Youth with Unfathomable Courage
By Jay Nordlinger
An independent news agency in Cuba
Published in National Review on March 19, 2007
One day toward the end of last year, Liannis Meriño Aguilera took her mom to the hospital. And it seemed to State Security a good time to seize Liannis and threaten her. They took her to the psychiatric ward, telling her to cease her reports on the country's health-care system, or face awful consequences. A psychologist warned her that she could be labeled mentally ill — adding that people who tell the truth about the country simply have to be crazy.
Liannis will not quite concede this point. "No," she says, "those of us who denounce the government and tell the truth are very clear in our thoughts. We want human rights to be upheld, and we want democratic change."
As you may possibly have surmised, Liannis Meriño is an independent journalist in Cuba, making her one of the bravest people on earth. She is the director of Jóvenes sin Censura, or Youth Without Censorship, a news agency. Liannis has written a piece called "To Be an Independent Journalist Is to Flirt with Death." And that is what these people do every day.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Cuba is the fourth-worst place in the world for journalists — the worst are North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Eritrea (in that order). Cuba has an official press, and everything else is illegal. The regime greatly fears and persecutes any peep of independence. In the crackdown of March 2003 — known as "Black Spring" — 27 journalists were arrested. Some have been released, even as others have been put away. There are now about 25 journalists in prison. And anyone who remains on the outside is constantly harassed, constantly disrupted, doing that dance with death.
Also, they work without the basic tools of the trade: a computer, the Internet. Often they don't have phones, because State Security rips them away. In addition to being brave, independent journalists in Cuba have to be more resourceful than anyone else.
Raúl Rivero is a well-known poet and journalist, once a political prisoner; he is now in exile, in Spain. He talked to the Miami Herald about his days in Cuba: "Whenever a foreign journalist came to interview or visit me and said, 'What can I do for you?' I would answer, 'Leave me your pen.'"
Under Castro, independent journalists are called American stooges, enemies of the people, and so on. Besides being subject to constant surveillance, they are subject to actos de repudio, or "acts of repudiation." This is when the government has a mob surround your house and throw stones at it, or beat up you and your family. The intimidation is fierce. And this warns others to stay away from you. Liannis Meriño, while she was in that psychiatric ward, was threatened with actos de repudio.
And the government can do far worse, of course: They can abduct you, torture you, or "disappear" you.
Independent journalists have been brought up on a variety of charges, and they have been imprisoned on no charges at all. Formal charges include "spreading false news against international peace," "putting in danger the prestige or credit of the Cuban State," and (my favorite) being "a pre-criminal danger to society." This last means that the individual has committed no formal offense, but simply makes the regime nervous. As Reporters Without Borders says, "the charge is often used to detain dissidents."
And yet, in the face of all this, Cuban independent news agencies keep at it. There are many, most of them very small, all of them incredibly daring. It is often unclear why some journalists are arrested while others remain at large. And, when one journalist is arrested, or vanishes, another one tends to take over. For example, last November, Raymundo Perdigón Brito and his sister, Margarita, started an agency called Yayabo Press. Twelve days later, he was carted off, and Margarita carried on.
Here in America, or wherever access to the Internet is allowed, one can read the work of independent journalists on various websites — at CubaNet.org, for instance, or PayoLibre.com, or Directorio.org. The third of these is the site of the Directorio Democrático Cubano, in Miami. CubaNet takes as its motto a statement from José Martí, the Cuban independence hero: "Only oppression should fear the full exercise of freedom." As for Cubans themselves, they may hear independent reports over Radio Martí or Radio República, where they are read.
Liannis Meriño embodies the spirit of democratic resistance, and the desire for truth. She is both tough-minded and impossibly idealistic. I talk to her by phone one afternoon, through the good offices of supporters in the United States. It is her twenty-third birthday. The words gush out of Liannis, articulately, and there is an urgency to her voice.
She relates that Youth Without Censorship was founded in 2005, by human-rights activists — including the heroic Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind lawyer. They now have reporters all over the island, 16 in all.
Liannis began this work because, as she says, "in a totalitarian system, the people don't have access to information, and the regime can do or say anything it wants. It doesn't want anything brought to light." She explains that, "between Cuba and the world, the regime has built a wall. And we have not been able to penetrate that wall to communicate with the world. The government wants people to think Cuba is a paradise. That is not the case."
The young woman has been detained or jailed many times, and I ask whether she is afraid of something worse. She says, "Yes, sometimes — but the desire to work for my country, and to inform people, is bigger than any oppression. I see what the civic movements are doing, and that inspires me to keep going. If I have to go to prison, it will be unjust, but not in vain."
She has never been a conformist, has never been submissive, and was expelled from her university for "collaborating" with unauthorized organizations — human-rights groups. In January, she was detained by State Security after reporting on the firing of two young men from a cigar factory for homosexuality. The agents said, "Why do you defend these people?" Liannis replied matter-of-factly, "We defend the rights of all people, no matter who they are." She would also report decent acts by the government, if she could find any. Liannis represents a rare journalistic integrity.
Her mom and dad are "extremely scared" for her, because "they know what the government is capable of doing." But she has much support in her family and community, and knows that people are grateful, whether they can say so or not. With González Leiva, she has started a magazine called Amanecer (meaning "dawn"). And she and her colleagues will start another one whose name is the same as their group's: Jóvenes sin Censura. The magazine will be clandestine, of course, and who knows what will happen to it? It will not be heavily political, either: It will have entertainment news, a crossword puzzle — it will be a place where "people can be free," says Liannis.
I ask whether she has heroes, and she says it is the Cuban people themselves who inspire her: "people who are suffering, who have to hide in their homes out of fear, who need a voice." Mainly, she says, "my trust is in God," whom she carries "deep in my heart."
All the journalists in prison have demonstrated huge courage, and their cases should be known — well-known. One of the most remarkable is that of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta. He is in Kilo 8 Prison, in the province of Camagüey. Like many others, he is kept in the most vile of conditions: surrounded by violent criminals, denied medical care, perpetually abused. One day in December, he took the extreme step — this is hard to understand outside the context of a totalitarian society — of sewing his mouth shut. The news was reported by a member of Youth Without Censorship, Luis Esteban Espinosa.
Some days later, Luis Esteban himself was arrested. He was beaten up by State Security, but, luckily, not imprisoned. He was merely detained for a couple of hours — and warned to quit his independent activities, lest a worse fate befall him.
But Luis Esteban has not quit, and I talk to him the same day I talk with Liannis Meriño, and via the same means. Luis Esteban is all of 20. Over the phone, he sounds impossibly youthful, but, as with Liannis, his voice burns with conviction and determination. He began this work at 18. He feels a particular commitment to "keep an eye on what happens to political prisoners," so that the world does not forget them entirely. He has very few materials, but extremely supportive parents.
And, like everybody else in his business, he knows full well that he could be "incarcerated or 'disappeared,'" as he says — State Security has threatened this many times. They have also tried to turn him, which is to say, have tried to make him an informant on his colleagues. This is standard operating procedure for State Security.
Naturally, Luis Esteban is uncertain about the future. But he hopes one day to live in a "free and changed Cuba," where he can work as a journalist under conditions the rest of us enjoy. "A human being has the right to express himself," he says — even in Cuba. And what does he wish Americans could know? "They should be more informed about the government's repression. We have no freedom here. People should support the dissidents. It's very important to know that there are people who care, who are watching."
I always feel a bit strange, when I get off the phone with such people, and resume the comfortable life. I wonder what will become of them — and whether I would have the spine and heart to act as they do, in similar circumstances. In preparing this piece, I talked to a woman who was trying to say how much she admired Youth Without Censorship: "They're so brave, so amazing, so good . . ." After sputtering for a bit, she said, with some embarrassment, "I'm sorry, I don't have the words." I know exactly how she feels.
But I can say this — I can share an observation. When independent journalists, dissidents, and other such people talk, one theme keeps coming up: love. They talk about their love of country, love of their neighbors, love of God. An independent journalist named Aini Martín Valero recently gave an interview to an American journalist, Marc Masferrer. She said, "I write my articles, news, chronicles, etc., with much love, because with my reports, I help people understand the Cuban reality."
It may not be normal to link journalism and love, but such a link exists.
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