HAVANA — The bartender winked at the reporter before saying, almost in a whisper, "You're not going to write that I told you this." And the journalist, thinking himself wise, limited himself to citing the date on which he'd talked to an economics graduate who prepared daiquiris in a Varadero hotel.
Weeks later, that same foreign correspondent learned that the bartender had been fired, suspected of collaborating with "the enemy." Meanwhile, his colleagues who continue mixing cocktails learned a permanent lesson: To give an opinion is to give yourself away. The next time some curious guy starts asking questions, they will tell him that everything's fine, that the Revolution is advancing, unstoppable.
For Cuban authorities, any foreign journalist, particularly one from a developed capitalist country, is a potential adversary. This has always been the case, but since recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, the suspicions have intensified. A complicated structure of approvals and constraints tie the hands and feet of anyone with credentials trying to report from inside the country.
The International Press Center (CPI by its Spanish initials) is the agency charged with setting limits and giving correspondents a box on the ears when they cross the line. At stake is a visa to remain in Cuba, and even apparently trivial matters: the ability to import a new car, for instance, or to acquire a home air-conditioner.
The CPI is fickle and worries about almost everything. It will rebuke reporters for straying too far from the official position -- or for coming too close to it. A few years ago a correspondent for a major international agency was called in for having included the phrase, "Cuba, the communist island," in a report. Annoyed, a CPI official, in a gesture reminiscent of the political police, rebuked the young journalist for choosing "an adjective with such a negative connotation" to describe the political system of the Caribbean country. The foreign correspondent left the interview even more confused, and only after several months and diligent effort did he manage to work his way back into favor.