Cuba: Lessons on Total Press Control

Fernando Ravsberg*

HAVANA TIMES — Maintaining control over all of the media and having the power to decide who manages these and what gets published is probably the dream of many politicians around the world. Such a degree of control, however, is not without serious dangers.

When all of the media are controlled by a small group of people in the governing party, these individuals have enormous influence over society, so much that, if push came to shove, they could use it to pressure the rest of the party and government.

The experience of the Soviet Union demonstrates the consequences of that control. Alexander Yakovlev, head of the Agitation and Propaganda Department (AGITPROP), became one of the main actors responsible for the disappearance of the USSR.

Alexander Yakovlev used his power over the Soviet press to isolate a sector of the Communist Party.

For years, this “ideologue” was the second-in-command in this department. He was a rather insignificant figure until Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him head of AGITPROP, placing all of the Soviet Union’s media in his hands.

He then went on to replace many newspaper editors, appointing people who were politically like-minded. He encouraged journalists to criticize certain sectors within the Communist Party in order to weaken the position of those who were opposed to the Perestroika process.

Almost overnight, the same media that praised everything that transpired in the USSR began criticizing almost everything and had a decisive impact on public opinion, paving the road for the system’s implosion.

Ironically, some of the high communist officials who personally suffered the criticisms leveled by the press had been staunch defenders of Party control over the media.

In 1975, Cuba copied the Soviets in their control of the media, creating the Department for Revolutionary Orientation, which, according to Jorge Gomez Barata, a former member of that body, would later become the Party’s Ideology Department.

As in the former Soviet Union, all Cuban newspapers, radio stations and TV channels repeat the same news – and they do so with such lack of subtlety that, on occasion, the three major newspapers (Granma, Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores), have had the exact same front page.

What is truly curious is that these rigorously controlled newspapers belong to organizations aligned with the revolution: nothing other than the Communist Party, the People’s Power Organization, the Young Communists League and the Cuban Workers Federation.

Those in charge of these organizations, and even the trade unions, are communist cadres who ought to be able to manage the media under their control without having Big Brother tell them what they can publish and what they can’t.

The Soviet press, accustomed to following orders, continued to obey these even after the leaders had changed.

Giving control over the newspapers back to the organizations that publish them, letting these chose their editors and editorial stances, would be a first step towards transforming these into public media, that is to say, into newspapers that actually belong to Cubans.

It would also be an important step towards allowing these media to fashion their own editorial positions, prioritizing the issues that interest their readers, be these about youth, trade unions, provincial developments or culture.

Decentralizing control over the media is key to preventing any one power group from taking full control over these and molding public opinion to suit its interests, as occurred in the Soviet Union.

What was questionable about AGITPROP wasn’t the path it proposed but the centralized use of the media to manipulate citizens. They acted as those in previous decades had done but in the opposite direction, the direction in which the wind was then blowing.

In addition to the similarities with the Soviet model, we must mention that there is already a huge gap between the reform process being impelled by the government and the contents of the country’s press, and that the resistance to change isn’t to be found in journalists but in those who coerce them.

There are those who believe that those people who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes – theirs and those of others.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.

5 thoughts on “Cuba: Lessons on Total Press Control

  • How gracious to indicate that you might crawl out of your cave to respond to “someone who has an understanding of the US media based on reality.” it is your constant avoidance of the reality of socialism and communism in practice and repeated references to academic theorists that detracts from your contributions and makes them irrelevant regarding Cuba. Isn’t Noel Chomsky lucky to be regarded by you as he leading intellectual of our times. I hope you have let him lknow!

  • The example of the Stalinist press which accompanies Fernando Ravsberg’s article reminds me of several amusing examples of “Koba’s” use of the media. Check out “Glory to Stalin” on YouTube. Also, the excerpt from the film about Tovarich Stalin arriving in Berlin shortly after Soviet victory. A total fabrication, of course, but Stalin’s “double” gives new meaning to the term “wooden performance!”

  • The type of control of the mass media which Fidel and Tovarich Stalin only dreamed about has now been accomplished by the U.S. and European monopolies. In a sense,however, such control is already slipping away from them. Increasingly, the young don’t give a damn. They’re not bamboozled by the tawdry entertainment which passes as news. For the most part, the so-called “mass audience” is fragmenting into “A Million Little Pieces!” Of course the monopolies will try to retake control (for example, by abolishing net neutrality, with the hopes that most folks will be lured by gaming or watching netfliks at high speeds while those of us who like HT or other independent, “idea” sites will be limping along at old 56K dial-up speeds), but there will be ways around these new restrictions, and the more the monopolies try to surpress, the more attractive–and challenging–it will be for folks to find a way around them. (As is just the case in Cuba, now!)
    One thing for certain: the old lefty authoritarian regimes who tried to control the mass media at least took intellectuals seriously. The leaders–or “guardians”– read their Plato; on the other hand, the modern multi-national monopolists have nothing but contempt for most intellectuals–or at least the ones who are their whores (e.g. Murdoch). Although I won’t be around to see it, I look forward to the “Brave New World!”

  • In the United States some 90% of the media is owned and controlled by mega-corporations .
    The morons on the lunatic right radio shows would have us believe that the majority of these outlets : “the drive-by media”, “the liberal media” “the left media as they call them somehow favor socialist /communist ideas and oppose the mainstays of U.S. policies …..enforcing capitalism through imperial means.
    So, in fact the media of the U.S. is in lockstep with the establishment corporate government and its policies. They might quibble about the fine points such as war strategy but never about the morality of a war since all wars since WWII fought by the U.S.; the 60 plus military interventions and 30 other actions against democratic or humanitarian movements have been in support of enforcing worldwide capitalism through force.
    Succinctly stated, the U.S. media consists of the very rich telling the middle class to blame the poor…. and it works very well.
    You can find all the proof and documentation you need on this in both “Manufacturing Consent “and “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies ” both by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman on the former.
    To sum up, the U.S. media is no less a monopoly of the wealthy and the causes they support than was Stalin’s Pravda or Cuba’s Granma in support of those governments .
    Further evidence can be found by reading the articles at ZNet and comparing the facts in those articles from around the world with what the corporate U.S. media has said about the material covered. .
    Just as neither Stalin nor Castro will allow dissenting views, the U.S. corporate media limits its guests on news shows to a narrow spectrum that ranges from the wing-nut right such as Hannity and Limbaugh to a bunch of centrist liberals .
    In all cases all the guests support capitalism and imperialism.
    Guest commentators who are actually leftists: socialists, communists and anarchists who actually oppose capitalism and imperialism are effectively banned from the U.S. corporate media.
    Noam Chomsky is recognized as the leading intellectual of our times .
    I’ve heard and seem him interviewed twice in my lifetime on the corporate media.
    ‘Nuff said.
    I may possibly reply to responses from someone who has an understanding of the U.S. media based on reality .

  • Why does Ravsberg find it curious that the revolutionary organizations who control Cuba’s media have always been so thoroughly in favour of dogmatic ideological control and censorship? That’s what Communist revolutionaries have always been about. Total control.

    He doesn’t think AGITPROP’s path was objectionable, just its methods. But it’s methods were its path. The whole purpose and point to the Soviet media system was to enforce ideological control of the entire population. Totalitarianism was the path. Total control is how it is achieved.

    In a staggering display of a lack of self-awareness, Ravsberg ends with the oft quoted warning: “those people who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its’ mistakes”.

    Well yes, Fernando. You make that point very clearly.

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