By Ernesto Londōno, The New York Times, October 20, 2015
Elaine Díaz, the first Cuban journalist to receive a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, returned home earlier this year and resigned from the University of Havana, where she taught for seven years. Last weekend, she launched a news startup, Periodismo de Barrio, or Community Journalism. I asked her about her plans, the new era in relations between the United States and Cuba and her impressions of the United States.
You recently quit your job to launch an independent news site in a country with no press freedom laws, no independent printing presses and extremely limited Internet access. What were you thinking?
I believe in journalism as a force that can improve societies. I also believe that there are problems in local areas in Cuba that need to be addressed. A process as complex as the economic and social reforms that are taking place in my country at this moment, in the midst of broadening ties with the United States, needs as many voices as you can get to illuminate the Cuba that is emerging.
Describe the types of censorship in Cuba today.
To properly describe censorship in Cuba I would have needed to have worked at a state-run media outlet and I never did. My taste of censorship on the island stems from pieces I published on my blog, La Polémica Digital, the Digital Controversy.
How were you censored?
There were occasional reprimands from my bosses at the University of Havana, a state-run institution, for critical posts. I have friends who were punished or removed from their jobs as a result of articles they posted online. Interestingly, there are people within state media who are eager to spread news that they couldn’t publish. I once wrote an article exposing corruption at a boarding school. The former deputy director of the state-run Cuban News Agency printed the post and left it in the office of the Ministry of Education. They launched an investigation and the director was fired and faced legal charges.
What subjects will your team focus on?
Do you know how long a person can wait in Cuba to rebuild a home after a hurricane? Seven years, ten years, fifteen years, a lifetime. Periodismo de Barrio is a non-profit outlet that will report stories about local communities affected by natural disasters and those that are vulnerable to hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, landslides and man-made calamities. We want to tell the stories of those people. With a little luck and good work, we hope to find solutions to their problems.
How will you pay the bills?
In Cuba, journalists employed by state media outlets make between $25 to $30 a month. For that reason, many moonlight at other outlets, including international news organizations. We are currently paying journalists $100 per month. It’s not much. But it is what I can afford with the money I saved during my fellowship. Going forward, we may consider working with non-government organizations that support international journalism and crowd-funding.
How will you reach readers?
Besides our website, we intend to publish on Reflejos.cu, a site within Cuba’s intranet that hosts blogs and is accessible to Cubans who have government-provided Internet connections at work and at home. We hope our content will be included in el paquete, multimedia packages that are distributed weekly to Cuban homes in hard drives that people use to download movies and reading material on personal laptops. We also will distribute articles to community leaders and government officials using flash drives, and occasionally printouts.
Is it problematic to take money from American organizations?
It depends on where the money comes from. Several universities and organizations in the United States have been supporting initiatives in Cuba for years and are well known. There are also groups that get money from the American government for “democracy promotion.” We want nothing to do with the latter.
Independent journalists in Cuba are often branded as “dissidents.” What does that word mean to you and are you worried about being labeled as one?
If a dissident is someone who expresses dissent, then I’m one of them. If a dissident is someone who belongs to the political opposition, then I’m not one. I’m not worried about being labeled a dissident. I’m not worried about labels at all. People usually label others with little or no information about them in Cuba. I can live with that.
Does the new era in American relations with Cuba make it easier for you and other journalists who want to do independent work?
It has created a more relaxed atmosphere, an environment in which thinking differently is no longer interpreted as “giving ammunition to the enemy,” because “the enemy” is now a government with which my president sits down to discuss our differences. We would like to work with organizations that are located in the United States and support journalism projects around the world, and with those who have done serious work in Cuba in recent years. New regulations implemented by the Treasury Department make that possible. How easy is it to get interviews with government officials or official information that is not in the public domain?
So far, we have gotten many interviews. Some people have turned us down. In each case, we have explained what Periodismo de Barrio is, who we are, where we have worked before. People ask if we belong to media outlets associated with the political opposition. We answer truthfully: no. People tend to trust us or at least they give us the benefit of the doubt.
Will you write about politics?
In Cuba, everything is related to politics.
Do you expect you will have to self-censor to some extent?
I hope not.
During your time in the United States you befriended many American journalists and visited several newsrooms. What did you come to see as the biggest strength and biggest weakness of the American press?
Journalists in the United States have a robust legal framework that protects the exercise of our work. The biggest weakness? I worry that overhauling traditional business models has eroded the vocation of public service that must be at the heart of journalism.
How did your year in Boston change your perceptions of America and Americans? What were the most pleasant and unwelcome surprises?
I realized American journalists suffer from many of the same kind of issues I faced in Cuba. I commiserated with them and realized the scope of the financial crisis our industry is struggling to overcome. The hardest thing was getting sick, and realizing that the deductible of my insurance policy was incredibly high. Once, I sent a photo of a rash on my hands to a Cuban doctor in Sierra Leone so he could diagnose it. I have never felt so afraid of getting sick as I did during those 10 months in the United States.