Cuba’s Media and the “Spokespersons”

Fernando Ravsberg

Cuban officials rarely make good use of their access to the press. Photo: Raquel Pérez

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 22 — “I’m not very interested in numbers,” is an acceptable phrase from the mouth of a poet or a painter, but when spoken by an official linked to foreign trade in the middle of a press conference, the matter becomes worrisome.

Recently a Cuban politician not only refused to talk about numbers, he also failed to mention the names of the countries to which Cuba exports services. Instead, he recommended that we find that information on the TV news or from the Statistics Office.

He told us: “2010 was an improvement over 2009, but in speaking of improvements we want to improve more and more and much more, because sometimes values are better, but you have to grow in value and quantity because the quantities get better values.”

On relations with Japan he stated, “Sales are bought, and when I say that sales are bought, this is between two parties; the party that buys needs to buy, and the party that sells has to adapt to those consumers. But the seller is more responsible than the buyer.”

Before the questions, he had read off a bunch of pages to us with the names of exported Cuban products, mainly pharmaceuticals, but he did so while keeping the secret as to how much money these bring in or where they’re sold.

He ended his presentation with an elaborate metaphor: “I see Cuba as a hive where the bees — industrious and healthy — are working alongside their beekeeper,” making a subtle reference to the people and the president, General Raul Castro.

Having just returned from vacation, I went to my first press conference and felt at home. This is the reality we journalists experience here on the island, and this is the type of official source that later complains that “we don’t write about the good things in Cuba.”

That conference was a real shame because there was a great deal of interesting information that could have been released on the sale of Cuban services on the five continents, which has now become the main source of income for the island.

In some press conferences little information is provided. Photo: Raquel Pérez

On top of that, our editors require more than a simple “things are good and will continue to improve.” It may be true but it’s impossible to publish information without data.

But most importantly, readers demand more than the “faith” that can stirred by the words of a politician.

This is not an attempt to crucify this man, because he’s no exception. I’d go so far as to say that even with his limitations, at least he was able to sit down in front of us. Others avoid the press, claiming unexpected trips or illnesses.

Besides, a good government official doesn’t have to be a good communicator, though there are some. The greater truth is that Cuba today is dramatically sterile when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities it has to make its voice heard to the world.

Of course politicians in other countries can avail themselves of the advantage of being assisted by press offices and spokespeople who take the hit every time a blow is expected, an experience that works quite well – even here.

For a while the Foreign Ministry had several spokes persons. The most outstanding was an experienced diplomat, Miguel Alfonso, who always filled the official information void, if only to say “no comment.”

But Alfonso’s work went beyond press conferences. He maintained a close relationship with journalists. We knew him very well, just as he knew us – to the point of calling us at any hour to discuss any topic.

Miguel spoke without fear; he wasn’t afraid of making mistakes and would say that spokespeople are “disposable,” not only as a result of their own mistakes but also for political strategies. I always had the impression that he was more concerned about his country than his individual position.

This isn’t about journalists and spokespeople giving each other flowers, to the contrary; never did so many sparks fly as in his press conferences, but he was able to sit down afterwards for a cup of coffee with any of the correspondents.

Unfortunately for us, the UN hired him as an expert and an early death later took him away for good. Notwithstanding, he left behind a school, a way of doing things that should be emulated for the benefit of all.

An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.