Cuban independent journalist and Nathan Thornburgh talk about their respective arrests in Cuba, and about why she does what she does, despite all the risks.
Something unusual and even a little hopeful happened in Havana this weekend. There was a rare public protest outside of the Culture Ministry building. The people speaking, and clapping, and singing, actually forced the Cuban government into dialogue about censorship in the country. Who knows where things will go from there, but I do know this: Cuba, for all of its moldering beauty, should scare us. Not just because its regime is so cynical and self-aware enough of its own rot that it actually punishes people by preventing them from leaving their country. No, it should scare us also because of people here in the U.S., people who hate the press as much as any Cuban functionary. Our outgoing administration rails against socialism, while creating their own de facto State news channels and publicly intimidating and discrediting independent media. It is a perfect blueprint for running a country like a Castro.
But, maybe, just maybe, better traditions will win out both in the U.S. and in Cuba. Independent journalism has flourished on the island in the past five years, at great risk but with a protozoic zeal for truth and real reporting. Today’s guest sat down with me in on a warm Havana morning just before COVID locked us all down for the rest of the year. Her name is Mónica Baró, and she’s an independent journalist at the vanguard of this movement, reporting the truth in a country that denies its own facts, doing so at great personal risk. It’s enough to make you want to sit in and clap, and sing, and fight the good fight wherever you live.
Nathan Thornburgh: How did you get into journalism?
Monica Baró: So, that’s a big question. I started writing. I’m a person who tells stories, that’s who I am. I have been writing since I was 10 years old, more or less. And I decided to study journalism because I didn’t have too many options once I finished [a technical degree in accounting]. In my time, there was no high school in the cities, and I didn’t want to go to the countryside to study, so I decided to do a technical degree.
And when I finished there, I had to try to get to the university [by doing a] special test. A lot of people under 25 do that kind of test if they want to go to university, but that’s not the regular way, because you are competing with a lot of people at the same time. And journalism was [an easy choice] in a way, because they have a special test—a general culture test, and also a test showing your writing abilities to write, and an interview. And for me, it was easy to pass that test. Well, I [was selected]. I decided to study journalism because I wanted to have a university degree.
Thornburgh: Any kind of degree.
Baró: Any kind of degree. For me, it was in a way to make my parents happy.
Thornburgh: They expected that of you.
Baró: They expected that. And it was not an imposition, I wanted them to feel proud of me. It was important to me to do that. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything to study journalism. It was something that I wanted to do, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a journalist.
I’m prepared for anything. For going to jail, for being arrested, for being regulated, which means that you are not allowed to travel.
Thornburgh: What did you think of journalism? Did you have role models? You were not really thinking about it then.
Baró: I only thought that I could write. Of course, the [job] was completely different. When I graduated from university, I didn’t want to write anything. For me, it was very frustrating because education here in Cuba is very, very, very, very violent in a way, and it’s very old. It’s not focused on making you a more creative person, or making you a free person. It’s focused on teaching you how to reproduce something.
I had the idea that I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to do journalism, but I didn’t have the opportunity of living as a journalist, because when I finished university, I was at a state magazine almost two years, and it was a very frustrating experience because I didn’t feel proud of what I was writing, and no one recognized my job, or even the magazine, at all.
Thornburgh: What was it called?
Baró: Bohemia. It’s the oldest magazine Latin America. It was formed in 1908.
Baró: In the ’40s and the ’50s, it was a very good magazine, but after 1959, everything changed here.
Thornburgh: And it’s now a government magazine that’s not in the business of saying interesting things, or making stars of its writers.
Baró: Not in the business of making journalism at all. Only propaganda.
Thornburgh: Did you learn anything there?
Baró: Yes, of course. I learned that I didn’t want to do that kind of journalism.
Thornburgh: What more can you ask from a job? God bless Bohemia and all of its lessons for you.
Baró: Exactly. And after that, I had a similar experience, because I was at a research center for philosophy, and I was working with local governments as a researcher trying to collaborate and develop a process of participation, a democratic process for changing things in communities. But then, I realized that I was there thinking as a journalist. I didn’t want to give advice. I wanted to tell everybody about the problems.
Thornburgh: That is a very nice distillation of what journalists do. So then you took off, and is that when you decided to do independent journalism?
Baró: Yes. At that time, I really didn’t find a project with which I identified. Then Periodismo de Barrio came out. Elaine Diaz, who is the director right now, announced it and asked for people to participate and apply.
Thornburgh: So the name means neighborhood journalism?
Baró: Exactly. Like community journalism. In the state media, most of the time stories are told from the official source’s point of view. So the perspective was to tell stories from the peoples’ points of view.
Thornburgh: And this was a non-aligned, I assume, non-government connected project?
Baró: It was independent. Completely independent.
Thornburgh: That’s dangerous.
Baró: Yes. It was one of the first independent projects that came out after 14 y Medio, a newspaper [rooted in] Yoani Sanchez’s experience as a blogger. Periodismo de Barrio came from a different experience, because Elaine Diaz was a professor as well as an important blogger at the same time as Yoani Sanchez, and she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. And after her time at Harvard she came back and founded this project—it was the result of the fellowship. October 2015 was the first time we published.
Thornburgh: She came back from the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to start this project which takes, what we would call, chutzpah. As someone who got arrested in Cuba, in part thanks to the authorities’ distaste for Yoani Sanchez, I feel the risk of this endeavor pretty strongly. Were you nervous?
Baró: I don’t think of that. You can’t be here doing independent journalism and thinking about that all the time. Of course, I’m conscious of it, and about the risks that I’m taking all the time, but when I do my job, I try to focus on my job. I don’t like to have distractions.
Thornburgh: Does that mean always having a bag ready to go?
Baró: That means having a security protocol. And that means having your information in safe places. That means that having networks for denouncing any kind of harassment or violence you suffer. That means that you know what to do if something goes wrong, immediately. You know how to react. When I have to work, I focus on my work.
What I’m doing is illegal. There are a lot of felonies I’m committing as an independent journalist.
Thornburgh: And you’re not always nagged by unfinished business or not being prepared.
Baró: It’s not smart to worry, because there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. It’s like thinking about death. You can die anytime. There’s danger all the time, but you don’t think of that, because it’s not useful. There’s nothing you can to prevent life from happening. Death is going to happen.
Thornburgh: Death, taxes, and possible arrest by the subjugating authorities.
Baró: What I’m doing is illegal. There are a lot of felonies that I’m committing as an independent journalist. It’s completely illegal. With 20 years of jail time, something like that.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing. I would have suspected that the laws were not so naked, maybe, that it was more just the practice of repressing independent journalism, but there are actually laws against it.
Baró: The constitution doesn’t recognize independent journalists, because they say that the only media that has the right to exist is the one ruled by the state. In the penal code, you find that [we violate] articles all the time. Like tax evasion. That could be one, because I don’t pay anything. I don’t pay taxes on my income, because my profession is not recognized, so I’m not paying any taxes.
Thornburgh: You can’t even declare your income.
Baró: Exactly. My job doesn’t exist.
Baró: Exactly. So there’s another [term] here in Cuba, sort of a “dangerous state”, when someone is [at risk of] committing a crime, like in the movie Minority Report, they could go to jail for one or two years.
Thornburgh: Just for a thought crime.
Baró: Yes, because the authorities think that you are capable of committing a crime, because for example you don’t have a job, a regular job, so you are seen as a person vulnerable to committing a crime. So they could use the “dangerous state” term to put you in jail.
And then there’s Law 88. It’s related to the U.S. embargo, and states that any journalist or person who publishes something that creates reasons for the U.S. to sustain the embargo could go to jail. That was the law the government used in 2003 during the Black Spring, when 75 people went to jail for doing journalism, or any kind of activism.
Thornburgh: How deeply is this podcast episode violating Law 88?
Baró: Well, if you are not here as a journalist, and if you didn’t go to the international press center [to register], you are probably doing something illegal.
Thornburgh: This is why I got arrested, the last time I was arrested here.
Thornburgh: But what the fuck? I mean, they won’t give you permission.
Thornburgh: So why ask? To be honest, I think that’s why I got arrested last time, because, one, we had done something at Time Magazine with Yoani Sanchez, but two, I applied for a journalist visa, so they knew I was coming. They just never got back to me. They were just like, “Thanks for the application, if you do show up, we’re going to arrest you.”
Thornburgh: It’s just a profoundly different experience to face that as an American, who gets to go home. So I don’t want to compare our experiences. The risks that you put yourself in, and your colleagues, is a very different form and style, and gravity. Is the work that you do worth it?
Baró: Yes, I believe so. There are a lot of journalists that ask themselves all the time, What’s the meaning of what I do if nothing changes? I’m not that kind of journalist. I think that my job is to denounce what’s wrong in my society. And the work of activists, and society, and politicians, is to fix it. And I think I do my job. And if everybody does their jobs, society would be better, in a way.
Everyone who lives in Cuba has thought about leaving the country
Thornburgh: Since we’re breaking some laws, let’s dive right into more law-breaking. Tell me, what is the biggest problem in Cuba? What is keeping this country back?
Baró: In my opinion, it is the lack of freedoms. It’s not the embargo. It’s not that we are a poor country. It’s the lack of freedoms. A lot of young people are leaving the country, a lot of capable people, a lot of talented people, and that’s a loss you cannot get back. You cannot measure how long it will take to recover from something like that. The government is only worried about keeping power in all directions. For me, that’s the biggest problem here in Cuba.
Thornburgh: The brain drain is enormous. Nobody knows how many people have just died trying to leave this country, which is insane, but a sign that people who see opportunity as something that’s just not going to come here in Cuba is enormous. How do you, as a free press-loving journalist, stay in Cuba. I mean, you could go practice journalism freely in so many places.
Baró: I love to do journalism here. Of course, everyone who lives in Cuba has thought about leaving the country. It’s not possible to find someone here who hasn’t considered that at some point in their life. But I love the stories that I tell here. And I love the reality, even with so many problems.