Original ArticleTed Henken, 05/26/2021
At the age of 15, Camila Acosta Rodríguez (Isla de la Juventud, 1993) won a scholarship to study at Havana’s prestigious Vladimir Ilich Lenin Vocational High School, which she graduated from in 2011. She went on to study Journalism at the University of Havana. Before graduating in 2016, she did internships in various official media outlets in the capital including Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.
These experiences did not give her much in the way of journalistic practice. However, they did provide her with two elements that have since proven essential in her professional development. First, she realized at an early age that she couldn’t do journalism in a media system structurally designed to serve as a channel for the party’s “ideological propaganda machine.” Second, and quite ironically, these internships and her subsequent period of social service as a reporter at Canal Habana provided her with much freer access to the internet than she had had at the University of Havana.
She took full and frequent advantage of this crack in the wall of state-imposed censorship to spend endless and “spectacular” hours searching for information on Facebook and YouTube. “For that, the internships actually helped me tremendously,” she says with a laugh.
She resigned from Canal Habana after just a year and a half because this short period of time was more than enough for her to experience “first-hand all the censorship and lack of freedom of expression one must accept when working in the official Cuban media. Being exposed to that,” she clarifies, “also taught me how to criticize the official media and defend my current position as openly against the island’s reigning political system.”
Acosta has been working as an independent journalist for less than two years, a task she began full-time in August 2019 as a reporter for CubaNet. She has also made several award-winning documentaries about Freemasonry in Cuba and has published her journalism in other independent digital press outlets, including Periodismo de Barrio, El Toque, OnCuba, the cultural magazine Árbol Invertido, Diario de las Américas, and Diario ABC. Additionally, she is a member of 27N, a movement born on November 27, 2020 as a result of the now historic spontaneous demonstration that took place that evening in front of the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
Since fall 2019, Acosta has experienced in flesh and blood nearly all the repressive strategies that the Cuban government’s state security agents unleash against those who attempt to practice journalism free of ideological control on the island.
She has been evicted from a series of different rental apartments in Havana, fined for the crime of “reception,” fined under Decree-Law 370 (against which she has been one of the clearest and most constant voices), interrogated and strip-searched, arbitrarily arrested in public, “regulated” from traveling abroad, placed under house arrest, and defamed both on social media and national television. While arbitrarily detained, state security agents have stolen money from her and broken or confiscated at least three of her cell phones, which has become one of the most basic tools necessary to carry out her work as an independent journalist. Finally, members of her family have been summoned for interrogations of their own and threatened with reprisals if they couldn’t get her to stop reporting.
Despite all this, Acosta has chosen not only to stay in Cuba and continue working as a journalist but also to focus ever more intently in her reportage on what she calls “the root causes of Cuba’s problems,” which for her is “the prevailing political system in Cuba, the dictatorship.”
That is to say, she wanted to go beyond simply “playing with the chain” of the system by cataloging its endless string of negative consequences without ever touching “the monkey,” the totalitarian political system itself, which for her is the root cause of all the problems. Here she cites the well-known Cuban expression that sets the unwritten rules for “legitimate” criticism within a system that still claims it’s a “Revolution”: “tú puedes jugar con la cadena, pero no con el mono” (you can play with the chain but not with the monkey). “I wanted to get to the causes,” she insists.
As a direct result of her playing with this “monkey” again and again, of giving visibility to figures from the political opposition through her interviews and investigative reporting, and of making clear and repeated denunciations of state repression and of the island’s reigning dictatorial political system itself, she quickly fell into the crosshairs of the island’s extensive state security apparatus, which has tried unsuccessfully to silence her.
However, their repression has backfired. She is ever more emboldened.
Could you describe your family and social origins? What kind of work do your parents do, and how “integrated” was your family in the revolutionary process growing up?
My parents are working class. My father is a farmer and my mother is a bookkeeper in a state-run cafeteria.
My mother’s family was always quite integrated in this political process. My aunt, an internationalist doctor, is a member of the Party. My maternal grandparents were also Party members for many years. My grandmother even belongs to an “Asociación de Combatientes,” given her past resistance against the Batista dictatorship. On my father’s side, it’s just the opposite. My father’s brother had to go into exile in the United States because he was the leader of a dissident organization on the Isle of Youth. My paternal grandfather is from Matanzas, and in the 1960s they removed him from his land because he supported the rebels in the Escambray mountains. In other words, that side of my family is against the Cuban regime.
How “integrated” were you when you were young? How would you describe your educational experiences up through high school?
Since I was a child I was much more influenced by my mother’s side of the family. In addition to the indoctrination I experienced at school.
I was always a very good student. I participated in all the student academic competitions, starting in elementary school. In middle school, I became part of the group of students chosen to as school leaders.
In the ninth grade they suggested that I join the Union of Young Communists (UJC), which they did with the best students, but I refused. By then I had become a bit suspicious of anything ideological. I just wanted to study. I didn’t want to be linked to any political-ideological issue. That’s why I rejected membership in the UJC.
Later, in high school, when I was in eleventh grade, I decided to ask to join the UJC because I believed that it would help me win a spot to study Journalism at the university, the major I had already decided on. Many times, belonging to the UJC can help you get into the major of your choice. But once a student at the University of Havana, I was never really that active in the UJC. Of course, I did go to some marches and other political activities that were mandatory. And at one point I think I was even secretary of the UJC among my cohort because nobody else wanted that job. I had to put in my time for a year, but I really didn’t do anything much. It was all quite banal.
How and why did you decide to study journalism at the University of Havana?
I am from the Isle of Youth (although I prefer to say “the Isle of Pines”) and when I was 15 years old I came to study in Havana, at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin vocational high school, because there were no such schools on the Island. In my last year of high school, I decided to opt for a degree in Journalism, because it was the major that most aligned with my talents and sensibilities. I always liked the humanities and found that I performed best in those subjects. I have also always liked to read and stay informed. And I wanted to do something in which I felt useful, where I could help other people and do something to transform my reality, my country, the things that I believed should be changed.
Back then, what were the things you wanted to transform or change?
I really didn’t see myself doing the same thing every day, or doing an office job where I didn’t get any feedback. Because I am one of those people who constantly sets goals in life. I always try to improve myself spiritually and professionally. And I think that with Journalism I have achieved that: I get feedback and spiritual nourishment from the practice of my profession.
What social concerns did you have when you were still unsure about the character of the Cuban political system?
I did not understand that in a system that was said to be so humanistic (the official discourse of promoting equality or eradicating inequalities) there were so many inequalities. For me, in practice, there were many contradictions: I saw that theory had nothing to do with reality. I saw that there were mothers who could barely feed their children. I myself suffered having to go without many necessities. I went hungry when I was on scholarship and the Lenin vocational school, between the ages of 15 and 18. When I started college, I barely had clothes to wear because my parents are working class and didn’t have the resources to support me here in Havana. My mother earned about 300 pesos a month, and a pair of shoes cost me 500. Things like that, which I didn’t understand at the time, made me ask: “How is this possible?”
My aunt, who is a doctor, had to go on an international medical mission for a year when her daughter was just 3 years old. Later, when her daughter was about 7 or 8, she had to go back to another mission, this time to Venezuela. And she was away from our family for six years. She would come back once a year to visit, but only for a month. Her daughter and I, we practically grew up together. I experienced all her pain, having to be apart from her mother. And I also understood that my aunt had to do it because it was the way she saw that she could get ahead financially. To help her family.
In fact, during those years she was the one who helped just about all of us to find clothes and shoes, to put food on the table. And I used to ask myself: “How is it that a professional, a doctor, has to go far from her country to survive economically, if this is her country? This is where she studied. Here she can work…” And at the same time, I saw how terrible the health service in Cuba was, the educational system. These were things that I questioned.
Along with this family experience, when I came here to Havana I realized the great social differences that exist in Cuba. In the provinces, in the towns, at that time this was less evident. For example, at the Lenin school, there were children of many political leaders, of people with a lot of resources, and they dressed very well. And they made fun of people like us, who came from the Isle of Youth, from small towns, and who didn’t dress as well as they did. They discriminated against us.
In Havana, I also began to see that many people could afford luxuries like going to bars and parties while I couldn’t. Some students even drove to campus in their own cars wearing expensive clothes. While there were others, like me, who could barely afford a pair of shoes.
When I decided to study Journalism and during the time I was studying for my major, I had these social concerns but was unaware that Cuba was a dictatorship, for example. I didn’t even know there were political prisoners. Little by little, especially after graduation, with greater Internet access, I started to meet people from the opposition and to open up to a world totally unknown to me.
After graduation, I think was my awakening. Over time, I have been able to access many banned books that broadened my horizons and helped me to better understand all those concerns that I had had.
What are some examples of the books you discovered at that time?
I have read Journey to the Heart of Cuba by Carlos Alberto Montaner. I read Juan Reinaldo Sánchez’s book, The Secret Life of Fidel Castro. I have also read, for example, the book by Andrés Oppenheimer, Castro’s Final Hour. It was very important to me. It inspired me tremendously. I have found it difficult to find books by Rafael Rojas, but I keep looking. I have also read the book by Comandante Benigno [Daniel Alarcón Ramírez] Life and Death of the Cuban Revolution. Benigno was one of Camilo’s guerrilla fighters, and later part of Ernesto Che Guevara’s guerrilla force.
On the Internet, I have been able to find many works on Cuban history. I have also interviewed many people as part of my research project on Freemasonry in Cuba. There were even freemasons among the Cuban political prisoners known as “los plantados.”
What attracted you to the idea of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
The constant exchange with people, feeling that I was providing people with a social service. Since I became an independent journalist, many people have approached me for help.
What kind of help have they requested?
I have covered cases of families in Old Havana whose homes are in danger of collapse. And when I publish these articles, the authorities are forced to visit these buildings and try to remedy the situation in some way.
Another experience I had, last year, was a family that contacted me through a friend, because the father of the family had a son with chronic schizophrenia. This was around the start of the pandemic when there was all this paranoia in Cuba of arresting and fining people for not wearing a mask. So, this young guy, suffering from schizophrenia, decides to go out for a walk. And the police catch him without a shirt or a mask. They gave him a summary trial, without a lawyer and without the presence of his family, and sentenced him to a year in prison. His father had not been able to visit him during the whole process. He even took his medical history to prove his condition, but the authorities did not take it into account.
I did some investigative reporting on this case, and as I began to inquire about all the violations that were being committed, in less than 10 days they released this kid. They called his father and handed him over without further explanation. He is free. After being sentenced to a year in prison.
People have found, in the independent press, a form of social denunciation. They can be heard in the face of so much injustice. Those are the things that comfort me, make me proud of what I do. And that’s why: the public service I provide thanks to the profession I chose.
What did you write your thesis about and why? Who was your thesis director?
I graduated from the Communication School at the University of Havana in 2016, and my thesis was a video documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba. My tutor was Maribel Acosta, a tenured professor at the University.
Freemasonry was a subject that interested me. First, I set out to put together a book of interviews. But then I saw that there was material worthy of a documentary, because nothing of the sort had been done before. In fact, in all modestly, mine was the first documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba.
Freemasonry has been quite momentous in this country’s history. The first separatist conspiracies in the 19th century were orchestrated by Freemasons. The Cuban flag and the national coat of arms were both devised by Freemasons. The national anthem was written by a Freemason. The Ten Years’ War was also hatched in Masonic lodges. José Martí was a Freemason. Later, during the years of the Republic, the Masonic order continued to have tremendous influence.
Later as I delved more deeply into my research on the history of the order in Cuba, I discovered that the female branch of Freemasonry, for example, was something has been almost completely ignored. Right now, I am finishing up my book on all this so I can enter it into a journalism contest. I think the main contribution I make is on the history of the order in the last 60 years, which is also unknown, unpublished.
How would you describe your internships at different state media outlets during college?
They were all about the same political-ideological question. I don’t think they contributed much to my development. I do remember that at Granma what we did was accompany older journalists in their coverage and see how they did things. And they gave us advice.
However, we students spent most of our time on the office computers. Sometimes we even skipped class so we could go on-line. The Internet access they gave us at the university was negligible. It didn’t allow us to do anything. Back then, I didn’t even know what Facebook was. I had never had a laptop or anything like that. So, to walk into a newsroom with so much connectivity, to find myself with access to all that, for me it was something spectacular.
I remember spending hours and hours on Facebook, on YouTube, watching videos, looking for information. For that, the internships actually helped me tremendously.
What was your first job with the official media?