Fidel Castro loomed large in Abraham Jimenez Enoa’s early years. His grandfather worked as a bodyguard for El Comandante and Che Guevara.
Jimenez Enoa’s relatives were senior military figures in the Cuban government, and he lived a cushioned life at the heart of the communist establishment. Long ago, Che had gifted a treasured television set to Jimenez Enoa’s grandparents for their wedding.
But Jimenez Enoa, now 33, turned his back on his family history to forge a career as an independent journalist, and it cost him dearly. In November, the Cuban government gave him an ultimatum: Leave or be jailed.
In January, he left.
While adjusting to a new life in Barcelona, Spain, Jimenez Enoa said the price was worth paying for reporting what he believed to be the truth.
“I was put under house arrest. My phone was bugged. I was later arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and questioned by security officers. Then they secretly filmed me and put my image on television, claiming I was a CIA spy,” Jimenez Enoa told VOA.
“Later, they telephoned me and said I had to leave the country or they would put me in prison and ‘terminate’ my family and the family of my wife.”
The officers never explained what they meant by “terminate.”
The International Press Center in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Madrid did not reply to VOA’s request for comments about this story.
Voices in exile
Jimenez Enoa’s story is extraordinary but far from isolated. Several exiled Cuban journalists are carving out new lives in Spain, the United States or parts of Latin America.
Many left the country after having been imprisoned or persecuted. Others fled censorship. The harassment of media ramped up in 2021, after mass anti-government protests.
According to Prisoners Defenders, a Madrid-based nonprofit focused on human rights in Cuba, seven journalists were imprisoned in Cuba as of September 29. A further four were not in custody but were under house arrest or had their movement restricted in some other way.
For Jimenez Enoa, one small compensation for being barred from his homeland was receiving a 2022 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In honoring the Cuban exile, the CPJ said, it “recognizes that a new generation of Cuban journalists who only a few years ago saw a glimmer of hope for their independent projects are now facing the harsh reality of new restrictions and censorship that make reporting in Cuba as dangerous as ever.”
But he might not be able to accept the prize in person. The ceremony is in November in New York, but his appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid to apply for a visa is not until next year.
Inside his Barcelona apartment, Jimenez Enoa keeps a few mementos of his old life: a book about the early days of Castro’s revolution and a picture on the wall of a Cuba libre, the famous iced cocktail made of rum, lime juice and cola.
He originally wanted to be a television or radio sports journalist. “I didn’t pronounce my words carefully, spoke too quickly, so I decided to write,” he said.
In 2016, he founded El Estornudo, — The Sneeze — an online magazine that reports on prostitution, poverty, human rights and other subjects that are taboo for Cuba’s state-run media.
“We started to report on the hidden truth about the country, and that’s when the oppression started,” he said.
“They put me under house arrest. They bothered me in the street. They listened to my home phone. This went on until I left the country.”
For members of his family, who had spent their entire lives believing in the revolution, it was hard to accept that Jimenez Enoa had turned his back on his roots.
In 2019, he started writing an opinion column for The Washington Post, but this only increased the repression from Havana, he said.
“It was the first time that a Cuban had a column in the Post. They arrested me. They took me to the police station handcuffed and with my head pushed down in the wagon on our way there,” he said.
“They started interrogating me. They were very upset about The Washington Post. They secretly filmed me, and later, they edited my words and later put out a story on the television saying I was an agent of the CIA.”
It was the worst thing for his family. His father — a lieutenant colonel in the Ministry of the Interior — had to retire early, his sister lost her job as a captain in the military, and his mother had to leave her job in a tourism company.
For a while, Jimenez Enoa said, they were distraught and would not speak to him.
Since then, they have become reconciled to his work and speak to him via messaging every week, even though he lives 7,900 kilometers away.
Despite everything, Jimenez Enoa misses Cuba. Adapting to life in the West with his wife and 2-year-old son has been hard, as has been the shift from communism to capitalism.
“In Cuba, to have one egg is normal. But here it is normal to have 25 types of cheese, 26 types of ham and 36 types of milk. The advertising is very aggressive. I must get used to lots of things,” he said.
As he finds his way in his adopted home, one comfort is that he is not alone in his plight.
Wendy Lazcano Exposito is a journalist for Diario de Cuba, a news website that reports on events that the state media will not cover.
The 29-year-old came to Spain nine years ago, after realizing that a career as an independent journalist in her own country was impossible.
Lazcano Exposito said readers mainly come from America and Europe because it is hard to access her newspaper from inside Cuba.
“We are blocked in Cuba, and you need a VPN [virtual private network] number to access us inside Cuba. That is difficult to get,” she told VOA from her flat in Madrid.
Her newspaper allows the families of Cuban prisoners to tell their stories and air their concerns. Cubans share her and her fellow journalists’ reports about the country on social media, she said.
“In some ways, we know more about what is going on in the country than the people inside it,” she said.
Her family immigrated to Spain in search of a better life.
“I thought about being a journalist in Cuba, but it was very complicated. There is no freedom. They are all state employers,” she said.
“Two journalists from my paper, after the protests last year, had to leave the country. Being an independent journalist means they can indict you, they can seize your work material, your camera, your computer. They can cut the internet. They can also make life difficult for your family,” she said.
“Nobody wants to be a heroine. Everyone wants to live their lives.”
Jimenez Enoa also has no desire to be a hero — or the next famous Cuban revolutionary. He is not on a mission to bring down the government, he said.
“I am not against communism. I am a left-wing person. I just wanted to write the truth about what was happening in my country.”
Alfonso Beato contributed to this report.