Cuba's Black Market Loosens Government Control Of Information

David Greene met with two journalists on his trip to Cuba. One hosts a show at a state-run radio station. The other runs an independent news agency and distributes material by hand and USB drive.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I am broadcasting this week from Miami. This city, with its huge Cuban-American population, pays close attention to developments in Cuba. The reverse is not so easy. Cubans have a hard time getting information about what's happening in Florida or anywhere. Despite talk of change for years, the Castros still control the flow of information. And one reason we went to Cuba last week was to learn about life in such a restrictive environment. Most Cubans can't access the Internet and can't easily pick up radio or TV, beyond what the government approves. But there's quite a black market. Some Cubans have illegal satellite dishes and tune into Florida TV. Others get the latest in movies and shows from abroad this way.

This is a little room off a Havana street, where for $2, a guy will fill up a flash drive with TV shows, movies, recent major league baseball games. We asked him about the options.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ah, "Law And Order" (Spanish spoken).

GREENE: People talk about this underground trade in hushed tones, though the government generally have lets to happen freely. The government is much more sensitive when it comes to the news business. And we're about to meet two very different kinds of journalists. One is a central figure in the state-run media the other is a dissident. We begin here at Radio Rebelde or Rebel Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Spanish spoken).

GREENE: We were in the studio for a station that was founded in 1958 by Che Guevara, who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. On our visit, the head of a major state bank was taking some tough questions from callers.

MAN: (Spanish spoken).

GREENE: I was listening in the control room. And the man to my right started whispering in my ear that I should be impressed with this bank official seemingly on the hot seat.

ARNALDO CORO ATEACH: Live on the air over a national network and through the Internet that his company is playing mad.

GREENE: Is that a big deal?

ATEACH: This is something quite outstanding to see - senior official talking along this line.

GREENE: The man was Arnaldo Coro Ateach. People just call him Coro. He's a veteran host of a morning radio show on another station, also government-approved. But he came by here to meet me. We found a quieter place to chat. And I asked Coro what life is like as a journalist working for a government outlet. He said it's changing for the better. Cuban state-run media seems to be allowing for critical coverage with limits, of course. And Coro acknowledges that there are always risks.

ATEACH: Well, anytime that you go on the air, you are always under the risk of doing a mistake. But when a mistake is done, it can always be corrected, especially when the people in charge of the nation are willing to understand that what you have done is something you have done in goodwill. You know, I am always playing with the Cuban team and that's the most important thing of all.

GREENE: If a lot of Americans heard that they would say, oh, my goodness. I would never want a journalist to say I'm playing for the American team.

ATEACH: The first thing about a Cuban person is to be a patriot.

GREENE: You're saying there's a lot of change happening.

ATEACH: Yes, of course.

GREENE: Are we at a point, yet, where you or someone who comes on the program could openly criticize the president, the government.

ATEACH: You should have heard what I heard on this Haciendo Radio today. Some of the people that were live on that program were speaking very, very hard about the president of the bank of the city of Havana.

GREENE: But that's still several steps away from, you know, the president. But you're saying that's a positive step to be criticizing an official so high up, like the bank.

ATEACH: Well, the president of our country criticizes our problems very frequently. You should be present at the parliament and hear him talking about the things, like for example the way that people are behaving, society.

GREENE: What would you tell one of our listeners, who jumped to this assumption that, you know, if you're on a radio program in the morning national that you must be part of the government propaganda?

ATEACH: Well, I'm not part of a propaganda machine. I'm a Cuban journalist and that means that I do my work seriously in a very, very committed way. I'm trying always to be as subjective as possible. But I defend my nation.

GREENE: Now, as for journalists who are not sanctioned by the government, they face a tougher time. There is a culture of dissident bloggers in Cuba - most prominent Yoani Sanchez, who has a new online newspaper. But the group Reporters Without Borders ranks Cuba almost at the bottom when it comes to protecting press freedom. They say independent journalists are routinely detained and harassed. Changing that culture in Cuba has been a priority for the United States government, whose diplomats in Havana work in a heavily-guarded building right along the waterfront. It's not an embassy. It's called the U.S. Interest Section and it's about six stories high or so. And during George W. Bush's presidency, the U.S. government put up this news ticker on one of the upper floors. And it would run messages. According to Mark Frank, this veteran journalist in Cuba, it would say things like when people lose their fear, totalitarian regimes lose power. And it was supposed to be a message to the Cuban people. Now, the Cuban government responded by putting up more than 100 flagpoles and flags, blocking the view of that news ticker. The ticker and the flags are now gone but the tension is not. And we got a big hint why when we visited Roberto Guerra. He's the dissident, the founder and an editor of Hablemos Press, an independent news agency. His office is a cramped room in a Havana apartment, where each week he and a few dozen colleagues produce what looks like a newspaper, though it's printed on regular 8 1/2 by 11 sheets. He read a sum of the headlines.

ROBERTO GUERRA: (Through translator) This article is about a group of peasants that have nowhere to live. They have no living - and so they occupied an abandoned prison.

GREENE: Guerra distributes his paper in hard copy and also on USB drives. And he has paid a price for doing this. He estimates he's been detained 160 times. Earlier this month, he was beaten up on the street. His nose was broken and he was stabbed in the head with a pencil. When we spoke, Guerra told us something unexpected. He learns about journalism at the U.S. Interests Section.

GUERRA: (Through translator) And ever since I came to Havana, I've been able to in touch with opposition groups. And the U.S. Section of Interest has been training me to be a journalist. Ever since 2003, at the U.S. intersection, I get trained through video conferences. And it's through the International University of Florida.

GREENE: It's worth remembering the recent revelations that the U.S. created a Twitter-like platform in Cuba. The United States is still trying to break through the Cuban government's grip on information. It's just hard to know the impact of their efforts. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: For Your Information -The State Department offered the following statement to NPR inquires, but the information arrived too late for our broadcast:The U.S. government provides funding for democracy building programs in Cuba --such as basic skills for journalists -- that promote the free flow of information to, from, and throughout the island—and we will continue to do so. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana provides journalism courses via video conference to any journalist, or would-be journalist, who wants to take the course. These types of programs are consistent with the work our missions do around the world.]This is NPR News.

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