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Expanding Free Press in a Closed Society

March 4, 2014 8 minute Read by William McKenzie

Normando Hernandez is a Bush Institute fellow in human freedom and an independent journalist. In his latter role, he provides alternative sources of news and information in Cuba. He has won journalism awards from the Norwegian Writers Association, the PEN American Center and the Inter-American Press Association for excellence in journalism (2003). You can read more about his biography at the Freedom Collection.

Curious about what he calls “alternative journalism,” I asked Hernandez to explain his work. Expanding a free press in a closed society seems like an oxymoron. And how do you promote a free press from the United States, where Hernandez now lives after being exiled?

Here is the text of the email Q&A he and I recently conducted. His answers have been translated from Spanish into English.

You are practicing "alternative journalism" from Florida. What does that mean? Could you give us some examples? 

We are performing alternative journalism within Cuba. In Florida there is only the ICLEP, or the Cuban Institute for Freedom on Expression and the Press. It coordinates projects to help Cubans defend and promote freedom of speech and press in Cuba. It also tries to empower people so they can master their environment and not remain subjected to the arbitrariness in which they live. 

The "alternative journalism," or, as we like to call it, "citizen journalism," can be conceptualized as a citizen or group of citizens who collect, transmit, analyze and disseminate information. 

In one year, we have created five bulletins in five different Cuban provinces. They are intended as informative, inclusive and diverse publications. They report on taboo issues that the Cuban regime is not reporting through the mass media the state monopolizes.

For example, people are informed about the work and interests of the dissent movement, about peaceful opposition, about independent trade unions and about alternative cultural groups within Cuba.  

As another example, the publications inform people about the corruption, theft and vandalism that exist in government companies and entities.

How do you get your information about Cuba? 

Those who are at the forefront of projects within Cuba and their collaborators have created networks of sources in their communities. Through them, they obtain accurate and timely information about the most significant events. They also obtain information through direct observation, research and trusted networks of relatives, neighbors and friends in every community. 

How do average Cubans access the flow of information you provide? And what response have you received from them? 

Through resources provided by the ICLEP, 500 copies of a bulletin are printed every fortnight. In other words, one thousand bulletins each month.  

If you consider each bulletin is read by six people, which is a conservative figure, we're reaching on average about 6,000 people every month in the communities. The bulletins are distributed there for free.  

To give you an idea of the impact, the Panorama Pinareño bulletin is distributed among a population of 137,320 inhabitants. It reaches 43.7 % of that population. 

After a year, we have shown the effectiveness and acceptance of this communication work. The population has steadily demanded bulletins. Common Cubans collaborate through bringing information to those who work directly in the project. And everyday Cubans bring the bulletin to the state agencies, governments and headquarters of the Communist Party of their towns. They challenge the authorities to solve the problems that appear in the bulletins. 

And what about the government? What response have you gotten from it? 

The regime has responded in various ways. Many times it has responded to the criticism published in the bulletins by solving the community problems.  

Other times they try to convince the journalists not to continue publishing bulletins. They tell them that if they present problems that exist in the community directly to the government, the government will provide a solution for them.  

And at other times, the government threatens to incarcerate those who are leading the publications. 

Also, the agents of State Security, in collusion with the National Revolutionary Police and the paramilitaries, have beaten those who distribute bulletins in the streets of Cuba.   

The most important thing is that those who carry the project are willing to take all the necessary risks to perform their communication work on behalf of truth and freedom of speech and the press. 

It would seem like the Internet would be a friend to independent journalists trying to write about the realities of a totalitarian state. But is that the case? 

The Internet is the best ally of citizen journalists. Unfortunately, in Cuba Internet service is very limited for most of the population. Therefore, we are doing Journalism 3.0 and publishing bulletins.  

How is the Internet limited? 

Most Cubans who access the Internet in Cuba do it through the regime’s intranet system.  Last year, the regime built 118 rooms to browse through its intranet. The cost is 4.50 CUC (Convertible Cuban currency) per hour. Citizens can also surf the Internet in hotels and cybercafes. But the price is between 6 and 10 CUC per hour.

In reality, the Internet continues to be censored due to the prohibitive hourly price of using it. There is information that, in April, the regime will allow access to the Internet via wireless phones. But as I said before, the prices continue to be prohibitive for Cubans.

To give you an idea, someone who only uses the Internet to send or receive emails (200 or 33 megabytes per month) would have to pay between 1,024 and 1,536 CUC each month. That would be for only reading emails and surfing about three pages per day. Let’s not forget that the average wage in Cuba is about $20 per month.

Some Cubans do surf the Internet by buying in the black market from students and foreign residents in Cuba. They gain access to accounts that get them on the Internet at a monthly price of 60 to 80 CUC.

Always looking forward, ICLEP has a new project about to be implemented in Cuba. We call it encuba.

This project consists of creating the first network of digital citizens’ newspapers within the island. The motto is: We want to be your source. We want to be your source of information, your source of inspiration, your source of truth, and your source of solidarity.

This new project continues what is already working with the bulletins.

What led you into journalism? That’s not a typical career path in a closed society. 

In any closed regime, journalism is a career that only people very well chosen by the ideologues of the regime can study. This was not my case. I got into journalism due to necessity. I got into it to break the silence zone imposed by the regime in the eastern central part of the island. I was an active member of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights. It's a long story which can be told at a later time.


Normando Hernandez on the Freedom Collection



William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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