by Michael K. Lavers
(Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. This originally appeared in the newspaper’s June 5, 2020, issue. It is reprinted here with permission.)
It is safe to say the vast majority of journalists do everything they can to not become the story. The Cuban government on May 8, 2019, took that choice away from me when I was detained at Havana’s José Martí International Airport for seven hours.
The Cuban government has not said why it decided not to allow me into the country, and any expectation that I will receive an official explanation is a laughable pipe dream. I do, however, have a couple of theories as to why Cuba decided to declare me persona non grata.
One theory is the Cuban government did not want me to cover an unsanctioned LGBTQ rights march in Havana that activists announced would take place.
Reporters from the U.S. and other countries who are based in Cuba covered the event, which happened three days after I was not allowed into the country. These journalists and their Cuban colleagues also reported Cuban police arrested several people who participated in the march.
Many of the activists who organized the march have publicly criticized Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBTQ-specific issues as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education.
A second theory as to why I was not allowed into the country is Mariela Castro, who is a member of Cuba’s National Assembly, wanted me to be declared persona non grata because she was unhappy with my coverage of her country’s independent LGBTQ rights movement from my previous trips to the Communist island.
The aforementioned theories are not mutually exclusive because there is no such thing as coincidence in Cuba. What happened to me last May is most certainly part of a broader story about the treatment of journalists around the world.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 human rights report, which notes my detention in Havana, points out the Cuban government “does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse.”
Yariel Valdés González, a contributor to the Washington and Los Angeles Blades has won asylum in the U.S. because of the persecution he suffered in Cuba as a journalist. The Cuban government last December prohibited Maykel González Vivero, director of Tremenda Nota, the Blades’ media partner on the Communist island, from traveling outside the country.
Authorities on the same day I was not allowed into the country arrested Luz Escobar, a reporter for 14ymedio, an independent website founded by Yoani Sánchez, a prominent critic of the Cuban government, as she tried to interview victims of a freak tornado that devastated parts of Havana in January 2019.
Sunday, May 3, was the 27th annual World Press Freedom Day, and President Trump acknowledged it with a tweet that once again proclaimed the media is “the enemy of the people.” This type of incendiary rhetoric has not only had very real consequences in the U.S., but empowers authoritarian regimes around the world to further target journalists.
The White House ought to defend a free press, which the First Amendment protects, but this wishful thinking seems more elusive than an official explanation from the Cuban government that confirms my theories as to why it declared me persona non grata.
Journalists in the U.S. should be able to work without worrying about whether Trump’s inflammatory and politically motivated rhetoric will inspire someone to target them. Journalists in Cuba should be able to work without worrying about whether their government will sanction and/or arrest them. Journalists in the U.S., Cuba and around the world should be able to work without fear of retribution and retaliation.
A free press is something I no longer take for granted. It is incumbent upon all of us to defend it.