“The persecution never stops” : in Cuba, journalists muzzled by power

Members of the House of Journalists since early January 2023, Cuban couple Laura Seco Pacheco and Wimar Verdecia Fuentes have lost none of their verve. They are determined to fight for freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Cuba, and have agreed to tell us all about the censorship they have faced on the island. 

Laura (29 years old) and Wimar (35 years old) had never visited France until their arrival on December 9, 2022. During our interview, Wimar didn’t hesitate to grab a marker to write down his thoughts on the whiteboard at his disposal. Laura, a journalist since 2018, worked for the governmental newspaper Vanguardia at first, and she wrote articles about diverse topics, mainly cultural. 

The time I spent at Vanguardia was due to my social service, which is compulsory in the state media after graduation,” she explains. She stayed there for three years. During this time, she developed a strong desire for independence. She ended up joining the media El Toque in January 2022, for the love of independent and free information.

Over 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba

According to the Cuban constitution, independent media is prohibited in the country. In September 2022, government pressure was such that El Toque experienced a wave of forced resignations. 

In an article from the same month, the media outlet explains that “scenarios of interrogation and blackmail, as well as the use of travel regulations to several of our colleagues residing in Cuba, meant that by September 9, 2022, the number of resignations of members of our team had risen to 16.” 

Faced with constant and serious threats, Laura eventually gave up “the possibility of working in any other independent journalism platform in Cuba.” Those who wish to continue working are forced to do so from abroad, at the risk of imprisonment, without access to government sources and information. 

“As far as I know, journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca is in prison today,” says Laura. “The prosecutor’s office has charged him with the alleged crimes of continuous enemy propaganda and resistance. But there are at least 1,000 political prisoners at the moment. Disappearances and detentions lasting several days are commonplace in Cuba.”

“Many are not politicians, most are accused of committing common crimes. They are considered political prisoners because of the charges brought against them: corruption or espionage, for example.” Whether political, social, economic or sporting, the El Toque team was keen to cover every event in Cuban society, much to the chagrin of the government.

Le caricaturiste Wimar avec sa nouvelle peinture.

With the sharp point of his pencil, cartoonist and illustrator Wimar Verdecia Fuentes has been denouncing and challenging the Cuban regime for years, notably for El Toque. 

Wimar, a member of the independent press since 2018, first began his career as an illustrator. Not without pride, he confided to MDJ’s microphone that he was one of the first to introduce political cartooning to Cuba’s new independent media: his cartoons were published in the Xel2 supplement, owned by El Toque. 

Since September 2022, he has been part of the “Cartoon Movement“, and has already drawn on international (the war in Ukraine), sporting (the European Cup) and societal (weapons in the USA) subjects. “Cartoon Movement” is an online platform for cartoonists from all over the world to publish their work and gain greater visibility.

Wimar was also managing editor of Xel2. His resignation prompted the editorial team to close the Xel2 site, much to his dismay.

Little by little, their work at el Toque aroused the ire of the Cuban government. The newspaper became the state’s main target, as the population became increasingly interested in Wimar’s drawings and the articles by journalists like Laura.

Faced with this disturbing popularity, the Cuban government tightened its grip on the press. Between 2020 and 2021, war is declared. 

The exchange rate, a weapon of Cuban freedom of expression 

The newspaper published the informal exchange rate between the dollar and the Cuban peso, leading many people to use this rate as a guide for their transactions, in a country where the economy is heavily dollarized,” Wimar tells us. 

After this publication, El Toque became very popular with the public, with the same rate being displayed all over the country. The government then estimated that 120 pesos equaled one US dollar (unlike our rate), which caused prices to soar with speculation. They then blamed journalists. But the people were not fooled; the government knew it had lost credibility with a large proportion of Cubans. It nevertheless maintained its official discourse for those who still had faith in its claims, but it lost the hegemony of communication thanks to the independent media.”

From there, Wimar and Laura’s lives were turned upside down. “The persecution never stops. Until September 2022, I had no problem being an independent journalist. But at the end of August 2022, the authorities targeted all el Toque contributors in Cuba and other independent journalists and political activists.

One morning, “they came to get Wimar by car and took him away for three hours to threaten him. They did the same to me the next day, with the same threats. They tried to dissuade us from continuing our work.”

After that, they broadcast the video on national television accusing us of being mercenaries in the pay of the United States, editing the video so that people would think we were working for a foreign government, in order to bring about regime change in Cuba and destabilize the country. This type of accusation is particularly used against journalists and political activists.” 

Fortunately, the newspaper is entirely digital and a large proportion of its journalists are based abroad, allowing it to keep rolling.

Because of my cartoons denouncing the abuses of power, I suffered persecution and interrogation,” confides Wimar. “They forced me to quit my job too, telling me I risked ten years in prison if I refused. With the Xel2 supplement, we were able to bypass the censorship through Xel2 to which graphic humor has been subjected for over 60 years, particularly in the official state media.” Simply publishing “articles that stepped outside the government agenda exposing the government, was a slap in the face to the censors,” says Laura with a valiant smile.

We rekindled a taste for this type of journalism and other media began to follow, opening up a place for cartooning in the independent media. The government couldn’t let such freedom grow.” 

“Some journalists can’t or don’t know how to leave the island”

For the cartoonist, “the Cuban government even pursues left-wing media that defend socialism. Even the simplest communication initiative from outside the Communist Party is considered suspect and can lead to persecution. There is no left-wing government in Cuba, it’s a bureaucratic oligarchy where power is in the hands of a few people close to the Castro family.”  

“As for the economy, it’s in the hands of a conglomerate of military companies called GAESA. There is no separation of powers in Cuba, everything is controlled by the Party. This generates a context with no legal guarantees for anyone considered a dissident.”

If the two journalists managed to escape, it was thanks to the international network Cartoon for Peace and RSF. “After our forced resignations, Wimar asked Cartoon Movement for help, and they put him in touch with Cartooning for Peace. They helped us get our visas and set up in Paris. France has a history of freedom of expression, and I think they helped us protect these values,” says Laura, who came to know France through its ideals of equality and freedom.

A very discreet power

Ideals to which the journalist couple and the Cuban people have aspired for years. “While Cuba remains very discreet about its actions and the way it silences its population, it has become increasingly complicated for the government to hide its human rights violations with the advent of the Internet. Five years ago, we didn’t know what was going on in terms of activism, even when Laura worked for a government newspaper. The Internet has been a real lever for press freedom.”

While they have managed to escape the dictatorship, this is not the case for the majority of their colleagues, from whom they try to get news. “Some journalists have decided to stay but are still under threat, but they don’t want to leave the country where they were born. There have to be journalists in Cuba, especially independent ones, and others don’t know how to leave the country. Or still others prefer to remain anonymous to protect themselves.” 

Cuba has now become too dangerous for them to work in peace, so they continue their fight from France and the Maison des Journalistes. For the time being, Laura collaborates from time to time with El Toque and Wimar for “La Joven Cuba”, where he draws a humorous column every Sunday. 

But they can’t receive support online, “the Cuban people are very afraid because many depend on their work with the government or fear reprisals. There’s a law in Cuba that allows you to fine or imprison someone for giving their opinion on social networks or making fun of the government, so no one dares say anything.” A phenomenon far from discouraging them in their fight, which they know is necessary and inescapable.

By Maud Baheng Daizey. Translation by Andrea Petitjean.