Bad Press

By Margaret Randall*

Excerpt From “To Change the World, My Years in Cuba”

 Casa de las Americas, Havana, Cuba.  Photo: Claridad
Casa de las Americas, Havana, Cuba. Photo: Claridad

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 23 – With such emphasis on good literature I was always perplexed by the poor quality of Cuba’s press, especially its daily newspapers. Granma, the official voice of the Cuban Communist Party, appeared each morning in a format of six to eight or ten pages. It was almost unreadable.

Long speeches by Fidel or other government officials were printed in their entirety as were the formal addresses given by distinguished visitors from the other socialist countries.  Opinion wasn’t present in these pages unless it mirrored official opinion.

There were lots of articles on production goals that had been met, very few on the real problems that often made meeting such goals impossible. Proud coverage of Cuban sports and cultural events pretty much rounded out the day’s offering.

It was true that in the Cuban press one could read about countries, peoples and struggles unknown to a U.S. public. But such news always adhered to the Cuban Communist Party line. Dissent-which existed fairly freely in public discussion, in neighborhoods and work places, on buses, among students and citizens from every area of life, rarely found its way into Granma, at least not while we lived in Cuba.

The afternoon paper, Juventud Rebelde, was published by the Young Communists and was only slightly less boring than its morning counterpart. It too represented a poor use of resources. In the mid seventies a third Havana paper, Trabajadores, came out of a revitalized union movement. None of this press approached the standards of a decent European, Latin American, Asian or African newspaper.

When I asked most Cubans what they thought of their newspapers they just laughed-or gave me a look that said: What? You crazy? Some replied that although a bit rough they made acceptable toilet paper.

Granma especially was a frequent subject of Cuban humor. When I asked people why they thought the dailies were so bad, some used the shortage of paper as an excuse; others simply shrugged.

Granma Newspaper
Granma Newspaper

The poor quality of the country’s press wasn’t high on most people’s list of concerns.  I have wondered why Cuban poets and writers have taken such risks, even during periods of censorship, while the press has so little in the way of opposing opinion.

Statue of Salvador Allende -  It was true that in the Cuban press one could read about countries, peoples and struggles unknown to a U.S. public
Statue of Salvador Allende - It was true that in the Cuban press one could read about countries, peoples and struggles unknown to a U.S. public

Perhaps the press has been seen as a more openly political instrument, to be controlled more tightly.  Perhaps it’s been easier to hire journalists who adhere to policy than to persuade novelists and poets to do so.  The latter work in relative isolation; when they produce a finished work suggesting changes would be seen as imposition.  Journalists hand in daily articles which pass through the hands of editors who can more easily suggest direction, cut and paste.

Cuban magazines and journals were better than the newspapers. From those featuring basic news to the cultural, literary, artistic, scientific or theoretical publications interesting well researched articles held one’s attention. Graphic design was often exciting.

Every once in a while younger or more radical editorial boards would produce a magazine that entered uncharted waters or challenged an accepted political position. Almost invariably, after the expression of a point of view that differed from the Cuban Party’s official line its editor’s curiosity and courage would be rewarded with closure.

Despite Fidel’s frequent plea that the revolution not talk down to the population but rather work to raise its intellectual level, Party and government alike seemed to fear giving too much alternative information or straying from a position that had been decided upon at the top.

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