By Circles Robinson

Lion on Old Havana's Prado promenade.
Lion on Old Havana’s Prado promenade.  Photo: Rafiki Shemanski

HAVANA TIMES — Dear readers, today we’ve reached eight years of bringing you our open-minded writing from and about Cuba. Most of the founders are still with us, and several new writers have also joined us in the last year.

When we started, I never expected it to last so long.  It began as an after-work “labor of love”, at a time when I was still working for a Cuban government agency that assisted the Cuban media with translations.

In our official presentation of the site, the president of the Cuban Journalists’ Association publicly offered us his political support for our effort. My boss also stood up to say he was sure that Havana Times would make a good contribution to journalism from Cuba.

The idea of combining journalist and non-journalist writing was a novel approach for the Cuban media.  I felt there was a need for greater diversity of opinion on issues involving Cuba’s past, present and future, and a fresh attempt to present the many viewpoints on the island’s reality.

From the beginning, we set out to distance our publication from the polarized and conservative Cuban government media as well as from the mostly foreign-based anti-Castro media.

Six months after beginning, UPEC privately withdrew its support for our effort; this came as a disappointment but no surprise.  The sharp criticism of government policies by several of our bloggers was too much for an organization that is totally dependent economically and ideologically on the government/party line.

As the project continued, it began to hit home for me just how polarized the Cuban reality was from a media standpoint.  At one point, four colleagues – three Cubans and one foreigner told me, in as many words, that those young people writing in HT should stop their complaining and just leave the country if they don’t like the system. Since then, tens of thousands of talented young people have left Cuba, an exodus that continues today at a high rate. In my opinion, this is a tragic loss to the nation.

Risks for HT writers

Writing for Havana Times has presented risks for our writers. Cuba isn’t Mexico, Iraq or Colombia, and no journalist has been killed nor have any of our writers received a jail sentence thus far (although journalists from other independent media have). Nonetheless, several HT writers were blacklisted and are no longer able to work for the State, the only legal employer in their fields of study.  A few have since left the country for further studies or to work abroad.

Some HT writers were already divorced from State employment and thus had more freedom to participate without reprisals, beyond occasional questioning by plain-clothes State Security agents.  Others continue in their State jobs, using a pen name to try and dodge repression.

Funding Sources

As a self-financed site with a little help from my friends, HT has refused to apply for any grants from direct or indirect US government funding sources. Since we can only pay a very small amount per article, this has been a disadvantage compared to sites with hundreds of thousands of dollars of yearly grants from agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), or compared to numerous Cuban government media outlets which have an army of full-time staff.

The issue of refusing such grant funding is a controversial one.  Some of our writers lament the editorial policy of rejecting such funding which would allow us to pay a fair amount for articles.  Others believe we should stay on the course as established.

Garlic with Opel. Photo: Rafiki Shemanski
Garlic with Opel. Photo: Rafiki Shemanski

I am not a fan of US foreign policy, neither the hard version (military aid or intervention) nor the soft “democracy building” funding.  This, even when I may agree with some assessments regarding the lack of freedom and rights in the country involved.

I simply don’t buy the idea that Washington has the right to be the world’s policeman.

I also firmly believe that the US has many human rights and democracy issues at home to deal with, and that corporate control over its electoral processes and the resulting disenfranchisement of the US population should be the first item of US business.

On the other hand, I totally understand other independent Cuba-related media’s decision to accept such funding, as long as it doesn’t come with strings attached regarding their work.  Some would say that there are always strings involved, but I prefer not to judge.  Accepting outside funding from US government sources has allowed them to maintain a paid staff and pay a fairer amount to their writers. With the economic reality in Cuba, this is quite understandable.

And speaking of funding, HT is planning in the coming year to launch a campaign for reader donations and an effort to sell some Cuba travel related advertisements. This was not a necessity in the past, but it now is.

We have rarely asked our readership for help. I’d like to use this birthday celebration to recognize those readers who responded to our call this year to donate laptops to our writers, many without anything of their own to work on.  The campaign facilitated their work by sending 15 laptops and 2 tablets, with a few more waiting in Europe for travelers to bring with them.  To those who donated these essential computers, you have made an important contribution to both Havana Times and the individuals involved.

Checking out the street scene. Photo: Rafiki Shemanski
Checking out the street scene. Photo: Rafiki Shemanski

Havana Times Objectives remain unchanged

Eight years after our birth, we maintain the same vision and the same objectives. Some of our goals, in no special order, have been:

  • Present Cuban reality in all its diversity, both using the written word and photography.
  • Give a voice to a large and diverse group of Cubans missing from Cuban and foreign media.
  • Have a space where readers from a wide spectrum – from government supporters to detractors – can feel comfortable debating issues and ideas.
  • Offer a platform for making proposals for the future.
  • Provide a site where past and future visitors to Cuba can stay updated on events in a publication that is not trying to sell them a particular position.

Instead of proclaiming success or failure, we will let you judge whether these goals have or have not been met.  I can assure you however, that we at the Havana Times will strive to improve our publication each and every year.

Likewise, we would like to invite you to visit Cuba and write your travel experiences on the pages of Havana Times.  Your impressions will help those on the island and abroad gain greater insight into life on the island.

25 thoughts on “Havana Times Reaches 8th Birthday

  • Dani, you like to compare Cuba to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Somalia, places with even worse press freedoms. And yes, it’s not as bad in Cuba as it is in several other countries. The ongoing sectarian war in Iraq makes it a special case for lack of freedoms of all kinds. The anarchy in Somalia has made it a very dangerous place for journalists to work.

    But it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges when talking about the lack of press freedom in Cuba. Cuba is not at war, nor is it riven by sectarian strife. It’s also a distraction from the topic of this website, which is Cuba, not Saudi Arabia.

    The fact remains, the Castro regime places severe restrictions on journalists working in Cuba, whether Cubans or foreigners. Independent Cuban journalists have been arrested, beaten & jailed. Cuban writers & poets have been jailed for their words. That is a terrible crime by the Castro regime, to blockade the national culture from the Cuban people.

    The Castro regime claims they must place these restrictions on the media because they are under attack from the Empire. I fail to see how the satirical novels of Reinaldo Arenas can be considered as weapons of the US Marine Corps or the CIA. The real reason the Castro regime bans books and independent journalists is to preserver their personal grip on power. They cannot abide criticism from anybody.

    You have argued that when the US finally lifts the embargo, the Castro government will suddenly relax and moderate all their excessive repression. I don’t see that they will. As an example, to point to the countries you frequently use as examples: the US has no embargo on Saudi Arabia or China, yet both countries continue to repress free speech. And they do it for the same reason the Castros do: to maintain the power of the rulers.

  • Yoanni Sanchez has been detained, harassed, had her website hacked and taken down by the Cuban government. To try and dismiss that by trying to find places in the world that are worse doesn’t say much for the Cuba system.

  • …no worries there. Cuba is firmly in the grip of a dictatorship that offers no choices to the Cuban people. Democracy is sometimes messy and often ugly. It’s what happens when different opinions compete in the public space. and we all know that different opinions are not tolerated by the Castros.

  • Not that impartial – they are financed by the American Government. Unfortunately, they don’t give enough information on how the rankings are made. That may be down to not separating the human rights issues from media organizational issues which are two completely different things as I’ve explained in a previous post. If you order by the “Abuse” column you get a much more accurate picture. I mean are you really saying that Cuba where Yoanni Sanchez publishes her writings daily is worse than Iraq where journalists are beheaded?

  • I believe the Havana Times should do a joint venture with Melia Hotels which is listed on the Madrid stock exchange.

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