Reporting from under the Cuban radar

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RNW works together with journalists around the world. Some of them work in countries where press freedom is restricted. In our summer series “The limits of free speech” our reporters on the spot describe their experiences. Wim Jansen reports on Cuba, a country he has been visiting for 30 years. It’s not easy to get there, he says, but once you do, it is not difficult to find people who are willing to speak.

By Wim Jansen

September 1979. There’s a struggle just outside the doors of the pompous Hotel Nacional in Havana. Trapped between two heavies, Dutch journalist Dick Verkijk is being hustled to a waiting car. As the threesome passed close to me, Verkijk called out: “Wim, they’re throwing me out of the country. Call the embassy!” And that was it. Gone. Straight to the airport.

Cold war
It was the middle of the Cold War when I travelled to Cuba for the first time. A young, inexperienced journalist, I was pleasantly surprised to be granted a visa to attend a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. A visa I was eager to make use of to produce a series of reports about life in the land of Fidel Castro.

I was greeted by a friendly lady at the international press centre when I went to pick up my accreditation. Who was I going to interview? And did I want to interview a minister? Fidel Castro perhaps? My mouth fell open. Would that really be possible? With a friendly smile, she assured me she’d do her best ‘just for me’. Later I heard that the same special offer was made to all 800 journalists who’d come to the Communist island. In the end, not one of us was granted an interview with either El Commandante himself or one of his ministers.

Smiling critics
That wasn’t a problem for my newspaper. My editors wanted stories about ordinary Cubans: how do they get by? Are they happy with Russia’s support? Do they really hate America? Even though my journalist’s visa was officially only valid for the conference, I was able to move about fairly freely. I spoke to Cubans queueing in front of a shop whose shelves were bare, to a teacher at a primary school where I just wandered in off the street and to a forklift driver down on the docks. Cubans aren’t scared to talk and will cloak their criticisms in jokes and humour.

After that first trip, the Cuban embassy in The Hague informed me they were disappointed in me. I had broken the rules, and I would not be getting another visa. Five years later, that ban had obviously got lost somewhere in the filing cabinets, and my annual request was suddenly met with approval.

Duty to complain
I’ve now made seven trips to Cuba (including one visit as a tourist with my family). After each one, I’d get complaints either directly or indirectly that I hadn’t stuck to my officially approved programme or that I’d snuck off and talked to dissidents. “But you must understand that as a journalist I have to tell all sides of a story” I’d say to the embassy official. “And you must understand that as a diplomat it’s my duty to complain about it” the attaché would reply.

In all honesty, I love reporting from Cuba despite the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. Once you have a visa, you can move about relatively freely, flying under the radar of the international press centre. You just have to be reasonably discreet - don’t take any crusading attitudes and don’t express your own opinions too loudly. Ignore that advice and you may find yourself being forcibly escorted to the airport by a couple of anonymous heavies.