Thirty-three year old Roberto de Jesus Guerra Perez is not only an example of the bravery it takes to be a public Cuban dissident of the violent totalitarian Castro regime, but is also an example of a person who faced very difficult obstacles in his life and yet managed to turn his frustrations into inspirations, ultimately becoming successful. But success in Cuba is not measured as it is in most other countries. Success in Cuba means standing up for what you believe in and knowing that you are helping shatter, in one way or another, the oppressive prison walls which surround the entire island, while still managing to maintain a family.
Guerra Perez is responsible for the creation of the renowned independent news agency “Hablemos Press” which constantly reports the reality of Cuba, avoiding the pre-fabricated communist propaganda imposed on every state-run news agency in the country. Though the dictatorship has unleashed an aggressive censorship campaign against the news agency, “Hablemos Press” has still managed to become one of the main sources of news in Cuba, highlighting the stories of those Cubans who chose to oppose the illegitimate tyranny on the island and those everyday people who face countless hardships in order to survive- stories of evictions, of job expulsions, arbitrary arrests, deportations, and beatings. But also stories of resistance and resilience. Such is the story of Roberto de Jesus:
You are a young Cuban. Prior to declaring yourself a public dissident of the dictatorship, how was your life? What did you study and what were your aspirations?
I was born in 1978 in Cinco Palma, Media Luna, in the Eastern province of Granma. I am the son of a humble family of peasants who gave up an important part of their lives to help Fidel and Raul Castro in their activities in the Sierra Maestra Mountains after they disembarked from the Granma Yacht on Las Coloradas Beach. Some of my family members- my grandfather and some of my uncles- were executed by orders of Fidel, after being accused of treason. That was their punishment for helping them.
When I was just four years old my parents divorced and my mother left the house, taking me with her. We became gypsies. We first took refuge in the Sierra Maestra in an area known as Las Delicias, near Las Lagunas. There, I assisted a very small rural school which had only five students. Every day I would walk four kilometers through thickets to get to school. I was able to study my first year there. Later we left to the municipality of La Sierpe, a rice production zone of Sancti Spiritus province. I went through ninth grade there, and we later moved to the city of Camaguey.
With just 9 years of age I had to bring groceries for my neighbors and they would pay me for the help. I also sold home-made desserts and anything else I could get my hands on in order to make some money and provide food for my mother and my smallest brother, and to be able to take a bag of food every month to my other brother in prison. At age 14 I dropped out of school. We lived in extreme poverty.
Something I usually don’t share and yet that is an important part of my life is that in 1992 we lived in a dump site located in Los Ranchos, an area near the neighborhood of Marquesado and La Esperanza of Camaguey. My family and I would eat the food that was thrown away by passing cars. It was during Cuba’s “special period”. And this didn’t happen only to us, but to many other people as well.
When I left school, my mom was fined by the police for 1,500 pesos. We had to cultivate beans in the fields of the Agropecuaria Company of Los Ranchos and it was only through that work that we were eventually able to make enough money to pay off the fine.
When I turned 15, we returned to the home of my father in Cinco Palma, already tired of leading such lives and from having to go from one house to another. Upon returning to Cinco Palma I started to work in a Coffee Cooperative which paid me a salary of 3 pesos in national currency per day’s work. This rate did not, in any way, satisfy our necessities and so I began to work together with other peasant farmers who paid me 6 pesos. Soon thereafter, I began to sell homemade sweets again, which brought me problems and repression from Pedro Perez, the Police Sector Chief better known as “Pedro Justice”. He made sure to make my life miserable. He took me before a tribunal and sentenced me to one year and 6 months of forced labor just for publicly saying that with just 5 pounds of rice a person cannot survive. I wasn’t the only one punished. 192 other youths from the region were accused under the “Lazy Law” which is now known as “Post Criminal Social Dangerousness”.
Within the year and 6 months of my captivity I had to plant and cut sugar cane in a Cooperative of the Vicana Abajo town. Upon extinguishing my sanction, my mother encouraged me to move to Madruga, a town which at the time belonged to the province of Havana. It was where my sister lived. There I began to work in the Cattle Company of Valles de Picadura.
Because I was responsible and serious, I was actually given a farm, where I began to work as administrator. I spent 4 years like that. I studied and took a three-month course in the School of Livestock Farming located in San Jose de las Lajas. Tired of milking cows and disillusioned by my experiences, I left to Varadero, a touristic area. In Varadero I worked as a security guard of certain hotels which were under construction. I was later left without a job due to a reduction in staff and because of political reasons.
I then left to the capital to sell books by the Cathedral on L and 17th, in Vedado, along with a friend of mine by the name of Eliecer. It was there that I was able to meet dissidents and human rights activists. In 2003, I joined the opposition groups and in 2004 I began to get involved with independent journalism.
I have titles in Livestock Farming Administration and various prizes for that work- such as Qualified Worker- and I also received training for journalism and editing through a video course offered by Florida International University (FIU). I’m basically self-taught.
What led you to become publicly involved with the Cuban opposition and with independent journalism?
My main inspiration was my mother, who never hid anything from me and who, ever since I was little, told me just how abusive this regime is. Another decisive factor was the life I was subjected to after my brother was sentenced to 10 years of prison for carrying 136 dollars in his pocket. Also, I realized that it is an opportunity to denounce the abuses committed by the Castro authorities against those who live in my native town of Cinco Palma. I still carry images in my heart of its scenery and its people.
What also led me to become an independent journalist was the negligence and the misery which plagues Cuba. Radio Marti also gave me an opportunity to have my voice heard in and out of Cuba.
You spent time behind bars for participating in dissident activities. According to what I have understood, the Cuban authorities were trying to sentence you for “public disorder”. Tell us a bit about the activities which led to your arrest.
I carried out a hunger strike in the Jose Marti Civic Plaza of Havana on July 13th of 2005. They sentenced me for public disorder. I spent 22 months in a prison which was 600 kilometers away from my family. The authorities transferred me to the Nieves Morejon Prison where I suffered tortures and beatings at the hands of my jailers. My first 6 months were spent in the Torture Area, better known as ‘100 and Aldavos’ of Havana. It was there that I contracted pulmonary emphysema and various skin infections, from which I still suffer.
In total, I participated in 8 hunger strikes. A recent medical checkup informed me that I currently have 5 different stomach conditions.
How was your experience as a political prisoner? How would you describe your days in captivity to a person who is not familiar with the Cuban reality?
For me, it was a source of pride to be a political prisoner. But, regardless, imprisonment is horrible. It is something terrible and something that is never desirable. Things happen to you while in jail that are very difficult. And there are things you see which are worse than what you can see in one of those “Saw” horror films.
You are the director of the well known independent press agency, “Hablemos Press”. How was the idea for this agency born? What is its purpose?
When I was released from prison, the Corriente Martiana- a dissident group I had once belonged to- was practically no longer in existence. At first, I tried to establish a center with the name of Corriente Martiana Information Center. However, I had disagreements with the founder and suffered some censorship issues and so I decided to form my own on February 3rd of 2009. That was when the Hablemos Press Information Center was born.
Our main objective is to obtain and distribute information from Cuba and send it out to the entire world via telephone, telegraph, radiotelegraph, radio, oral communication, and graphic arts. We aim to tackle all aspects of politics, culture, commerce, finance, art, literature, sports, and so on. We have not been able to fully achieve this due to lack of sufficient resources.
We also aspire to maintain correspondents or collaborators in all provinces and municipalities, especially in the Isle of Youth. Our goal is to provide information services to pro-democratic news agencies, newspapers, radio programs, television programs and other civil and human rights organizations. And, of course, to develop activities in consolidation of community advancement.
“The doors of our headquarters are always open to all Cubans who wish to express what they feel”. That is the motto on Hablemos Press’ website. Are there many Cuban people who turn to your agency to denounce violations?
Dozens of, both, dissidents and everyday people. Our phone does not stop ringing and we receive more than 20 visits a day.
Many of us all around the world have seen the videos of protests and news coming out of Cuba recently (many times recorded by Hablemos Press). In the video in which women protested on the steps of Havana’s Capitol building, for example, we can infer that Cubans are losing fear. Would you say that this is the case?
With the protest on the steps of Havana’s Capitol and in the Cuatro Caminos Market Center it was proven that the Cuban people are losing fear. In the Capitol protest, the women were applauded by the people when they screamed “long live human rights”. In the Market protest, more than 2,000 people chanted “freedom”.
Another important factor of Hablemos Press is its publication of the “Monthly Report of Human Rights Violations” on the island. Through this report, we have seen how the repression against activists has increased. Why would you say this has happened?
The answer is because the authorities are very fearful of a social uprising. The events which took place in the Market and in the Capitol Building have increased their fear. They know that just one small spark can grow into something they cannot handle. Repression just continues to rise because every day there are more and more groups which try to carry out activities on the streets and the regime does not allow this.
We can imagine that it must be very difficult to report, publish, and altogether manage a press agency without stable internet access. What are the obstacles which you, and all your other colleagues, must face in order to access the internet?
The difficult situation of not having the adequate resources in order to try and get to a hotel where one can buy one hour of internet for 6 to 10 dollars is one problem. There is also the constant pressure of receiving news and knowing that you may not be able to publish it immediately, and the consequences this represents. There is also a tremendous fear of losing all the information if you are not able to upload it in time and the agents catch you, many times even before going into diplomatic embassies. You run the risk of getting arrested and spending several hours behind bars.
Hablemos Press also has helped the independent hip-hop artists “Julito & El Primario” record their music and music-videos. Is this another aspect of the agency- helping independent anti-government artists to carry out their work?
Yes, that is a project of ours. We don’t only help them, but we also have two other groups which, for the time being, have not been brought out to public light. Right now we can only say that they are students between the ages of 14 and 21. If we say who it is now they will run the risk of being persecuted. We will make them public when their parents give us permission to do so.
What role will independent news agencies such as Hablemos Press play in the future of Cuba?
We aspire to become the most important independent news agency on the island.
In the future, we hope to debut a newspaper, but after the fall of the Castro brothers. That is, of course, if we survive to see the day because we are constantly under death threats and they even tried to poison us a few months back. Six of our members were in critical condition after we consumed a fish.
What message would you like to transmit to Cubans in and out of the island?
I’d like to let Cubans inside the island know that they can count on us, because no one will be able to silence us. The doors of our headquarters are always open for all those Cubans who wish to express what they feel, without fear of censorship. And, like our apostle Jose Marti once said: “Words are for telling the truth, not to cover it”.
Another message is that I am grateful for Julio Machado, my professor of journalism, to whom I owe who I am. He helped me to become better each day. I have not known from him much since he fell sick, but I always keep him in my prayers so that he may recuperate from that difficult disease he suffers from.
Also, lots of thanks to my godfather Jose Ramon Avalo Perez, whom already passed away, but who provided me with his home and supported me while he was alive.