Cuba’s Press Takes the Heat

Fernando Ravsberg

Virtually all the “media” simply repeat the official version of events. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 6 — “Proponents of secrecy have tried to make people believe that a revolution (…) is ill-served by airing negative images (…) but this can never be upheld as a legitimate principle.  Problems must be known in order to combat and eliminate them,” explained the Cuban poet and academic Guillermo Rodriguez, who has joined in the criticism coming from all sectors against those who run the press in his country.

His article was immediately reprinted by singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez in his blog Segunda Cita.

Cuban society is aware that the press paints a country that doesn’t exist, such that troubadour Carlos Varela sings about how everyone wants to live in the TV news world, where there is abundance of everything and it barely costs anything.

The island’s newspapers magnify the smallest achievements and conceal any failure while they wait for an “OK” from above so they can publish the official version of events.

Guillermo Rodriguez, an intellectual with no history of involvement in the opposition, maintains that the press shouldn’t restrict itself to only those opinions considered “official policy.  “Instead,” he commented, “they need to communicate assessments that enrich thinking and even contribute to changing what is now the ‘official policy.’  This is an approach that we cannot do without because it nourishes and develops society.”

Corruption within Cubana Airlines went unnoticed in the press, despite the fact that it resulted in the dismissal of General Rogelio Acevedo. Photo: Raquel Perez

Although there are three national newspapers and one for each province, in addition to several TV channels and countless radio stations, they all say practically the same news and never will a media outlet contradict the official version.

As if by magic, journalists went from attacking independent workers to praising them as soon as Raul Castro announced a change in the country’s labor policy.  The Granma newspaper is the voice of the Communist Party, but the truth is that the rest of the press behaves the same way.

Criticism of how the media operates is coming not only from dissidents, but also from many intellectuals and more than a few communists who believe that things must change.  During the recent Communist Party congress, President Raul Castro himself slammed the Cuban press calling it triumphalist, strident, formal, boring and superficial.  Notwithstanding these calls for it to play a more critical role, practically no changes have resulted.

As the country confronts the biggest reform since the revolution of 1959, the mass media sits on the sidelines.  The host of major events include:

  • A government attack on corruption
  • The jailing of officials and the ousting of generals
  • A war declared on the bureaucratic class
  • A dismantling of state farms
  • Distributing land directly to campesinos
  • Layoffs of thousands of people from state enterprises
  • Allowing self-employment and small business
  • Radical reforms to the educational system
  • Lifting the ban on Cubans staying in hotels (and nationals becoming the second largest group of tourists behind Canadians),
  • Allowing the buying and selling of cars and homes
  • The announcement of a forthcoming immigration law that eliminates many restrictions
  • Freeing of political prisoners
  • Commuting of the death sentence on all convicts

These represent a true hurricane of changes that no journalist dares label “reform” because they have been instructed to call these simple “adjustments of the model.”

When more than 30 psychiatric patients starved to death, not a single Cuban press outlet investigated what occurred. Photo: Raquel Perez

The officialdom press

However it’s also true that journalists are receiving mixed and even contradictory messages from those in power.  Last year an important intellectual, Esteban Morales, was expelled from the Communist Party for writing an article about corruption in high places.  He called for reporting on the reasons for the dismissal of General Rogelio Acevedo, the former director of civil aviation.

A few months later Morales was reinstated in the party, but he is not being allowed to return to the media, despite being a leading specialist on politics in the United States.

Behind the control over the press are not only political interests, but also a self-protective mechanism of the bureaucracy that controls the national economic apparatus.

Guillermo Rodriguez argues that they should not “invoke the defense of national unity to conceal mismanagement by the administration.”  He says they are devaluing a “sacred principle,” using it to hide their misdeeds.  The development of independent investigative journalism that could uncover corruption and ineptitude is some bureaucrats’ worst nightmare.

The Cuban intellectual also questioned “the press of the capitalist world (because) it responds to the interests of its owners,” but he immediately returned to Cuba, stating that “the socialist press has been managed by a single party” and that officials use this to protect each other.

Many people have criticized Cuban journalism in recent years, but Guillermo Rodriguez also presents a proposal to create an “oversight body composed of leaders of the party and institutions but also including workers and personalities of sufficient proven authority so as not to order anything that goes against their consciences or their prestige.

Guillermo Rodriguez. photo:

“This body should propose the editors of newspapers and magazines, as well as the directors of radio and television news programs nationwide.  Its members would be elected for a period of three years, extendable for an additional three,” suggests Rodriguez.

He also asserts that the ideological apparatus of the Communist Party —which up until now has exercised firm control over the media— must stop directing and instead hand over power to the different media directors.  In turn, these managers and editors would have to have “full authority over what they publish, and they could only be challenged for three reasons: 1) for publishing information that was false or had malicious intent and/or was proven negligent in its investigative approach;  2) concealing information that merited disclosure, or 3) because the information published would threaten the nation’s security.”

(1) Guillermo Rodriguez Rivera, born in 1943 in Santiago de Cuba, is a poet, essayist and university professor. He has published several books: “El cuarto circulo”, “Canta”, “Cambio de impresiones”, “En carne propia” and “Nosotros los cubanos”. He is a winner of the Cuban “La Critica” award.