Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuban Journalist's Mission to Tell the Truth

Interview with Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez before his September 11 detention.
By Dana Sants
  • Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez.
    Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez.

Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, an independent journalist in Cuba and founder of the Hablemos Press news agency, has been released after being detained, held for more than a day and badly beaten. 

After Guerra, 33, was detained outside his house in the Cuban capital Havana on September 11, his wife Magaly Norvis Ortero tweeted, “I have been informed that Roberto was beaten so savagely at the moment of his arrest that he was left unconscious.”

Guerra was released after spending over 28 hours in custody. He said officers beat him till he was close to unconsciousness and made death threats to get him to stop his independent reporting.

The day before he was detained, he was aware he was in trouble, writing, “I’ve had a lot of problems in the past 12 hours. The political police have threatened Magaly and me, saying they would flatten our house because of the information I have been sending out via Twitter.”

Guerra’s sister Sandra said, “I will blame the Cuban government for anything that might happen to my brother.”

Guerra played a key role among the social media activists who kept Cubans informed via Twitter during a massive electricity outage in the country on September 9. Virtually no information about the blackout was broadcast by state-run media, as the government appeared keen to play down its scale. The BBC reported that the blackout probably affected between six to seven million people for over four hours.

In an interview conducted by email two weeks before his detention, Guerra spoke about his life as an independent journalist in Cuba.

“I have served almost four years in prison, on three convictions, for practicing independent journalism and for being a human rights defender,” he said. “Since 2003, I have been detained over 120 times, and I have been beaten in the street, at police stations and in prisons. When I was arrested in 2005, I served 22 months in prison, 600 kilometres away from my family. Six months and 20 days of this were spent in a torture centre where I could barely see the light of day.

“For me it was, and always will be, a matter of pride to be a political prisoner. But captivity is something horrible, a horror… worse than anything you might have seen in the movie ‘Saw’.”

Guerra, whose health is still badly affected by imprisonments and his numerous hunger strikes, was keen to explain his motives for practicing journalism and running an independent press agency, despite the risks involved.

“I am young, I have a visa for the United States and Germany. I could go and see the world, work, have my own house, a car, and a plate of good food, and earn a lot of money. Yet here I am working gruelling hours under constant repression,” he said. “On the island, we know that all the media are state-owned… mouthpieces of the Communist Party, whose journalists write what they are told to. The newspapers are toilet paper for thousands of Cubans.

“I decided to [become a journalist] because I enjoy reporting everything that’s happening in Cuba and the press does not disclose. Revealing the truth concealed behind the propaganda.” He continued, “I love it; it’s something I couldn’t stop doing even if I wanted to… the positive thing is that you don’t tell lies, you tell the truth to your readers. I would really like to do more for my country, which lives under a dictatorship.

“I want freedom for my people. I love this land… My greatest desire is to keep my project alive, if I get there alive in the end.”

Guerra acknowledges that the 1959 Cuban revolution delivered some positive changes to the country. “Everyone has been able to learn how to read and write, to study, and our children can go to school every day,” he said.

However, he remains highly critical of most aspects of the system.

“It is very difficult in general. Cubans live in absolutely squalid conditions. We enjoy no freedoms...We mistrust one another, because the government has degraded us all to the point where each of us thinks everyone else has a policeman inside them,” he said. “We have no right to travel, to go to the beach with foreign friends.... We have no right to think freely and if we do, we risk going to jail. We cannot organise public meetings or peaceful rallies... We live as prisoners within our own island, surrounded by water where it is illegal to fish. Our children cannot study what they want, and we cannot choose a piece of land on which to build a house of our own. We live amid overcrowding in our apartments. Life in Cuba today is one of great suffering.”

Guerra is a self-taught journalist from a deprived background. “I am the son of a poor peasant family…. When I was four, my mother left my father. We became gypsies, initially living in Sierra Maestra in a place called Las Delicias where I had to walk about four kilometres through the jungle to school every day.

“At the age of nine, I had to run errands for my neighbours, sell homemade sweets and take any opportunity that came up to make money to feed my mum and younger brother… I had to stop studying when I was 14 because we were so poor. Three years later. I caught up and finished 12th grade,” he said.

“What not many people know is that for part of my life, around 1992, I lived on a landfill located in Los Ranchos, Camagüey. My family and I were fed by whatever the trucks dumped on the site, since it was the time of the ‘special period’ [period of particular hardship caused by the collapse of Cuba’s ally, the Soviet Union]. It wasn’t only us; lots of people did that.”

“I am not a journalism graduate. I taught myself to write from the beginning without any academic training. I edit videos, audio, prepare photos – all skills I acquired from my interest in exposing what happens on the island…. I'm self-taught.”

Guerra decided to become a journalist in early 2004 when Julio Machado of Radio Marti, the United States-based Cuban radio station, interviewed him about Sierra Maestra. He denounced the poverty in the region, and the radio programme proved very popular. Machado later told Guerra that he had a “talent for reporting, and that he would help me. Those were my first steps as an independent journalist.”

Guerra went on to describe his normal working day.

“I work in extremely cramped conditions in a tiny office in my home that is only 1.6 meters high, in extreme temperatures. Sometimes we squeeze in up to six people working on three computers. We’re constantly under pressure from the amount of information we receive, and we can’t publish it immediately on the web because we don’t have internet,” he said. “It’s now it's 2:35 in the morning and I haven’t slept at all. Last night I only slept three hours, and less than that the night before last.

“I probably won’t sleep at all today, because after I this interview I have to check the news and my colleagues’ work in order to publish them early, using the two hours of internet that an embassy allocates to me.”

According to the news website Diario de Cuba, Guerra was detained while on his way to the Czech embassy to publish news reports on the Hablemos Press blog.

Guerra ended the interview by saying, “I would like to see my people freed from dictatorship; to be able to spit on the graves of those who took away our freedom; to create a television channel where everyone can shout out their opinions; to be able to put up a stage in every park where people can say what they want without being harmed or imprisoned.

“I would like all rights to respected, and citizens of this country to live in a democracy. Those are some of my dreams for the future.”

Dana Sants is the pseudonym of a freelance reporter in Mexico.