When Cuban TV News Is News Itself

Vincent Morin Aguado

Cuban shopping center. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — When it comes to diagnosing the state of the media in Cuba, one concept is common among experts: Don’t look at what they say, but what they don’t say.

Our so-called “Primetime Cuban News” or “News at Eight” made headlines this past June 5th. Near the end of the broadcast a Cuban journalist presented her frustrated attempt at reporting on the prices of food in hard-currency stores.

The use in this commentary of some terms and details will inevitably appear obscure to the foreign reader, therefore I’ll explain those to make it easier for them to understand.

Nevertheless, what was essential was the annoyance of that reporter when she was prevented from filming inside several commercial establishments; therefore — resolved and determined — she showed the viewers the evidence surrounding this absurd prohibition.

In each of the instances, workers of various ranks vehemently insisted that access to these establishments by television crews was only possible with advance notice and with the consent of company management. Imagine how much red tape this would take to make a simple report seeking to respond to popular concerns about retail prices in hard currency.

Why the prohibition? To some degree, as some note, it’s reminiscent of the past, but others (among whom I include myself) believe in the validity of this, adding to it the dislike of those who conceal their personal interests and would be threatened if the valuable work of journalists was given the free reign it deserves.

Imagine if this is also happens with the inspections by the newly created Comptroller General’s Office, which has been charged by the current government to fight those who are corrupt. The officials of that office know that a “forewarned battle doesn’t produce casualties.”

I should add that it’s almost impossible to bribe Cuban reporters. Among other reasons, they’re completely outside the machinery of daily corruption. In addition, a high sense of ethics characterizes them and the honor they hold for their own profession, so needed for genuinely expressive venting.

With equanimity and intelligence, the young journalist has put the entrenched bureaucrats into a state of crisis, those who defend their anachronistic “no’s.”

Finally, it seems as if we’re crossing the line of that much-criticized self-censorship (“self-flagellation,” I would call it) to launch ourselves into demanding the exercise of those rights that are proclaimed in our constitution and in the Communist Party gatherings, but neglected in practice – as occurs so often in our country.

Photo: Caridad

The reporter spoke about “fines” and also asked about unannounced price increases on various staples, in addition she pointed to how there was no valid arguments with respect to all of this.

At the door of several “shopings” (hard-currency stores), some customers responded to her clearly, obviously upset with those business’s practices.

First let me explain what the term “fines” means in popular parlance. A widespread practice in these establishments, this is when they sell some products with the prices altered – above the real ones.

In many cases they cleverly hide the correct information, which should appear in the plain view of the public.

Concerning the second question related to the goods whose prices rose, these are items such as cooking oil, butter, detergent, washing soap and frozen chicken. It should be added the presence of types of deceit typical of “socialist” trade, which is understood as a state monopoly.

For example, the supplies of cheaper products disappear or become so scarce that this gives consumers no other choice but to buy more expensive products, which is technically not a price increase, though in practice it is.

It should be added that Cubans receive their wages in national currency, which they exchange at a rate of 25 to 1 against the Convertible Peso, which is what is used in hard currency stores.

This isn’t the end of our shortcomings. These explanations are no more than the preamble to assess what really made the news: The Cuban press, in one of its time slots of greatest public impact, slammed the manipulations of the bureaucratic class, which up until now had prevented certain matters of social concern from being questioned and addressed.

The editors of Granma newspaper subsequently published a lengthy article defending this astute reporter who revealed tangible evidence of the widespread corruption that affects the nation today, of which combatting is a priority according to President Raul Castro.

It’s like we’re finally getting on track, and hopefully this time it’s for good.

In the late eighties, when the process called “rectification of errors and negative tendencies” began, Cuban journalists engaged in similar actions described here, ones that were well received by the public.

This was especially true among the listeners of Cuban radio, which is characterized by its immediacy and its community attachment.

However that process was undermined after a short time. The justification focused on the inevitable hardships of the “Special Period” following the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe, especially in the USSR.

There are some who think the underlying reason can be explained with the saying: “They bought fish, but then got scared of the eyes.”

Something similar also happened in the ‘90s with the authorization of self-employed work, which was slowly allowed and was persistently obstructed, only to be reborn today.

In both cases, in addition to many others to come, it is an urgent necessity to lose our fear of the fisheyes since we are fishing out of necessity and will be fishing in the future.

Contact Vincent Morin Aguado at: [email protected]


6 thoughts on “When Cuban TV News Is News Itself

  • And would you please be polite and not insult those who think differently than you? Neither those comments are “idiotic” or imply hate for the US.

  • I think you are grossly oversimplifying the situation, Alsdally. One example is the effect Wal-Mart had on the local economy. When they opened their big box store, it resulted in the demise of several Main Street clothing stores which sold middle- to low-end garments; of course the quality of Wal-Mart clothing sucks, but now the only option is for folks to purchase on-line (always risky with clothing), purchase from the remaining high-end clothings stores, or travel at least 35 miles to the remaining low- and middle-end competition. The power of such mass merchandizers as Wal-Mart is that they can pretty much dictate to the producers what wholesale prices they will pay. In the non-food areas, Wal-Mart’s arrival heralded the departure of several smaller hardware stores, and even one big-box home improvement center (Home Depot). One sidelight here is that the manufacturers have fought back, subversively, by producing inferior lines of products for Wal-Mart, and superior products for more traditional retailers, as well as through their on-line sales. As far as the plethora of other local bankruptcies, these have more to do with our collapsing economy. Take for example, the restaurant biz, always a risky proposition with a high turn-over rate; besides the usual casualties (i.e. the restaurants at which Chef Gordon Ramsey would throw up his hands as lost causes…I’m sure he’d include many of the state restaurants in Cuba in this category!), because of the lengthening and continuing downward spiral in our economy, many restaurants have died who would normally have survived, restuarants which have been in business for 40-, 50- or more years. People are afraid to spend their money. They don’t know when and if their jobs will end, too. Hence the patronage of these restaurants and cafes have declined. It has even gotten so bad here that some of the DOLLAR STORE have folded! Our town is not part of the deindustrialized rust-belt, characteristic of Ohio, Michigan, the southern part of the Connecticut Valley, etc., but was rather part of a middle- to up-scale tourist destination in a mountainous rural state. The empty store-fronts along Main Street are beginning to look ominous; the face our town presents at the trafic circle just off the Interstate, i.e. the former Howard Johnson’s (later Brighams) has lain vacant and abandoned for so long it is beginning to look like that large mansion on the trafic circle in Miramar (before it was saved from collapse and revived)! Yes, the so-called “free market” is not so free to all the folks who have suffered from the fact that most Americans no longer have any power over the economy which has drained them of their blood!

  • In the US or Canada you don’t need reporters showing up at stores to show the public that there are pricing issues. The public will quickly find out themselves and vote with their feet and go shopping somewhere else. In Cuba they don’t have that luxury as the State owns most of the stores, and from what I’ve seen, the availability and selection are severely limited. Mismanagement in the private sector is self-policing, it results in bankruptcy and the demise of the enterprise. Mismanagement in the public sector, which accounts for most of Cuba’s retail activity, must be exposed in order to be dealt with as it is not subject to any free market mechanism but is supported by the government.

  • What a couple of idiotic and uniformed responses. You have a right to hate the US, but at least make your criticisms based on fact and not simply parrot the same old worn out attacks used by all the other non-thinking lefties. THE REASON cameras are not readily permitted inside public stores, offices, and other inside public spaces is due to privacy concerns related to other patrons. If I am in RiteAid buying my weekly supply of Adult Depends, I do not want to accidentally walk in view of a news camera with diapers in my hand and find that my purchase will be broadcast on the evening news. I will sue RiteAid for invasion of privacy. If I am in the bank taking out a withdrawal and a camera should catch me on film and then later I am mugged because someone saw me on the noon news, guess who I am going to blame? Totalitarian regimes never have to worry about privacy concerns as it pertains to media access becasue there is no media access. But for the rest of us, there is balancing act between your right to information and my right to privacy.

  • Even though these permissions are often denied by the store owner–or some managerial flunky–Eoghan, nevetheless, reporters often show up on the doorstep outside the store to do the story; in some cases the reporter and his/her cameraman have even been attacked, which of course produces even greater unintended negative results for the store, or corporation which owns it. In many cases you are correct, though; increasingly, the news media are controlled by the same multi-national corporations which own the “big box” stores, and the reporters receive word from their ad departments NOT to do a detrimental stories on (some of their) big advertisers, on pain of loosing their jobs if they try. Still, in some towns such as my own there are alternative weeklies, and of course a growing list of sites on the net, which will go after critical stories; often the citizen has to be actively engaged in searching for the truth in order to even be aware of these sites.

  • Bienvenido al capitalismo. Lo mismo pasa en los estados unidos diario, sólo no prohibe el reportaje – pero no trata que entrar una tienda con cameras sin recibir permiso antes…hay que tener permiso del dueño, no del gobierno. Aquí (los EUA) no se prohibe, simplemente mienten en tu cara, hablan con ‘doble cara.’ Es lo mismo.

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