October 22, 1997

Tenacious Cuban Journalist Olance Nogueras and Lazaro Lazo were strangers in their motherland: Now they are strangers in ours

New Times, Dateline Havana
October 16 - 22, 1997
By Jacob Bernstein

On the morning of August 5, Cuban state security officials arrived at Havana's Jose Martí International Airport. Their orders were simple:

Make sure that two of the country's best-known independent journalists and their wives boarded a United States-bound plane to exile. The journalists, Lázaro Lazo and Olance Nogueras, had said their farewells elsewhere; they'd warned friends not to come to the airport and risk interrogation. Family members also stayed away.

Operating outside the rigidly controlled official media and under constant threat of arrest, several dozen independent journalists struggle to report news the authorities would like to keep quiet. They cover everything from outbreaks of hemorrhagic conjunctivitis to the latest unemployment statistics, calling in dispatches to foreign colleagues who transcribe and disseminate their words by radio, the Internet, and print media. The information often resurfaces in Cuba through broadcasts from Miami-based commercial radio stations and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Martí. Castro's government has waged a campaign to silence the independent journalists by harassment, imprisonment, and exile.

Lazo and his wife María Esther Sáez arrived at the airport without luggage, their meager possessions left behind for relatives. Still, immigration officials took their time scanning the couple's visas and passports before authorizing them to board the waiting plane.

Characteristically, the last stop on the road to exile for Nogueras and his wife Betania Abreu was marked by confrontation. A veteran of skirmishes with the authorities, Nogueras had left nothing to chance. The documentation he'd amassed in three years of reporting groundbreaking stories remained with friends, rather than be subject to confiscation and a possible betrayal of sources. A wise decision; immigration authorities searched the couple's two carry-on bags thoroughly. They seized a shortwave radio and the journalist's tape recorder—a gift from a foreign colleague. When the officials came to his books and papers (mostly cultural magazines, although he did toss in a primer on nuclear energy), they opted to take those as well.

Exhibiting the determination that earned him recognition in Europe and the United States, Nogueras protested. Loudly. "It was like I reverted to a little boy," he says, describing the ensuing temper tantrum. "I told them if they took a single document, I wouldn't leave Cuba." The hapless immigration agent walked over to the state security officers observing the spectacle. After a short discussion, the man in charge, known only as Captain Aramis to the independent journalists he has interrogated for years, ordered the couple through. "Good riddance to that son of a whore," Aramis snarled.

After a brief stop in Cancún, Lazo and Nogueras landed at Miami International Airport at noon. Neither man had set foot outside Cuba before or knew what to expect. Their first sight of the United States, upon clearing immigration, was a pack of roughly 30 reporters, representing most domestic and foreign Spanish-language media based in Miami. "We were journalists trapped by journalists," says Lazo of the irony he felt at the time. At an impromptu press conference, replete with television cameras and popping flashbulbs, reporters quizzed the two journalists about current events in Cuba. They dutifully played out their roles in this theater of exile.

Lazo, 48 years old, peered from behind thick glasses that disappeared into an unruly expanse of frizzy black hair, the same color as his drooping mustache. His face flushed by fever and the grief of leaving both his twenty-year-old son and long-time Havana home, Lazo lashed out at Castro. Twenty-nine-year-old Nogueras, tall, wiry, and intense, stood beside his young wife and vowed that the independent journalism movement on the island would persevere.

For the first time Miami Cubans could put faces to the men whose stories had brought them closer to the land they left behind. The pair had worked together briefly in Cuba but were booked on the same flight by chance. A month later Nogueras was still being greeted as a hero, recognized on the streets of Hialeah by Cubans who'd watched the airport press conference. Lazo's brief sojourn in Miami would be his last stop on familiar ground. Weeks later he would be struggling to adjust to a life of isolation in North Dakota.

"We didn't know it was going to be that hectic at the airport," says Rita Estorino, Nogueras's caseworker from Episcopal Migration Ministries, an agency that resettles refugees in the United States. Among the crowd at the airport was Soren Triff, editor of Catálogo de Letras, a Cuban cultural magazine based in Miami. One of the first U.S. writers to help spread the work of Cuba's independent journalists through a network of contacts established by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Triff had agreed to act as Nogueras's U.S. sponsor. With the young journalist and his wife in tow, Triff left the airport for the house of a former political prisoner from Camagüey. Lazo and his wife were taken out to dinner by other exiles, then dropped off at a hotel. The couple left Miami the following day.

Lazo decided he wanted to leave Cuba in 1986, after his release from prison. No strong human rights movement existed in 1981 to aid him when he wrote a series of short stories about bureaucracy and poverty on the island, one of which was published in Costa Rica. In retaliation, the government sentenced him to three and a half years for "enemy propaganda" and "contempt." Imprisoned for criticisms now commonplace in Cuba, he spent eighteen days of the sentence in a two-meter-square cell, naked in the dark, with only one meal a day to sustain him.

"I was 31 years old, and I felt strong when I went into prison," he says. "I left sick. My vision was impaired, and I don't see well any more." He was also stripped of his six-year position as an editor in a government publishing house. "I thought about becoming a refugee at the time, but my parents were ill and I couldn't leave them."

On a government blacklist, Lazo could find no work as an editor or writer. "I was dead in the eyes of the authorities," he recalls. He drifted through a series of short-lived menial jobs that usually ended with a visit from state security. "It always came out that I was 'untrustworthy,' and I would then get fired because I was 'a bad worker' or they suddenly had too many employees. The government's tactic was economic strangulation."

The 1989 executions of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Tony de la Guardia for alleged drug trafficking proved a bellwether for the dissident movement. "Suddenly it wasn't a model government any more. The mask started to fall, and international support began to build," Lazo recalls. That same year he joined a clandestine human rights discussion group that later grew to be part of the Democratic Solidarity Party (PDS), one of the first opposition parties on the island.

In 1993 he began to write articles for the Independent Press Agency of Cuba. The group, founded in 1988 by Yndamiro Restano, a poet and former reporter for Radio Rebelde, operated largely as a forum to denounce human rights abuses. When the Cuban government broke up the PDS and arrested many of its members, Lazo dedicated his energies to producing dispatches on the crackdown for the Independent Press Agency. He sees no conflict between his dissident work and his journalism. "They say the press is impartial and it shouldn't be political. In Cuba everything is political," he says. "Our struggle was for freedom of expression."

In 1990 Restano was charged with "rebellion" and sentenced to a ten-year prison term for his stories on Cuba's human rights issues. He was released five years later and returned to the Independent Press Agency, but personality conflicts forced his departure. In September 1995 he established the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC) with the hopes of combining a concentration on human rights and hard news. Lazo joined the new agency as an editor. A month later Restano traveled to Norway to participate in a human rights conference, and then to Washington, D.C., to accept an award from the World Association of Newspapers. When he tried to re-enter Cuba, he was barred. In his absence, Lazo assumed directorship of the agency.

During his two-year tenure, Lazo faced attacks from both the government and some of his colleagues, though for different reasons. Dissension within the BPIC centered largely on money. The independent journalists are rarely paid for their work; instead they receive sporadic donations from Cuban exiles and nonprofit organizations. "An independent journalist doesn't sustain himself from the money that is sent from outside the country," says Restano, who now lives in Miami and works as a security guard.

Such a hand-to-mouth existence almost guarantees disputes over money. This past June one such rift became public when El Nuevo Herald published a story in which Lazo accused Restano of stealing funds raised for the journalists. In the same article, Nogueras disclosed that Lazo had been criticized by reporters in the Bureau for twice taking money targeted for them. On both occasions, Nogueras says, Lazo replaced the funds. But the controversy still evokes strong feelings. Restano came to the Miami airport when the two men arrived, according to Nogueras. He greeted the younger journalist warmly but acknowledged Lazo only with a glare. "He was sanctioned two times," Restano insists. "Why was I on the front page?" For his part, Lazo refuses to discuss the episode in detail. "This type of situation maligns the entire press," he says. "The important thing was to continue to rescue the truth from the government."

And that, Lazo knew from experience, was dangerous. "When I assumed the direction of the bureau, state security saw me as the person who had replaced Yndamiro Restano," he says. "I began to receive written threats shoved under the door. Cars would follow me on the street and try to run me over. It was constant harassment." He found himself summoned to state security on several occasions. During 1996 a frequent topic on which the officials pressed Lazo was his inability to control the bureau's most aggressive reporter: Olance Nogueras.

Originally from the Caribbean port city of Cienfuegos, Nogueras likes to emphasize two events in his training as a journalist. They are not the journalism courses he took at the University of Havana and the Jose Martí International Institute of Journalism—although those would prove useful in unexpected ways. In 1992, after working at the Havana-based radio station COCO, he accepted a job with CMHU, another state-run station, in Cienfuegos.

In his first month, the chief of the station's information department disciplined Nogueras for mentioning Cuban suicide rates on the air. "I had to take classes in enunciation for six months as punishment," Nogueras recalls. "But instead I used the time to do an in-depth study on how a democratic press functions, primarily by reading books written by Latin Americans about the United States press." The books, borrowed from friends, instilled in him an obsession with journalistic ethics such as objectivity and the protection of sources. During those six months, he was allowed to read on-air only stories written by others, but once he was permitted to write his own copy again, he redoubled his efforts to circumvent the censors.

Around this time, he discovered another new source of knowledge he credits with his final disillusionment with the official media. "All the radio stations and official press in Cuba receive a bulletin from the Communist Party's department of revolutionary organization," he explains. "The bulletin is only meant to be seen by upper-level management in the official media. It contains articles written by foreign correspondents in Havana and major newspapers like El País of Spain and El Nuevo Herald. In the early dawn, colleagues and I would penetrate the office of the director and read the bulletin. It was there that we learned what was really happening."

Armed with a new perspective on journalism, Nogueras grew increasingly bold on his Saturday-morning radio program, Hora 25, a news and talk show in which he mentioned politically sensitive subjects and even dedicated one segment to a jailed dissident. "I realized no one listened to the radio station because they didn't believe it," he says. "I wanted to dignify my work." Unwilling to compromise and well aware of the potential consequences, he decided to see how far he could go. He found out on March 12, 1994, when he broadcast an interview with the Catholic bishop of Cienfuegos. After only three questions, authorities abruptly replaced the program with instrumental music.

He was summoned to a meeting with Bárbaro Morales, a family acquaintance and the second chief of state security for Cienfuegos. Morales informed the young journalist he was now banned from further employment in the official media. After an unsuccessful attempt to emigrate to Chile, Nogueras joined the Independent Press Agency in Havana, where Lazo was also working. Frustrated by an editor who ordered him not to write controversial stories, he left to help Restano and Lazo found the BPIC.

As a member of the BPIC Nogueras embarked on an unprecedented campaign of guerrilla journalism. In 1995 government officials banished him to Cienfuegos, but he routinely ignored the order in his pursuit of stories. Through the cultivation of contacts among workers and technicians in Cienfuegos, he exposed widespread construction problems at the nearby Juragua nuclear-power facility. His reports were carried on Miami radio stations and added urgency to calls from the U.S. Congress to halt the project.

In January 1997 Nogueras trained his guns on some of Cuba's most sensitive institutions. "When I began my investigations of the espionage base at Lourdes and military corruption, that's when they said, 'This person is too dangerous,'" he recalls with satisfaction. The Russians had installed the Lourdes base in suburban Havana in the early 1970s as a listening post aimed at the United States. On April 23, 1997, as he made his way to Lazo's house, where he'd hoped to phone in his stories to Miami, he was arrested. The dispatches he'd written about Juragua and Lourdes were confiscated. After three days in several Havana jails, state security again banished him to Cienfuegos and sent him off by train. He rewrote the Lourdes article from memory and phoned it in to Soren Triff a short time later.

A week later, on April 30, military intelligence summoned him to Cienfuegos's principal hotel, the Jagua, for interrogation. In suite 108, Maj. Ramón Pérez Sobre Pera and the young journalist matched wits for six hours. "His questions were honest, yet tactical," Nogueras remembers. "For example, he would say, 'I worked in intelligence at Juragua, and it's true there are some construction problems, but I don't exactly know where the errors originate. Do they come from the laboratory? Where do they come from?' They were questions that allowed me to talk about what I knew of Juragua. He wanted to find my sources. If I talked a lot about, say, civil construction, they would know they needed to look in that area."

Nogueras enjoyed the game; he'd learned it in college. "He may have been a specialist in intelligence, but the official Cuban media teach courses at their journalism school on propaganda and counterpropaganda—how to attack the enemy, how to search for information from the enemy. They taught me how to manipulate and disinform," he says with a chuckle. "I would never use these tactics against my readers because it would be a violation of ethics, but in the case of military intelligence, I paid them back with the very coin they gave me. I mentioned civil construction several times to disinform him."

On May 22, Nogueras crashed a press conference at the Cuban Peoples Friendship Institute held for the U.S. aid group Pastors for Peace. State security sent him to jail for another three days. Three weeks later the ax finally fell, again at the hands of security official Bárbaro Morales. Adopting the persona of a concerned "uncle," Morales told Nogueras that state security was preparing a case against him for the crime of "enemy propaganda" and it was in his best interests to leave the country rather than go to jail. It was also in the best interests of the Cuban government. "[My arrest] would have carried negative repercussions for their image outside the country," he says.

Morales also stopped at the house of Nogueras's mother to suggest she persuade her son to leave. "I knew my time was limited, so I started to really work," Nogueras says. He phoned in five quick dispatches on corruption in the military to Miami radio stations. "Maybe it was a tactical error," he muses. "Perhaps I should have written five mild stories, but I didn't want to make concessions."

On July 24 state security summoned him back to the Jagua Hotel to inform him that his trial would begin in two weeks. His crimes carried the possibility of a twenty-year prison term. The next day he requested exit visas for his family from the immigration ministry in Cienfuegos and, in a surprisingly quick 24 hours, received them. Luckily, a year earlier, in response to increasing harassment, he had applied for and received refugee status from the U.S. Interests Section, which serves as an informal embassy in Havana. A loan from an uncle, savings, and donations from exiled Cubans provided him with the funds he needed to leave.

For Lázaro Lazo money became the main impediment to exile after his parents passed away. In October 1996 he asked the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for refugee status. In December of that year, the request was approved. Cuban authorities had also told him to leave the country or face a return to prison for a minimum of ten years—an idea, he admits, that terrified him. But getting off the island is expensive. U.S. resettlement agencies will loan cash for the $400 airfare, but the Cuban government also charges as much as $600 U.S. dollars per person (50 months' salary for the average Cuban professional) for the right to leave. The government demands $400 for a medical exam, $150 for an exit visa, $50 for a passport, as well as sizable sums to release documents such as university degrees and prison records.

Lazo spent close to a year gathering nearly $2000 that he, his wife, and son would need. He borrowed the money from sympathetic colleagues in Miami and Puerto Rico, adding it to the little he'd managed to save from sporadic employment. On July 26, 1997, he went to the Cuban immigration ministry to pick up exit visas for his family. There an immigration official informed him that his son was still of draft age and could not leave the country. "It's a way for them to continue to maintain pressure over me," Lazo says bitterly.

Neither Lazo nor Nogueras had family members in the United States who could serve as sponsors. Soren Triff stepped in after learning of Nogueras's sponsorship need from a mutual acquaintance. "His work was wonderful, and for me that was enough," he says. But Lazo made little effort to find sponsors in Miami's large exile community. "I didn't want to bother people I didn't know," he says. He denies that the controversy over his management of BPIC funds affected his chances and says that when he left Cuba he desired only a fresh start in a new place. "I don't want to live in Miami," he insists. "It's too expensive, and there is a lot of crime."

With no U.S. sponsor, Lazo's case was sent to the Refugee Data Center in New York City, where ten sponsoring agencies, under contract with the federal Health and Human Services Agency, determine who goes where. Florida, Texas, California, and Washington, D.C., all have high concentrations of immigrants, so refugees generally are not sent to those areas. Two of the sponsoring agencies that handle Cuban refugees -- Episcopal Migration Ministries and Lutheran Migration Ministries—offered to place Lazo and his wife with a five-year-old community of Cuban refugee families. A week before leaving Cuba, he learned where his new home would be. "When they told me Bismarck," he remembers, "I had to look for it on the map."

The day after the airport press conference, Lazo and his wife flew to North Dakota, where they were met by members of the local Cuban community, which totaled only about 50. "There are about half a dozen [Cuban] families, although we recently had some move," says Kathleen Kelly, director of the resettlement agency Lutheran Social Services in Bismarck. "Obviously the colder climate is hard. I think last winter everyone here wanted to move." The agency rented a furnished apartment for the couple in the Burleigh County housing complex and stocked the refrigerator and cupboards with food. The apartment is in a low-income neighborhood, but despite its reputation among some Bismarck residents as an undesirable area, Lazo believes it compares well with his situation in Cuba. "I now have more possessions," he says, "than I had in 48 years in Cuba."

Still, he admits to feeling isolated. The Cubans are Bismarck's only Hispanic population except for seasonal Mexican farm workers. In the supermarket, Lazo says, he is often mistaken for a Sioux. "We are pretty white here," Kelly confirms. To compound the isolation, most of the exiles in town left Cuba because of religious persecution. Lazo is one of the only intellectuals among them, according to Kelly.

As autumn fades, Lazo's fear of winter grows. "It has me in a panic," he admits. A stranger to snow, he struggles to comprehend this unknown threat. "Many say the winter will be mild because of El Niño, but the Farmer's Almanac says it could be strong. In 1983 it was 45 degrees below zero!" he exclaims incredulously. "When you are in your house, they say, it's not that bad. The difficult part is when you have to go to work."

In late September Lazo watched enviously as several of Bismarck's more established Cuban families left to spend the winter months in North Carolina. By early October both Lazo and his wife had found jobs as housekeepers at the Radisson Hotel in Bismarck. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, he goes to South-Central High School for English lessons and driving instruction. "There are so many different signs to learn," he complains. "There is a whole universe just for snow alone." The proper way to handle snow is a big topic of discussion in the class. "They say always drive with a cell phone because if there is a blizzard and you have to change a tire, you can die from exposure."

After a month of staying in the homes of different exile families in the Miami area, Nogueras and his wife received a tip on an apartment owned by a Cuban businessman who agreed to waive the security deposit. Their one-bedroom home in the gated Blue Riviera complex in Fontainebleau Park overlooks a golf course. The rooms are sparsely furnished, but the couple has a television, a bed, and a few paintings on loan from the different families with whom they stayed. Nogueras is upbeat about his situation. In his short time in the United States, he has racked up some important firsts. "For the first time in almost 30 years of existence, I have a telephone!" he announces proudly.

Recently he drove a car for the first time, and in late August he took an expense-paid trip to New York City to meet the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cuba. For the occasion, he wore his first suit, a gift from an exile family. Nogueras points out that he is the only Cuban independent journalist in exile to actually be employed in his profession. Two days a week, he labors as a copy editor at the Spanish-language weekly Exito. He hopes to use the paper as a forum to renew his reporting career. "I have to be much more agile," he says of the challenge of American-style journalism. "When one does investigative work in Cuba, there is no competition. But here it's the opposite. Here several mediums can be looking for the same information at the same time." Meanwhile he hopes to get a grant to take English classes at Miami-Dade Community College.

Back in Cuba, the loss of Nogueras and Lazo is acutely felt among the remaining independent journalists. "We are in a slight decline," admits Raul Rivero, who knew both men well and is president and founder of the well-respected news agency CubaPress. "There aren't that many of us, and the loss of those two is a professional defeat." It comes at a time when the movement is hobbled by repression and a lack of trained reporters. At least three independent journalists currently languish in Cuban jails. (The plight of Cuba's independent press has been chronicled in two previous New Times stories: "Notes from the Underground," November 28, 1996; and "Notes from the Underground, Part 2," March 13, 1997.)

"Lazo left out of exhaustion because he was a political prisoner. He came from the background of human rights and the humanities. He was never of the journalist breed. Olance was the most harassed journalist in the country. He was able and audacious, a man with the ability to both write and edit. There has yet to appear another journalist like Olance," Rivero says with real sadness. "With his investigative spirit and boldness, there is no substitute for him."

His is the type of journalism Yndamiro Restano hopes will exist in a future Cuba. "We don't know the profession of journalism," he says. "We want to ensure that the journalism of resistance turns into a journalism of emancipation."

Unfortunately, their best hope just got run out of town.