One Cuban Takes Off A Muzzle on the Press

RAFAEL SOLANO carefully pulls a photo out of a tattered manila envelope and says, ''This is how important I once was for Cuba.''

The photo, taken in 1988, shows Mr. Solano receiving the King of Spain Prize from the hands of King Juan Carlos.

The prize, which honored Solano for his work in Cuban radio, was the first time the award was received by a Cuban journalist.

Seven years later, the Cuban journalist has his eyes set on another prize: developing a free and independent press in Cuba. As a first step, Solano recently founded Habana Press, an independent news agency whose goal is to get out objective, nonpartisan news on Cuba.

''We want to be a part of developing democracy for Cuba,'' he says, ''not just because we think it will serve the Cuban people best, but because we think democracy is necessary for us to freely practice our profession.''

''We,'' as Mr. Solano employs it, refers to both the relatively open and the clandestine collaborators -- he refuses to give a number for security reasons -- who are supplying Habana Press with information, statistics, or completed articles on topics ranging from politics and economics to the environment, religion, and culture.

''When I told my journalist friends about my decision to found this press agency, many of them expressed their willingness to work with me,'' even some who are employed with the official press or in various government offices, Solano says.

''Our goal is to develop a network of correspondents around the country, and a group of experts in various fields such as the sciences, who will be able to prepare authoritative work for us,'' he adds.

Since Habana Press's product is illegal within Cuba, where the Communist Party has a monopoly on the media, its articles are transmitted by modem to the United States -- from where they are beginning to reach Latin America.

Some of Habana Press's reports have already run on Radio Marti, the US government's Radio-Free-Europe-style broadcast to Cuba, and in Miami's Nuevo Herald newspaper.

SOLANO worked in official Cuban radio for 23 years until he lost his job last year -- for what he says was his increasing openness of his opinions about the decline of the world's socialist camp. ''Here you are condemned to unemployment if you are in disagreement with the government,'' he says.

The radio journalist's road is likely to be long. In the first place, even the state's official press is facing difficult times. Cuba's economic crisis has left the country with fewer newspapers, or with publications appearing less often.

But besides that, few observers expect the regime to be inclined to permit a freer press -- especially during a deep economic crisis when the public is already in a critical mood.

And past experience has shown that the government has little use for outspoken journalists -- no matter how prominent they may be.

One of the six political prisoners that Cuba this week said it will release is Rolando Indamiro Restano Diaz, founder four years ago of the Cuba Independent Press Agency, known as APIC, a pro-free-press association.

Mr. Restano, a recipient of the prestigious PEN literary award, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1991 after being found guilty of ''rebellion.'' Rafael Solano's activity would seem to fit in that category. So far, he remains free.

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