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HAVANA – About 30 Cubans sit in a conference room for several hours each week and learn the ABCs of journalism: how to craft a news story, write a headline and check sources.
To their government, however, they are taking part in criminal activity.
It's not just that they are studying journalism in a country where the mass media is controlled by the state, but how and where they are doing it: inside the U.S. Interests Section, the heavily guarded outpost of a government that has spent decades trying to undermine Cuba's communist government.
Cubans take the courses in independent journalism, led by U.S. professors via video link, knowing full well that they risk harassment or even arrest.
"These courses are a very good opportunity for us, for those who don't have any resources, who don't have work, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that," said Eleyn Ponjuan, a 19-year-old attending the once-a-week sessions.
The journalism program, which is taught for free along with more popular but less controversial classes in English and information technology, has come under renewed criticism in Cuba amid talks to restore full diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana for the first time in more than 50 years.
Cuban and U.S. officials say they are close to being able to re-establish embassies. The negotiations are closed, but President Raul Castro singled out the educational courses when asked on May 12 about remaining obstacles to better relations.
"What most concerns me is that they continue doing illegal things," Castro told reporters about activities inside the U.S. Interests Section. "For example, graduating independent journalists."
The Cubans see the courses as an extension of U.S. efforts to undermine the island's government, which in the past has been done through programs designed to bolster independent civil society.
State Department officials wouldn't discuss the journalism program in detail, not wanting to upset delicate talks that began with the historic announcement of a detente by Castro and President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, but defended it in a brief statement to The Associated Press.
"The United States continuously works to promote free expression around the world through bilateral engagement, public diplomacy programming, and multilateral diplomacy," the State Department said. "This includes support to independent journalists around the world, particularly in closed countries where freedom of the press is lacking or independent journalists are under threat."
Cuba enshrines control over the country's news organizations in its constitution, using the main newspapers and broadcasters to deliver the official Communist Party line. A few independent blogs and online news outlets are tolerated, although some such as noted dissident Yoani Sanchez's website "14ymedio" are blocked on the island.
The Internet is largely irrelevant since home connections are highly restricted and access through government centers remains prohibitively expensive, with the cheapest hour now costing roughly 10 percent of the average monthly salary of $20. Nevertheless, people who practice independent journalism risk being labeled "counter-revolutionaries," a charge Ponjuan rejects.
"I don't consider myself counter-revolutionary, on the contrary," she said in her cramped house in a poor section of Havana where she also runs a free community library out of her living room. "I just want a change for the better for the country."
Hildebrando Chaviano, a former government lawyer turned dissident, said the beginning and intermediate journalism courses he took at the Interests Section have helped him sharpen his writing skills for stories that appear in the online news site Diario de Cuba and elsewhere. "We are not trying to destroy the country; our interest is that it functions better," he said. "To do that, you have to criticize it. The government is allergic to criticism."
Cuba has complained in the past about the courses. In 2013, the Foreign Ministry delivered a diplomatic note of protest, which was followed by a critical story in the official newspaper Granma, said John Caulfield, a retired diplomat who ran the U.S. Interests Section in 2011-14. He said students have reported being roughed up, detained and having equipment stolen by security agents.
Still, there has never been a problem filling the classes. "Obviously, some students are government informers and we don't care," Caulfield said. "They might learn something."
The classes focus on journalism essentials and stay clear of politics, the former diplomat said. "It's a very open, transparent program. What we were doing was not ideologically driven except for the fact I guess that part of our ideology is that people should have a right to free expression."
Students who have taken part in the courses, which are taught by professors from the International Media Center at Florida International University, agree there was no obvious attempt to politicize the material. "If the conversation even got close to political, the professor would say, 'Stop, stop, stop,'" Chaviano said.
But at a minimum the courses reflect a break with the official policy that news media should be organs of the state. "They want to tell a story that they can't get in the mainstream media and they feel that it is their right and they are not going to be intimidated," said Mercedes Vigon, associate director of the International Media Center at Florida International.
That is certainly the case with Ponjuan, at least. She says she wouldn't be interested in formal Cuban training in journalism or a job in an established media on the island, even if she could get either. "I want to be a journalist, but I want to be a journalist that no one is censuring."
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.