Political Control to Abuse of Power in Cuba

By Laura Roque Valero  (El Toque) 

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba was ranked no. 173, out of a total number of 180 countries, in the 2022 Press Freedom Index, compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders, which analyzes the conditions journalism is practiced in. Taking the worst spot out of the Latin American countries, Cuba is still in the “very serious” category, and holds a similar position to its 2021 ranking, when it came in no. 171.

The habit of whispering if you want to criticize the Government, not using words such as “dictatorship”, “regime” or “authoritarianism” in public and institutional spaces to avoid political consequences, and not being able to create forums where dissident positions can be expressed, are examples of how duress of civil freedoms is the norm.

The ways power structures in Cuba control discourse – which isn’t only understood as a verbal action, but also as an interaction between citizens, a social practice or communicative event – explains just how far this domination extends which results in abuse of power, in which official media plays its part.

Discourse analyst Teun A. van Dijk explains in his book Discourse and Power, that control is traditionally described as domination over another’s actions, but if it benefits those who hold power and harms the people they control then we are witnessing an abuse of power.

Mechanisms that construct these impediments on freedom of the press and expression partly explain the way a society works, and the way citizens are kept in check. To understand how power and influence is spread in the actions of those who receive this discourse, analyst van Dijk suggests taking a deeper look at three environments of control: discourse, context, and cognition.

Control of public discourse

How is it decided in Cuba who, when, where and under what premises communication can take place? The kind of information that is institutionalized, the way it is presented and regulated, the people who are allowed to give a press conference or create a media outlet, guests on TV shows etc. are indicative of control in the communicative context.

Beyond the fact that every authorized media outlet in the country is under State control via its different political institutions and bodies, Cuban leaders have taken it upon themselves to decide how significant events and processes are named in the country, and the press is restricted to repeating these terms.

For example, during the 1990s, the word “crisis” disappeared from the media and the euphemism “Special Period” was used instead; which has been followed by similar terms such as “temporary situation”, “ordering” and “creative resistence.” Small “private property” has been replaced by the term “self-employment”, and this wasn’t recognized as such until the 2019 Constitution was approved. The above examples and other ways to call social phenomena set the guideline on what is politically correct and determines the way citizens need to speak in public spaces.

“Symbols of domination are constructed using the press, which legitimize the Communist Party’s discourse, that is to say the Revolution’s, and it becomes an effective means to reproduce power,” an article titled: “Governance of Cuba’s media system. A study of the legal framework on communications from 1959 until 2018,” summarizes.

Control over the way content is produced and access to discourse in Cuba is also selective, because it doesn’t only select who is able to write or stand before a camera, but it also rejects the existence of different political positions that move away from the preestablished discourse.

This control over the context is which discourse is created is the rule and not an exception, because there is an entire legal framework that restricts freedom of the press and expression. In Article 55 of the Cuban Constitution, citizens’ right to freedom of the press is recognized, but the following line explains: “The fundamental means of social communication, in any of their forms, are the socialist property of all people or of political, social, and mass organizations, and may not be categorized as any other type of property. This means that any kind of ownership and, as a result, any form of organization outside of the Government’s control is ruled out.

Even though independent media outlets have grown, they work illegally and under Government pressure, which has forced many journalists into exile or to give up the profession.

The Cuban State has not only controlled in the name of the Revolution, it has also repressed any sign of dissidence. Laws that punish dissent in Cuba include Decree-Law 370 and 35, which outline sanctions and restrictions for people who criticize the Government in the virtual space, as well as the sanctions in thek new Penal Code.

Controlling content

The Government is interested in controlling content produced by independent media outlets under the Government’s control, as well as state media, and it uses different methods to do this. In the case of official media, surveillance mostly comes from the Communist Party. Slogans in the press and triumphalist language help them hold onto power. From the subjects chosen to the approach of these subjects, the feelings, or emotions they want to transmit are linked to hard work, sacrifice and loyalty, which points at indoctrination and persuasion that are desperately needed for the Government to stay in power.

Controversy recently broke out over the TV program Cuadrando la caja, after a comment was made about this on singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez’s Segunda cita blog, and brought to light how different opinions and guests on national media are missing. The comment questioned the Government about the kind of programs it produces and how they only offer partial analyses of Cuban reality.

“Somebody above the director of Cubadebate, Mesa Redonda and Cuadrando la Caja should decide how discussions about economic matters that determine the future of this country take place, and to get people participating who think differently to the small group that has taken over the Revolution’s mass media, who are shaping public opinion about key strategic matters related to the Cuban economy,” economist Joaquin Benavides said in a comment.

In addition to signs of restricted official public discourse, recent studies shed a light on what happens to people who are harassed and repressed by the Government. In the biannual analysis on freedom of speech in Cuba, Article 19 news identified 125 attacks against journalists, targeting a total of 61 people (28 women and 33 men). While 51 human rights activists were subjected to 90 attacks.

Attacks against journalists included 14 types of attacks over the period: the most common “were 45 incidents of house arrests, 20 official summons, 16 Internet shutdowns and 14 arbitrary arrests,” according to the study.

Controlling discourse in this way, by repressing its dispatchers, reveals a system designed to restrict basic freedoms. State Security agents, National Revolutionary Police officers, Immigration officers, as well as other figures of the State’s repressive apparatus, take action against activists and journalists, violating international laws and even rights recognized in the Cuban Constitution.

Casting critical voices to the sidelines of the public space, the Government reduces the chances of new issues being discussed and for alternative political projects to mobilize. They use these methods to hold onto their ideological hegemony and use the media as an instrument to build and uphold their legitimacy.

Professor Carlos Manuel Rodriguez warns that “the persistence of a regime, an authoritarian regime, depends upon their ability to innovate different mechanisms that grant them ideological legitimacy. As Schedler himself said, “all their acts of power are simultaneous performances of power. They are acts of domination as well as acts of communication.”

Influence of opinion and value systems

The more effective the Government, the more it seduces. Bans and punishment are the tools a Government uses when it is dying and has no more resources to remain in power. However, when the Government gives pleasure, it manages to move the masses, build strategic know-how and a truth that is supported with the weight of their influence is greater, but less obvious at the same time.

For example, symbolic power is seen in education. Cuban textbooks, their version of history and rules of conduct at schools make up a system of obedience and gratitude to the Revolution with everyday phrases such as school pledges “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.”

The collective construction of logic and values surrounding the revolutionary process and its leaders can also be seen in the ideologizing of private spaces such as the home, where some families placed posters with his picture in their living room, near portraits of other beloved family members, especially in the years when Fidel Castro was highly popular.

Theorizing about power, philosopher Byun-Chul Han has given greater superiority to subjugation rather than dependence and calls it “neutralization of the will.” In his book What is Power?, he explains how the figure of power seeks to influence an individual’s will and decision-making capacity using an identity or making comparisons between purpose and will.

For example, the song Cabalgando con Fidel, by folk singer Raul Torres, became an anthem when Fidel Castro passed away. A fragment illustrates the dependent relationship many Cubans identified with: “I don’t want to tell you Comandante / nor bearded one or giant / everything I know about you. / Today, I want to cry out dear Father, / don’t let go of my hand / I still don’t know how to walk without you.” This proves that repression isn’t always needed if more effective tools are used to persuade and seduce the general population.

Abuse of power

Figures and structures of power in Cuba control other people’s discourse using four components substantiated by theorist and analyst Teun A. van Dijk:

 1) Journalists don’t have enough freedom or autonomy to write about certain subjects the way they want to without receiving some kind of control or backlash in exchange from the political authorities;

 2) There are laws that establish what is appropriate for Cuban citizens to say and not say, such as Decree-Law 370 and 35 and the space for repressing dissent granted by the new Penal Code;

3) Discourse considered “adequate” is regulated in the media, making control of discourse the rule and not the exception;

4) There is “indirect mind control”, a term used by theorist van Dijk, by questioning citizens’ ideology, rules and values; which means they indirectly control whether citizens take one action or another. This can be seen in precautions about speaking about certain subjects in public spaces, for example, or avoid getting into political debates.

Criteria are adjusted to what has happened in Cuba in recent decades. The Government not only reproduces and holds onto power using discourse, but it has also granted itself the exclusive right to use it, via legal, political, and structural mechanisms. Abuse of power can be seen in repression of dissent, in the appropriation of the privilege to name and label people, events and processes to suit their fancy, banishing any words that challenge them from the dictionary.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.