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Independent Journalists Struggle to Present Another Face of Cuba

March 13, 1996

HAVANA (AP) _ The phone rings every half-hour or so in the house of jailed journalist Rafael Solano. When his family answers, there is only silence.

They say the government has rigged a machine to call repeatedly, robbing them of sleep and keeping them on edge. Only recently did security agents pull back from the house.

So goes the vigil for Solano, who was arrested Feb. 27 and charged with ``delinquent association,″ which carries a three-year sentence.

``Don’t you worry. They are doing their job and I am doing mine,″ Petronila Morales, 60, quoted her son as telling her at Villa Marista prison. ``The worst that can happen is three years.″

Solano is among a new breed of independent journalists in Cuba, where the Communist government has long controlled all news media.

Disillusioned with the state media’s failure to chronicle many aspects of Cuban life, journalists created three independent news agencies last year. They file their dispatches by telephone, with foreign travelers and on the Internet.

But they do so at their own peril.

Journalists repeatedly have been arrested or detained in recent months and accused of disseminating propaganda, associating with dissidents or receiving U.S. government funds.

Solano, director of the HabanaPress news agency, has been arrested six times in the past 10 months. Roxana Valdivia, an independent reporter in the central city of Ciego de Avila, has been jailed several times and told to leave the country or face another prison term.

The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders sent a letter to President Fidel Castro on Monday demanding Solano’s release and an end to threats against Valdivia.

Some independent journalists acknowledge they are in frequent contact with the Concilio Cubano, an umbrella group for more than 130 anti-Castro organizations in Cuba, the United States and Puerto Rico.

They also admit receiving books and newspapers from U.S. diplomats operating out of the Swiss embassy. Their telephone interviews with the U.S. government-funded Radio Marti, which broadcasts news from the United States to Cuba, don’t endear them to Cuban authorities.

But they insist that they are not working to topple the government or for any opposition movement.

``We are not delinquents. We are journalists. We are not spokesmen for whatever party,″ said Jose Rivera Garcia, assistant director of the independent news agency Cuba Press.

The decision to leave the official press is a difficult one. Reporters give up paying jobs and their domestic audience. They often don’t know who abroad will hear their message.

Cuba Press’ director, Raul Rivero, abandoned a career with the government news agency Prensa Latina and an official writers’ union to go it alone. He was fed up with constant blame of the U.S. economic embargo for Cuba’s problems.

``It’s a type of suicide,″ Rivero said of his decision to resign.

Rivero collects handwritten, typewritten and telephoned dispatches from 14 reporters throughout Cuba. Colleagues in the official press also give him news. His fourth-floor Havana apartment functions as his office, equipped with a manual typewriter and telephone.

He thumbs through folders of copy filed by his correspondents. A story on academic freedoms. Another on Cuban baseball. A music review.

``I insist that they use their names,″ he said of his writers. One, Reynald Soto, is in prison, serving a two-year term for propaganda. He files his reports by letter through his wife.

Rivero relays some of his news in interviews with Puerto Rican and mainland U.S. radio stations. He also dictates stories to Nancy Perez Crespo, a book publisher in Miami, who tries to sell them to foreign and domestic newspapers. A volunteer in Washington, D.C., puts some of the dispatches on a World Wide Web page on the Internet.

Rivero was one of about 50 reporters and dissidents detained on Feb. 24, the day two American civilian planes were shot down. He had been detained before and knows he can be again, even if the government has tolerated limited free speech over the past year.

``Paranoia is part of the repression,″ he said.

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