By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 15 – One year ago I was on vacation in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, sitting in a friend’s apartment during the second week of October editing the diary posts and features that would be the first materials to appear in Havana Times. In Spain, our Cuban webmaster was also putting the finishing touches on the initial design.
The idea to start the site actually began years back at my former Havana translating job, where several of us felt the need to take some initiative to get out some better writing from Cuba in English. We believed this would give a broader look at the different realities and complexities of the country, hitting on both its accomplishments and challenges.
We wanted to get away from the hell presented by the foreign mainstream press and the heaven described by the Cuban media.
We first considered a small-format print publication to be made available at hotels on the island, but starting a new publication without institutional support-plus the economic difficulties and bureaucratic controls-made that proposition appear next to impossible. A few years later, frustration finally pushed us to give it a try, but online.
Taking part in several critical discussions between Cuban journalists about the press in their country convinced me that it was time for action. I hoped I would have some supporters and was well aware there would be detractors.
Running a site from inside Cuba is no easy matter due to the slow dial-up phone Internet connection, if you have one. I had that privilege through my job and as a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC). For those fond of the figures, the connection in Cuba is between 16 and 50 kbs, depending on where you are and the state of the phone lines.
Other countries had a similar situation one to two decades ago, but most now have much-improved technology. Cuba has lagged behind, officially due to the US blockade, but some believe a lack of desire to offer widespread Internet use is another key factor.
The vast majority of the people writing on the site are Cubans who do not have Internet access, and many could only see the site and their published materials when they dropped by my apartment. Some have e-mail, which facilitates sending in their writing, but not Internet.
No Permission, Work Place Blues
Contrary to what some might think, I didn’t ask anyone for permission to put out HT, and have never had anyone from the Communist Party or the government directly telling me what I should or shouldn’t publish.
Nonetheless, when one of our writers was summarily fired from his job as a professor, one of the reasons given was his writing in Havana Times. A student was close to being expelled for the same reason.
I also had problems at my work place, which I was dependent on for my residency in Cuba.
My boss had been an early advocate of taking initiative with an alternative publication and even collaborated briefly at the beginning of HT. However, once things got off the ground, he threatened me several times, implying that by having started Havana Times without permission from the center’s director -which I never would have received- I should turn a blind eye to his unprofessional behavior at work.
Ultimately, the ugly office scene went from bad to worse, involving my refusal to go along with the nepotism, corruption and poor management practices of my boss, which led to my yearly contract not being renewed, although I was never told why.
Having worked for the Cuban media for seven years and having been a “vanguard worker” of the center didn’t even entitle me to a meeting to hear my accusers, much less defend myself.
The ex-boss is one of those “cadres” we’ve talked about previously in HT who are causing so much damage to the Cuban Revolution. Their abuses of power discourage others – especially young people- to take an active part.
They stifle initiative from the rank-and-file while parroting “revolutionary discourse” to impress their higher ups, but gear their efforts to defending personal privileges and perks… kind of like the overly severe preacher who has a dark personal life that needs hiding.
Increased Readership, Now Spanish Too
As Havana Times celebrates its first anniversary, we continue an unabated rise in readership and I am editing the materials from Nicaragua, where I have lived since my Cuban residency ran out in June.
The Cubans who make up this publication have remained quite committed, some increasing their writing frequency considerably. E-mail, be it their own or a friend or colleagues, continues to make it possible for the writers to get their materials to me for publishing.
For the last couple months we have been receiving between two and three thousand hits a day. Now that we just began putting out a Spanish version, readership has immediately increased another ten to fifteen percent. Reader comments are also up considerably.
I sincerely hope that Havana Times has filled a space for you and has contributed to a better understanding of a highly unique country with the potential to show humanity that “a better world is possible.”