A small group of independent journalists have come together in Cuba to create a new platform, “Belly of the Beast,” with the purpose of telling some of Cuba’s stories—in English.
The platform has already created informative videos that have been shared on YouTube including one about Cuban doctors serving in other countries and another featuring El Individuo, one of Cuba’s most outspoken rappers. The founders seek to not only uncover some of the island’s hidden stories but also shift the narrative around the political situation on the island, including the role of journalists.
“We seek to fill the void left by media coverage of Cuba by investigating the impact of U.S. policy towards the island and the money and interests driving that policy, by producing people-focused stories that are often misreported, underreported or ignored and by reporting in an in-depth and nuanced way on Cuba’s unique political system and society,” the collective told Latino Rebels via email.
One of the latest stories is about Cubans in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter.
Recently, Latino Rebels asked the sites’ founders about the creation of the website, what it means to be creating this kind of journalism out of Cuba, and what the team hopes to accomplish. The journalists answered the questions as a collective. Here’s what they said:
LR: What is Belly of the Beast and how did this idea come about?
Belly of the Beast: Belly of the Beast is an innovative media organization that tells Cuba’s untold stories through hard-hitting journalism and stunning cinematography. The idea was born from our experience working as freelance journalists and documentary filmmakers for major media outlets. We were rarely able to tell critically important stories and our hands were tied as far as how those stories needed to be told. We came to the conclusion that in order to adhere to our journalistic principles and to stay true to the progressive values that guide our work, the only viable option was starting our own media outlet.
LR: Worldwide, there’s often concerns around Cuba and freedom of the press. Do you believe that these concerns are warranted, and was it something that came up when you were organizing this platform?
Belly of the Beast: Cuba has been under siege by the U.S. government and U.S.-based actors since the early 1960s. The country has faced invasions, terrorist attacks, assassination attempts and six decades of economic warfare. In recent years, the U.S. government has poured millions of dollars annually into “democracy promotion” programs that seek regime change. Some of that money has gone to fund journalists and media organizations. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Cuban government is weary of foreign journalists operating in Cuba and often reluctant to grant access to state institutions and public officials. Like all foreign media organizations operating in Cuba (these include CNN, NBC, AP, Reuters, AFP, among others), we face the challenge of obtaining authorization to film government entities and their representatives. (Of course, this challenge is faced in varying degrees by journalists in every country). Outside of seeking access to “official” sources and institutions, we have had free reign to speak with whomever we want and to film wherever we want.
LR: Can you tell us about the name and the reasons behind the name? It’s ironic, considering it is places like New York City that are considered the Belly of the Beast.
Belly of the Beast: For many people throughout the Global South, Belly of the Beast is not just New York City or Washington, D.C., but the entire United States. In Cuba, Belly of the Beast is usually translated as “Entrañas del monstruo,” or Entrails of the Monster. Cuban Independence hero José Martí said, “I lived in the monster and I know its entrails,” after having spent time in the United States. Che Guevara told a U.S. activist visiting Cuba: “You are fighting the most important fight of all—you live in the belly of the beast.” Cuba’s modern history as well as its present one is defined by its struggle for sovereignty against U.S. interference. We believe that the fight against imperialism and oppression occurs both inside the United States and around the world. It is happening today on the streets of cities across the United States where protesters demand justice for Black people but also in Cuba, where the public healthcare system has managed to contain COVID-19 despite the devastating impact of U.S. sanctions and a media campaign driven by the U.S. government that has painted Cuban doctors as both voiceless victims. Reporting from the Belly of the Beast means standing on the side of those fighting against imperialism, racism and all other forms of oppression, whether it be in Cuba, in the United States or anywhere else in the world.
LR: When you say you’re telling “Cuba’s untold stories” could you provide examples?
Belly of the Beast: In Cuba, it’s not hard to find important stories that are misreported, underreported or ignored. Foreign media outlets tend to portray Cubans as helpless victims or passive cogs in a machine. We seek to humanize Cubans both within and outside of government institutions who are working to make their communities, their country and the world a better place. Meanwhile, there is little investigative journalism examining U.S. policy towards Cuba. We have profiled Cuban doctors who go on international medical missions and are rarely interviewed by major media outlets. We made a documentary about a Cuban baseball player who renounced a $300,000 contract with Major League Baseball to play in his hometown in central Cuba for an average worker’s salary. We are developing a documentary series that takes an in-depth look at the impact of Trump’s policy towards Cuba and the political interests behind it.
LR: What has been the reception to the platform so far?
Belly of the Beast: We have received messages from people across the world thanking us for our work. Cuba has always had a firm grip on the U.S. imagination. People want to know about Cuba, yet there’s not much investigative journalism or high-quality and substantive video content out there.
Belly of the Beast has been driven by passion, not dollars. As an upstart and progressive media outlet with limited funds, the odds are stacked against us. It’s a long slog to build an audience, but the editorial independence we have with this project —the freedom to tell the truth as we see it— is priceless.
LR: What are some upcoming projects that you are all working on?
Belly of the Beast: We’re currently working on a short film about Cuba’s remarkable success in containing COVID-19. Cuba has implemented contact tracing rigorously and mobilized an army of healthcare workers. Cuba has one doctor for every 110 patients, by far the highest ratio in the world. As a result, Cuba’s contagion rates are 30 times less than those of the United States.
We’re also working on a documentary series called “Trump’s War on Cuba.” The Trump administration has spent the last three years trying to strangle Cuba economically. Just last week, the U.S. government sanctioned a company that would effectively stop remittances, preventing family members outside Cuba from sending money to loved ones. Our character-driven series will tell the story of how the Trump administration blocked oil shipments to Cuba, grounded tourism to a halt and even stopped ventilators and masks from getting into the country during this pandemic. Of course, there’s also resistance. Both the Cuban government and the people here are used to finding workarounds despite severely limited resources. Assata Shakur once described Cuba as one of the “most resistant and most courageous palenques (or maroon camps) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.” That remains true in 2020.
You can view the website Belly of the Beast here.