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Teacher flees Cuba –
As a journalist he exercises Freedom of Speech

Mario Jose Penton thirst for knowledge and freedom was silenced in his communist country of Cuba. The government handed out food rations to him, which consisted of rice, beans and eggs. Internet access was limited and would shut down if he searched for a story the government didn’t want him to see. His monthly salary as a history teacher was $26 a month and if he needed shoes it would cost him $20 for one pair—nearly his month salary.

He sought a different life where he could read current news not censored news. He wanted freedom to work, have food choices, interact and speak his mind to others around him.

In 2014, Penton left Cuba for the first time and moved to Guatemala to work with young students from the indigenous population, teaching them history and theology. The poverty he saw drove him to write about the Guatemalan children working to feed their families.

“How can I forget that I had to come to Guatemala to hear the music of Celia Cruz for the first time, or to learn of the valiant struggle of the opponents of the Cuban regime?” he said.

In 2015, he decided that he could not return to a “life of slavery” and decided to cross into the United States through Mexico. He paid for a “coyote” to take him on his quest and once deep inside Mexico walking through the jungle, swamps and surviving on one meal a day, he wondered if “these people are going to kill me.”

His arrival after his dangerous journey to United States put him in Laredo where he saw before him the bridge that he said, “marked the end of a life without rights.”

While visiting Kansas City, Penton stopped in Hispanic News to meet with local media members and talk about Cuba.

According to Penton, Cuba has a population of 11 million people but predictions are by 2050 there will be less than one million living there.

“People in Cuba do not want to have children. One problem in Cuba is housing, more than one million Cubans who are young do not have their own house, they have to live with their parents and grandparents,” he said.

While living in Cienfuegos, a city in central Cuba, he was a history teacher and was frustrated by the censored education curriculums that Castro regime pushed.

It is Penton desire to bring change into Cuba and feels that he can make a difference through reporting and bringing the news to his fellow countrymen.

He works for 14ymedio.com, a digital news source, and wrote about his travel from Guatemala to the United States. He knows that freedom comes with a price and great sacrifices.

He quoted Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, “Freedom is expensive and you have to decide to pay its price or resign yourself to living without it.”

His decision to leave Cuba has helped him to be a voice for civil rights in Cuba. Using his network of social media contacts in Latin America, he wrote reaction stories during President Barack Obama’s visit that were published by 14ymedio.

14ymedia is one of the only sources for independent news inside Cuba and is accessed via Wi-Fi hotspots and smuggled onto USB flash drives.
“The Cuban people need information and are hungry for information,” he said.

Covering President Barrack Obama visit in Cuba and publishing the remarks of the United States President could have placed Penton under the watchful eye of Castro government officials. If the media writes news articles not approved by the government, they could risk serving time in jail.
“Cuban people in Cuba and outside of Cuba cried when President Obama spoke to the Cuban people. Obama is a symbol for those hoping for change inside Cuba. Obama is the future. Castro is the past,” he said in a media interview.

According to Penton, President Obama speech was not retransmitted on their radio or television because President Raul Castro did not like what Obama had said.

“Many Cubans are very sad because Castro has destroyed our families and our country. But now Obama said in the face of Castro, ‘I give you my hand and the United States can no longer be the bad empire that Cuba uses to blame every problem in that country.’ This is destroyed because people watched Obama,” he said.

President Obama told Castro that the Cuban people should have Internet access. Citizens in Cuba can access the Internet at several locations around the city for $2 but the government still controls what their citizens see on the Internet.

“If you search for something and they (government) don’t want you to see it, the Internet shuts down,” he said.

The media did report in Cuba about the massacre that occurred in Florida in the nightclub, but the government censored the article.

“Our news covered the massacre stating it was at a night club that a number of people were killed, but they did not say it was a gay night club. There was no talk about gays and one of the people killed there was Cuban,” he said.

The Cuban government has told their official journalists not to collaborate with independent journalists in their country. While Cuban journalists make about $30 a month, the independent journalists make $30 an article.

Cuba has not changed the way they control their citizen’s lives, their salaries and their lifestyles, but Penton said people are beginning to change. According to him, people are beginning to say in the streets that they are living in a bad country and they are living in terrible conditions.

Last year 43,000 Cubans came to the United States and this year it is predicted that 60,000 Cubans will cross into this country.

Former Channel 9 news reporter Maria Antonia talks about her early years in Cuba and it was her mother who decided to escape Cuba with her children to give them a better life.

“I am eternally grateful to my mother, who was the one that got me, my brother and sister out of Cuba. I chose journalism as a career, and I would not have had that opportunity in Cuba. I would have basically been like a secretary writing down whatever the government dictated and putting it into the newspaper,” she said.

When Penton talked about the independent news sources having to work around the government system to sneak the current news into their homes, Antonia said his talk was very familiar to her.

“That is how families have had to live on every level to find food, you have to go through the black market. If you want shoes, it is one month’s salary. I remember my parents buying my shoes through the black market. I remember my dad coming home at midnight; he was a doctor, waking me up and gave me a hamburger because he knew I hadn’t eaten enough that day. I don’t know whom he paid for that or maybe he gave medical aid to someone and they paid him with the hamburger. It was that way when I was four years old and it hasn’t changed, it has just gotten worse. The Soviet Union is no longer there to prop up the economy,” said Antonia.

Penton is currently working at El Nuevo Herald in Miami, Florida with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, an organization dedicated to developing future leaders of journalism across the globe with a focus on countries in conflict and in transition.

The 2016 Fellows derive from Cuba, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey and the Ukraine. 14ymedio, considered to be the first independent digital media outlet in Cuba, identified Penton for the fellowship this year. The Fellows class is the first one in the 32-year history to include a Cuban journalist.

Penton plans to return to Cuba and work for an independent publication to tell people the news as it is happening across the globe.

Antonia worries that he will be putting himself at risk if he returns to Cuba and puts news out there that is not censored by the government.

“There is no freedom of speech in Cuba. Simply expressing your opinion and the government doesn’t like what you are saying, you could end up in a prison cell.”