El Toque: a Social Innovation Project for a Transnational Cuba
15 / octubre / 2021
The evolution of a project like elTOQUE, a media platform that has been publishing for Cuban audiences since 2014, is the story of a group of Cubans who have seized unique opportunities, a combination of random luck and the “historic moment”, and discovering that they are able to navigate the seemingly impossible.
It has been a story of taking one step at a time, although we’ve wanted to take these steps as if they were huge leaps a lot of the time, running, with our sights set on an ambitious goal but falling over our feet too. We started out as a group of less than 5 people, bloggers and journalists, in conjunction with Latin American and Cuban journalists in Holland. Today, our main team has over 30 people, all Cubans, producing and thinking from 7 different countries.
We are a project that is hard to fit into a single box (Media platform? Civil Society Organization? Company?) We do publish news every day, but we also publish analyses, investigative reports, we develop chatbots and mobile apps, we compile databases, we make podcasts and livestream on social media. Thus we are a hybrid of Cuban content. We are online and offline and we understand Cuba as a country that transcends geographic borders, thus, anyone who is involved and interested in a fellow countryman is Cuban in our eyes, no matter where they are.
If we have to define ourselves, I believe one of the closest explanations we’ve had is the one given to us by our Colombian colleague Renata Cabrales, who called us a “social innovation hub”1. I believe she was being extremely generous, but I share the sentiment that we are driven by the need to create new ways for society to become empowered, using tools that the media provides. Within this perspective, we are a continuous experiment.
People with values
Economic incentive has been the favorite argument of people who identify with the Cuban government to “explain” why so many professionals like us, especially young professionals, joined new digital, independent, non-state-led, or however you want to call it, media platforms.
Used to living poorly (and justifying) with miserly wages paid by the State employer, the only thing conceivable in their minds is that somebody would only dare to overstep authorized limits in exchange for money. It’s a lie that has been deliberately fabricated to discredit rebelliousness and it’s a huge lie that goes in hand with accusations of being a mercenary. It might even be a lie that some people who spread it believe, but many others know that it doesn’t have any real substance, because in reality it’s just a matter of dignity.
We believe that there is no professional job or commitment that must be undertaken without fair payment. If something connects the dozens of people who I’ve had the chance to work with over these years, it’s a clear vocation for public service (which is the essence of journalism), of taking part in projects they feel have a social impact, in the projects that satisfy their own vocations, “subjective” aspirations, while their time and talent are being respectfully compensated.
See how I use the adjectives “fair” and “respectful” because I haven’t met anyone who has become “rich” as an independent journalist in Cuba, and we’ve been in the red lots of times, getting paid months late and being paid poorly for our time. It also has to be said that there is no price in the world that could compensate the risk of being sent to jail, the mental costs of interrogations and arrests, of having “polite” but fake conversations with a perfected and opportunistic double standard with State Security officials. Those who dress up what’s really their blackmail and driving people to exile, with their false courtesy and common interest, the latter being understood as a simple act of migration or as a de facto exile that is the decision to leave Cuba, a lot of the time. I point out that even though digital media platforms pay a lot more than wages for similar roles in the official propaganda media, it is only just about enough to cover living costs on the island and much less if the journalist is living abroad.
Even so, we get by. Because dignity is not only a matter of wages covering basic expenses but is also a matter of respect. The frustration that results from having to deal with censorship and de-professionalization in state circles mustn’t be played down as a key cause of the drain they see in their workforce. Disrespect for human talent is one of the clearly definable characteristics of the Cuban State’s employment model.
In my years in this profession, I have seen how a young woman has been forced to change her position in an editorial office, from managing social media which she proved to be great at, to a team of experts in fabricating boring content for pages, in color now, in a state-controlled newspaper. I have seen programmers developing international quality products, who have had to stop their work so they can hold a place in line at a bank, where they have been assigned. Likewise, of having to apologize for a delayed delivery of an article after waiting many hours in a bread line. While the State employer treats them in this way, we have gone to great lengths for our reality to be different, where we can grow professionally, our assessments are thorough, and we work with dignity.
I have told you all of this because the human and professional dimensions of our members’ attention is a cardinal point for the El Toque project. We are interested in creating a working environment where there is concern for how people are feeling and what colleagues aspire to do, creating opportunities for self-improvement, experimentation and growth, by creating opportunities to earn better wages as a result of their work too.
Building a work culture that aims for the highest standards and overcomes “Cuban-ness”, which is nothing but a lack of seriousness, is a firm objective. To do this, it is essential to also build an atmosphere of proximity and politeness, a real sense of belonging to a team, without these relationships being confused with friendship or with a group of people who share the hobby of writing journalism. What we’re doing isn’t a hobby, it’s a responsibility that implies obligations and (legal) rights because the survival of this project can’t only depend upon one person’s mood.
elTOQUE, Colectivo +Voces and CATAO: the newspaper, NGO and company
First there was the publication, eltoque.com, the digital online and offline publication which needed a legal structure to continue to exist, because it was no longer part of the Dutch NGO that created it (RNW Media, formerly Radio Nederland, in Holland).
Faced with the impossibility of registering ourselves as an organization, association, independent newspaper, private company, cooperateive, independent worker (or self-employed) or any other legal formula in Cuba; we decided to seek legal status wherever we could.
The State’s slander apparatus’ argument is very dishonest as it accuses us and other media projects, of being nothing more than “foreign agents” because we have legal status in another country. As if we could register ourselves in Cuba! However, faced with a real impossibility, we sought a practical solution. I will be forever grateful for a conversation I had with Roberto Veiga and Lenier Gonzalez who on a hot afternoon in Havana, recommended I look up European countries where there were opportunities for what we were calling “non-legalized legitimate Cuban organizations”, at the time. That’s how we felt about El Toque.
After taking this path, the “Vatican route” was consolidated, as some Dutch colleagues jokingly called our solution. The connection established by Polish Catholic youth on a mission in Cuba with young Cuban Catholics, who became members of the El Toque team in the longer term, opened the door for us to acquire a legal personality in that country.
This was how the Colectivo Mas Voces Foundation (Fundacja Wspólnota Wielu Glosow, in Polish) was born which has been the kingpin of our project, since April 2017.
It was then clear to us that we didn’t want to fund something just for us, even if we were on the brink of closing down because institutional and financial support from RNW Media was coming to an end. The Collective was born with the intention of being an umbrella, a flowerbed where seeds of communication projects (not only the media) could germinate, which could also accelerate projects that had already come to light.
This is how we’ve moved forward, getting things right and wrong, learning lessons along the way, about how to get lots of different projects coexisting in the same space and how this can fail (many of our attempts have failed). Almost five years after its creation, a new age is dawning for the Collective, so we have decided for it to stop being a merely functional support for El Toque, so that it can begin to play a more and more active role as a Cuban civil society organization, forming part of the concert of regional and international organizations that defend the same values of freedom of speech, information, access and human rights we defend.
Last but not least, CATAO was born. As a result of support received from the Velocidad project, of Siembramedia, the International Center for Journalism and Luminate; we have received mentoring services and resources between 2020 and 2021, so we can create a communications services agency, which sounds extremely pompous, but is nothing more than transforming our editorial branches into a company. Our designers, our programmers, our photographers and videomakers, illustrators, the proofreader… are joining a group of professionals with the skill-set needed to create products that can be sold, and this income then contributes to how editorial projects work.
Financial independence is editorial independence, and while we appreciate the fact we have investing partners in international cooperation organizations that have allowed us to be their “grantees” without any conditions or meddling, we also believe that we have to increase our ability to slowly raise wages and prove that you can create a sustainable media company model, with Cuba at the heart, without only dependent on NGO funding.
Together but not scrambled or how to try out an independent editorial model under the same umbrella
One of the current characteristics of the El Toque model is that instead of including other labels in parallel *such as Play Off, Apulpso and El Arca magazines at the time), now all new projects we are developing fall under the umbrella of the main brand, El Toque.
This doesn’t mean to say in any way that they are “subordinated” to what we call central El Toque, but rather that they publish their content on the same platform. Management teams of related projects have complete editorial autonomy and responsibility for their publications.
This relationship model has made it possible to develop a unique synergy within the Cuban media ecosytem, as far as we know. Of course, there is pressure and risks, and a lot of dialogue is needed to reach an agreement about stances that can be very different. However, it is within this complexity, Democracy’s complexity, that we see the main value of this model: as it is tolerant and inclusive, we have to learn from much closer spaces.
The experiment began with the graphic humor supplement Xel2 and has continued with the El Enjambre podcast, the media service with a gender-based focus and against machista violence, Matria, the legal education project “El Toque Juridico and more recently, the fact-checking unit Defacto.
Outside of this model of organization and operations that allows us to take advantage of administrative resources across the board for teams (Accounting, Programming, Social Media management, SEO editing, monitoring impact and following audience’s needs, etc.), we have held onto and remain true to our vocation to collaborate with other Cuban media, to rise and stand strong together.
Special mentions need to go to our alliance with Periodismo de Barrio (as a key center) to launch information services about COVID-19 in Cuba, which has been a turning point in the professional development of our work, and has joined other media platforms with coverage, such as AMPM Magazine. We are also grateful for our close relationship with Havana Times and its editor Circles Robinson, whose participation has enabled us to have English translations of our articles, for months now. We have learned alongside our colleagues at El Estornudo and Rialta, sharing coverage of political events after the civic uprising on 27N, and we are happy to be able to help other publications such as Q de Cuir and La Tinta, even if it is only with little pieces of advice.
This collaborative philosophy transcends our borders as a nation. We have had many beneficial learning experiences with Latin American colleagues at Connectas, in Colombia; Chequeado, in Argentina; Distintas Latitudes y Borde, in México; and we are honored to belong to the Human Journalism Network, coordinated by Red/Accion, in Argentina.
Lifting our eyes from our bellybutton and offering what we have, with modesty, respecting every different stance that exists and demanding that our position be respected, is also a principle of our work. Connecting Cuba with its immediate region is a way to break the island condition that we repeat and confuses us, and it is also a way for us to open up as a society. We would also like to contribute towards this.