INTERVIEW: TED A. HENKEN WITH CAMILA ACOSTA, “MY AWAKENING”
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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?