In an apartment of a large gray building bearing a mosaic of Che Guevara, Maykel González watches on state television as Cuban president Raúl Castro greets Barack Obama, the first sitting US. president to visit the island in 88 years.
Equipped with a notebook, a cell phone and a computer, González is part of a revolution in Cuba. A shy, clean-shaven 30-year-old, he works in one of the new independent media struggling to transform the island's media landscape.
As a member of El Estornudo (The Sneeze), a digital magazine that published its first edition last month, González is fully aware that the shake up must take place on the Internet, although 8 of the island's 11 million inhabitants do not have web access.
“Cuba is far from having the Internet connectivity other countries have, but that cannot be a limitation for anyone willing to start a media website, because the only chance you have is that platform. You have to deal with that”, he says, noting that he'll have to be ingenious himself to connect to the Internet and send his articles to editors.
Internet hotspots located in several city parks, where groups of young people gather, eyes fixed on their cell phones, are a luxury that not everyone can afford. In order to connect to the Internet users must buy scratch cards for $2 an hour, equivalent to almost 10% of the average monthly wage.
González and his friends started El Estornudo with more eagerness than resources. But that doesn’t stop them from doing the the journalism of their choice. “The fact that you live in a box doesn’t mean you don’t want to get out of it," he said.
“Neither with the government nor with the Ladies in White.”
As if it were a mantra, El Estornudo director Abraham Jiménez says "our weapon is the truth: to tell, describe, narrate.”
Without a law that protects independent media, Jiménez, 27, is aware they can get into trouble over their writings, but he says hes not afraid. “If it upsets anyone, that's fine. We are neither with the government nor with the Ladies in White. We are neither Granma nor Yoani Sánchez”, he declared, referring to polar opposites on Cuba's political spectrum, from the official newspaper of the Cuban communist party (Granma) to leading government critics.
On another front of this media revolution that is brewing in Cuba, five months ago Elaine Díaz set about creating an independent digital outlet, Periodismo de Barrio, which aims to demonstrate that good journalism can be done on the island and to offer an alternative economic means for young communicators.
Entrepreneurship cost this 30 year old journalist her job at the Faculty of Journalism of the University of Havana. Although she is concerned about the likely pressure other members of her team may suffer, she believes that initiatives like hers will help bring pressure to rethink the island's media system.
“We are going to be in a legal limbo until this country understands that media outlets like us, or El Estornudo, must be taken into account in the Cuban media system because we are doing quality journalism. They cannot turn their backs on that,” she said, interviewed in a park in Old Havana.
Díaz, who created the newspaper with her own personal savings after studying at Harvard for a year and then raised funds from a Swedish foundation, was one of the most sought-after journalists by the international media to discuss Obama's visit to Cuba.
But her media outlet didn’t cover the trip. Periodismo de Barrio simply published an editorial speaking favorably of the visit, dedicated to those who weren't able to pay it attention because they were "too busy trying to survive”.
“Grama is like the wolf”
In the new generation of independent Cuban journalists, there is a clear rejection of the state outlets that have monopolized the media over the last five decades, both in their content and form.
Laura Becquer, who has worked for Granma for 28 years, defends the efforts of the newspaper to keep up with the digital age.
The state media are trying to entice the audience with stories that do not overlook the failures of the system, for example, a recent article on the increase in the prices of some commodities such as tomatoes and cassava.
“Granma is like a wolf," she said. "Everybody is afraid of it. But ultimately there are lots of young people trying to do journalism from within, with the technological limitations we have,” she said during a break in coverage of the Obama visit.
Becquer is one of a team of reporters covering the visit using Granma’s twitter account. Unlike Gonzalez and Diaz, as a member of an officially accredited media she gets to enjoy the high speed Internet connection at a state-run press center at a Havana hotel.
She is familiar with the new media emerging in her country. In fact she was a university classmate of some of the journalists and refers to the initiative as “brave” because it is being launched in “a press system that has been hermetic for many years."
She added: “I think it is fine and I totally agree to let them compete using direct social media access, though I don’t know where they get their money from,” she said with a smile. Becquer noted that dissidents have their own independent media, such as the digital newspaper 14yMedio.
However, 14yMedio - run by renowned independent journalist Yoani Sánchez - is blocked by Cuban Internet servers and readers on the island can only access it via Pdfs or email messages.
And the fact that the media identifies itself as in opposition to the government puts those journalists in a hostile environment, said Luz Escobar, a 14yMedio reporter, as she waited for Obama to address one event with Cuban entrepreneurs.
“Prejudices come mainly from the authorities, but people are increasingly less afraid and it's something that is better understood by those who have had the opportunity to travel abroad and become aware of the commitment to individual freedom,” she explained, as she tried to go unnoticed among dozens of locals who waited behind fences manned by state security agents.
On this occasion she achieved her goal of taking a picture to send to 14yMedio. But despite some progress, journalism in Cuba still requires cautiousness, she said. “You learn to know your job and cover the news within its limitations,” she added.