An undercover reporter finds out what it is like to live in a culture of fear and surveillance
Aljazeera’s People & Power Program
After 53 years of revolution, Cubans are increasingly exasperated by the restrictions imposed on them by the country’s change-averse communist regime. In spite of, or perhaps because of, recent modest economic reforms, activism is growing as the government’s opponents overcome their fear of arrest and take to the streets. But it is not easy.
Today, even the church-based Ladies in White – a group of female relatives of imprisoned activists – say they are routinely spied on and arrested. This year they achieved brief international notoriety when they were prevented from meeting Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the island, but for the most part their activities are carried out under the ever-present threat of harassment and intimidation by Cuba’s internal security police. Nevertheless, inspired by the Arab Spring, the Ladies are determined to keep up their protests, sensing that the regime’s grip on power is fading and that sooner rather than later it will be forced to give way.
But what is it like to live in such a pervasive culture of surveillance and fear? People & Power sent an independent undercover journalist to find out. He has asked us not to reveal his identity because he may wish to visit Cuba again in the future, but in the article below he describes what it was like to make the film and the many difficulties facing the activists he met.
Following the 2011 economic reforms announced by the Cuban government for the 52nd anniversary of the country’s revolution, there was widespread speculation about the possibility of comparable political reforms that would end the persecution of dissidents and the Communist Party’s grip on power. But it took a courageous Cuban journalist to make an insightful current affairs programme about it. Today, that journalist, Ivan Hernandez, is in hiding.
My first ever attempt to meet up with Ivan in a Havana bar, back in September 2011, failed for fear of being arrested by the political police on his tail. I was on a tourist visa and aware that any encounter with political dissidents could mean immediate expulsion from the country and a permanent ban from returning. To Fidel Castro, Ivan is a “counter-revolutionary” working for the American right-wing Cuban lobby. In reality, Ivan is just an independent freelance journalist, albeit one with a very critical view of the Cuban Revolution.
But in 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring against the government and publishing “false information”. He was sent to a high security compound, isolated in an individual cell and deprived of contact with anyone other than his guards for months on end. His crime was merely to write reports about how difficult life was for the ordinary Cuban.
In 2011, Ivan was freed as a gesture of good will on the part of Fidel Castro towards Pope Benedict, ahead of his 2012 visit to Cuba. The released prisoners were given the option of leaving the island. Most of them did. But not Ivan. “This is my country,” he told me when I asked him about his decision, “why would I leave? This is my calling, my mission – to tell the truth. Life is terrible here. There’s a US blockade against Cuba, and inside Cuba there’s a blockade of the government against the people.”
I was impressed by Ivan’s determination. I thought that following him undercover as we contacted other political dissidents and victims of state-sponsored violence could illustrate what it is like to be critical of Fidel Castro in Cuba today. Ivan liked the idea and we worked out a way to make it happen without being arrested. First, the programme had to be anonymous to protect everybody connected with me in Cuba who was unaware of what I was doing. We feared reprisals against my landlord for renting out a room to me, or my friends and colleagues who live and work in Cuba. Any suspicion against them could end their careers and seriously affect their daily lives.
From the start, Ivan warned me that one-out-of-every-five Cubans is suspected of being a police informer and that few people can be absolutely trusted. He said we needed to film with mini hidden cameras and concoct a plausible cover story for me, the foreigner in the team.