For almost half a century, Spain’s EFE news agency has reported from Cuba, covering everything from the historic visit by President Barack Obama to the death of Fidel Castro.
But its independent coverage in one of the world’s most censored societies could be about to end.
In an interview with VOA, EFE’s president said the network may leave the island “within weeks,” citing visa delays and restrictions imposed on staff since protests last year.
“We don't want to leave Cuba. The problem is that they are kicking us out of Cuba. We only have two accredited journalists there and one of these has to renew their visa every month,” said Gabriela Cañas, during a phone call in Madrid.
“We are not going to leave out of our own choice. We are the international media which reports the most from Cuba. The [Cuban government] wants to force us out,” she said, adding that EFE would have to decide its future “within weeks.”
The news agency is looking for solutions, and it has hopes that new Cuban Ambassador to Madrid, Marcelino Medina, could act as an intermediary.
Medina’s office did not respond to VOA’s request for an interview.
Typically, the EFE news agency has seven journalists reporting from Havana, but currently only two have permission to work.
In November, Havana revoked the press credentials for three editors, a camera operator and a photographer. No reason for the decision was provided.
At the time, EFE had been covering protests and the lead-up to the Civic March for Change, as dissident groups called for greater civil rights. Havana issued a ban on the march taking place.
Its actions against EFE drew complaints from the Spanish government and criticism from the international community. In response, Havana restored credentials for one editor and a photographer.
The agency’s new bureau chief has still not been granted a visa, however, even though the application was submitted in July.
Cañas believes EFE was singled out by the Cuban government because of its reach.
“Practically half the news in Latin America about Cuba comes from us, but I do not have the answer. You will have to ask [the Cuban government],” Cañas said.
The Cuban Embassy in Madrid did not reply to VOA’s requests for comment.
The Cuban government's International Press Center, which controls accreditation for foreign media organizations, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA.
EFE has an illustrious history covering events in the Caribbean island since 1975.
Its journalists reported on three papal visits; the 1989 visit of then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev; the 1996 Helms Burton Act, which strengthened U.S. sanctions against Cuba; Raul Castro taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro as head of state in 2008; the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years; and the death of Fidel.
Cañas said if EFE had to leave, it would be a blow to the agency, which is state-run but independent from the Spanish government.
“It will be terrible. It will leave us without eyes and ears, and we cannot report in the same way. Cuba has a historic relationship with Spain and vice versa. We can report from outside, but it will not be the same,” Cañas said.
“It will also be bad for the Cuban society and for the freedom of expression.”
EFE is one of a handful of independent media outlets that broadcast from Havana. In Latin America, EFE has 332 media clients and 168 companies that take its news from Cuba.
Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence-France Presse also have bureaus in Cuba and Radio and Television Marti — which like VOA is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media — broadcasts to Cuba from Miami.
Cuba’s own press is tightly regulated and state-controlled, and the few independent local journalists risk harassment and arrest for their coverage. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says the country “has continued year after year to be Latin America’s worst media freedom violator.”
Cuba ranks 171 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, on the RSF press freedom index.
Atahualpa Amerise, who was EFE deputy bureau chief in Cuba for over three years, told VOA that reporting from Havana enabled the agency’s journalists to provide in-depth coverage.
He believes the government targeted EFE because it was viewed by authorities as the "media of reference."
"EFE also reported extensively on political prisoners and on opposition protests,” Amerise said. “I believe the Cuban government became quite nervous about the agency.”
In Cuba, EFE's reports are taken by the country's state-run Prensa Latina agency and On Cuba, and the Hungarian Embassy.
Many Cuban media in exile in Miami and elsewhere turn to EFE for coverage of their home country.
Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said the government is working behind the scenes to help EFE, but he declined to disclose details of diplomatic discussions with Cuba.
“I have been very clear about the accreditation of EFE journalists in Cuba and I have communicated this to my [Cuban] counterpart on several occasions,” he told El Diario, a Spanish news website, in an interview published Sunday.
“It would be very sad if the EFE agency had to reconsider its presence in Cuba, a country to which Spanish society feels very close and vice versa,” he said. “What we all want is for them to stay on the island, but they must have the means to be able to work freely.”
Carlos Jornet, president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information for the Inter American Press Association, said Cuba “played games” with independent media like EFE.
“They grant visas to make it seem like they allow some form of free speech but then they take them away. They play games with the independent media to try to make their image look better,” he told VOA from his office in Miami.
If EFE were to leave the island it would harm the international community's ability to know what was really happening inside one of the world's least open societies, Jornet said.
“The presence of a respected media like EFE on the ground in Cuba is the best way we have to know what is really happening,” Jornet added. “It would silence this independent voice inside Cuba forever.”