other way. At the same time, it has posed immediacy challenges and has unsettled official journalism’s silent zones. 

What needs to be changed in the legal environment for it to have more or better possibilities of existence and success?

The lack of legal recognition of independent publications limits their insertion in professional practice with absolute normality. Independent digital journalism from Cuba is in limbo and at the mercy of political situations. Starting with the modification of the constitutional article that will have to be made on the ownership of journalistic media. 

But I am confident that, while we wait for that moment, independent journalism will not disappear. More possibilities of development and presence in Cuban public life will come as part of the inevitable changes in the country.  

Is there any publication or interview of yours to which you could refer me about Cuban journalism?

Interviews with me were published in the digital sites Diario de Cuba (“My great dream is a Cuba without hostility or caciques on duty,” 2010) and 14yMedio (“No other manifestation of Cuban culture has been as subdued as journalism,” 2015). I think that’s pretty much it.

What was the reason for your decision to emigrate? 

In 1993, when I started my Ph.D. in Information Sciences in Spain, I felt I had reached a limit about my place as a teacher and journalism professional. I began to feel exiled inside Cuba, limited in what I could do and write. The economically precarious situation of the so-called “Special Period” was a catalyst to look for a way out. Besides, as mentioned above, the harassment by MININT “comrades”  after my return from the trip to the United States. 

The independent journalism movement arose in the heat of the general crisis of the socialist system, which hit the Cuban reality and intensified the deterioration of the pillars sustaining the stereotypes of the Cuban regime.

The experience of freedom, even if it is a fleeting visit to Spain or the United States, inevitably marks you, and you begin to be a person with a different perspective on your place in society. I never thought of leaving my country and was not prepared for exile. These almost three decades of absence from Cuba have been a learning experience that I do not regret, but not without heartbreaks. Exile is synonymous with loss, no matter how much success may accompany you. 

Have you been able to continue working as a journalist outside the country? 

I must say that I feel privileged because I have been able to work from the beginning in journalism and academic activity. I have found myself in complex situations to stay in this professional sector, but fortunately, I have solved it in one way or another. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. 

What are the challenges of covering Cuban issues while abroad? 

Covering Cuban issues from abroad is a great challenge, mainly because the physical absence of the place takes its toll and what was part of your daily life or your testimony becomes an “object of study.”

Keeping myself informed about Cuba has been an obsessive goal, without which I would not feel able to talk about specific topics. I force myself to read everything I can about Cuba, talk to people inside Cuba, and listen to conversations to not disassociate myself from new turns of phrases and words in Cuban speech. But in any case, some nuances disappear as part of the uprooting.

What are the advantages?

The advantages of this have been to approach Cuba from the perspective of distancing, putting it in the comparative context internationally with more access to valuation sources. The broad knowledge of the exile community has been enriching. So is filling in omissions made in Cuba about the history and contribution of the emigrants. It allows you to feel the heartbeat of the other part of being Cuban, which favors a good balance of information. And to be able to write without the limits of censorship. 

What do you know about the history of Cuban independent journalism before the current new digital movement? 

I was still in Cuba when the first pockets of independent journalism began to form in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The independent journalism movement arose in the heat of the general crisis of the socialist system, which hit the Cuban reality and intensified the deterioration of the pillars sustaining the stereotypes of the Cuban regime. Demonstrations and human rights groups were on the rise, discredit cracks were opening up in the spheres of power (defections, corruption cases), and the propaganda system was becoming increasingly vulnerable.

I force myself to read everything I can about Cuba, talk to people inside Cuba, and listen to conversations to not disassociate myself from new turns of phrases and words in Cuban speech.

Who were the pioneers of independent journalism in Cuba?

In this context of commotion, initiatives such as the Association of Independent Journalists of Cuba (APIC, 1988), led by Yndamiro Restano, appeared to transmit articles abroad to show the world a reality outside the narrative of the state media. The entity managed to attract some collaborators, among them figures from the academic and journalistic world who were dissatisfied with the country’s situation or had dismounted from the official bandwagon. 

Towards 1990, small work teams or agencies began to emerge, the seedlings of the movement that would grow stronger during the decade. This group included Raúl Rivero, Bernardo Marqués Ravelo, Orlando Fondevilla, Manuel Vázquez Portal, Ana Luisa López Baeza, Tania Quintero, and Olance Nogueras, among other names that come to mind now. The phenomenon spread to the country’s interior and became a national phenomenon. 

By 2003, when the government coup known as the Black Spring took place, the independent press movement was diverse and widespread, with the support of groups and organizations from abroad, and had diversified information production. Its reports multiplied and were received in newspapers, magazines, and radio stations in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. A professional association of the guild identified as the Manuel Márquez Sterling Society of Journalists was born; the magazine De Cuba emerged; and even a project for an audiovisual newscast for television in the city of Camagüey began to develop. 

That is the scenario that the Cuban government disarticulates with the Cause of the 75.

Do you identify with this story as part of your professional history now that you are a journalist?

Of course, it is a fundamental part of the history of Cuban journalism. It is what precedes the explosion of Cuban digital journalism that flourishes with access to new technological tools and supports, with the imprint of the Internet. I have all the respect and recognition for the people who forged that challenging possibility in difficult conditions and I feel identified as part of that professional history.

March 18, 2022.

© Edición en inglés: Andrés Jorge González.

© Imagen de portada: Wilfredo Cancio Isla.


Aleksandr Dugin on Cuba

Ladislao Aguado

Aleksandr Dugin, an advocate of a new imperial Russiaand, for many, the intelligence behind Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, shares his views on Cuba’s crucial role in “awakening a shared consciousness and identity in Latin America”.

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2 Comentarios
  1. Cancio Isla, genio y figura hasta la sepultura. Menudo personajillo para darse autobombo y creerse el Dios del periodismo cubano. Contrario a su versión de la historia, con tintes homófobos como él propio Cancio y su mentalidad «all fashion», en Sancti Spíritus pocos le tuvieron demasiada estima. No recuerdo a nadie que lo considere como maestro de algo. A los maestros se les llega a venerar, incluso aunque profesen otra ideología o aunque mares de diferencia los separen de nosotros. A Cancio se le recuerda en su tierra natal, eso sí, como autosuficiente-insuficiente. Un tipo que anda poniéndose medallas que no le tocan. Ni siquiera por ser polémico ni contestatario, a diferencia de otros periodistas oficialistas coetáneos suyos que -dentro de los límites que impone el sistema sí que hicieron cosas más audaces, mientras él se echaba fresco debajo de la cintura. Pero lo peor es que, una vez que pasó a mejor vida, a Cancio se le siguió viendo en Miami como un personajillo retorcido y arrogante. Sus problemas en el Nuevo Herald dicen mucho de la percepción que sus colectivos laborales han tenido como él. Ahora con su medio online, financiado por la USAID, ha alcanzado notoriedad y pretende erigirse en vaca sagrada, después de años haciendo notas informativas en un blog personal que pasaba inadvertido, hasta para la mayoría de la comunidad cubano-americana. Yo como cubano quisiera un cambio para mi país natal pero no quisiera que la Cuba del futuro fuera moldeada por la arrogancia de gente como este señor.

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