Yusimi Rodriguez

Havana photo by Roger Humbert

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 8 — “The first thing dictators do is put an end to the freedom of the press, they establish censorship, there’s no doubt that the freedom of the press is the first enemy of a dictatorship.”

These wise words were expressed by Fidel Castro.  They were spoken in English, in the United States and in 1959 – just a few months after the Cuban Revolution.  And he was right.  One of the first things that Hitler did when taking power in Germany was to eliminate freedom of the press.  He also eliminated political parties.

Yet, the words of our commander-in-chief take me to wonder if freedom of the press exists in our Cuba.

It frightens me to respond this question here. It’s not the same thing to discuss the issue with friends at the Coppelia ice-cream parlor as it is to put such notions down on paper.  Words in general float in the air, but written ones are not so light.  But why should I be afraid?

A few days ago I ran into a young woman I met when she was studying journalism; today she’s a professional journalist who works for the national press.   So I asked her the same question: “Do you believe there is freedom of the press in Cuba?”

She thought for a few seconds, looked around before responding, and then said, “No, it’s evident that there’s no freedom of the press here.”  But since we were alone in the bathroom of a school, she added, “Some other time I’ll talk to you more about this; it’s a complex issue.”  I wondered if she would let me interview her concerning that issue, and if so, whether I could use her real name.

Between the end of 2003 and 2006, I worked for a media organization here in Cuba.  During that time I attended pre-publication meetings of the journalism staff. In those gatherings the head of information reported to the journalists what the Party was interested in seeing reported. (I only use the word “Party,” without specifying its political orientation, because the Communist Party of Cuba is the sole political party that exists in our country).

During my time there I turned in a commentary for the written edition of the paper.  Accordingly, it was approved by the deputy editor and then the editor of the newspaper.  The editor was not a journalist, but a cadre of the Party, though later on he took a course for a journalism degree.  However, when he assumed the position as head of the paper it was without ever having been a journalist.

Cobblestone Street. Photo: Yuri Montano

When the copy made it to the Editing Department, one of the comrades (a Party member), became frightened over the content and requested that the op-ed piece be analyzed by the Party leadership at the paper.  At that point they decided that the publication of the text was not “opportune.”

It might seem that with this example I’m demonstrating that freedom of the press doesn’t in fact exist in our country, as opposed to under capitalism, where the press is indeed “free.”

But how does freedom of the press really work under capitalism?  Under capitalism, freedom of the press appears as an extension of the right to own and control capital, meaning that everyone has the formal right to possess a communications company. But who can create one? – those who have the capital to do so.  This means that press operations have owners and that what is published is not necessarily the truth, but a truth that responds to the interests of these owners and in the form that responds to those interests.

According to Wikipedia at least, freedom of the press under socialism is presented as the right to a part of shared community assets.  For this reason everyone is entitled to participate in existing communication organizations, independently of their purchasing power.

The socialist press is operated independently of the potential for generating profits.  Its costs are deducted from the national economy to assure the rights of all citizens to the freedom of the press through their participation in all the branches of the media, which are democratically regulated by the government.

In reality, however, I don’t believe that all of us here in Cuba are owners of the press media; nor do we all feel represented by them, at least not in the existing official media of our country.

The newspaper Granma, for example, is the official newspaper of the Party, which is to say that this entity is the owner.  Therefore it’s fair that what’s published responds to the ideology that the members of the Party uphold, and the same is true with other official media organizations in our country that belong to the workers (Trabajadores) and the communist youth organization (Juventud Rebede). That seems fair enough.

Old Havana kids. Photo: Liliana Rhodes

The problem is that not all of the country’s citizens belong to the Party, nor are they all communists.  Consequently they’re not represented by Granma and nor do they feel that it responds to their informational needs and interests, even though they too are entitled to a part of those shared community assets, since these individuals also make a contribution to society.

Many people have had the opportunity to read the writings of Pedro Campos, who publishes the online bulletin called SPD.  The heading of this bulletin contains Article 53 of our Constitution: “Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of socialist society.”  Accordingly, Pedro Campos is making use of a legitimate right.  From the ideas I’ve heard him express and through his writings I’ve read, I’m certain he’s a socialist (though perhaps not the type of socialist that responds to our government’s line).  But what happens when there are citizens who don’t share the communist ideology?  How can they exercise their right to free expression and to a free press?

Several press organizations exist in our country: that of the Party, the Young Communist League, and the national trade union press.  All of these media organizations are financed by the State (though I don’t believe that the dues that the members of the Party pay, for example, would be enough to produce a newspaper, distribute it and also pay the salaries of all the media workers).  Therefore it’s fair that these entities respond to the interests of the State.

The journalists who work for those organizations cannot dream of writing something that runs counter to the Party, which is the body that guides our State and our society. So what space is there for citizens who have different ideas to express; those who have a different vision of the reality here?

I am hardly proposing the paradigm of the capitalist press, with its mega media organizations that manipulate the truth and its paparazzis that violate people’s intimacy.  But the idea of freedom of speech and of the press I find incompatible with a constitution that only establishes this right according to the objectives of socialist society, and that later on, in Article 62, establishes: “None of the freedoms which are recognized for citizens can be exercised contrary to what is established in the Constitution and by law, or contrary to the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism. Violations of this principle can be punished by law.”

The online media obviously exists, but these cannot be read by the immense majority of the Cuban people because they don’t have access to the Internet, and a huge proportion of them don’t even own a computer.  Therefore one cannot confuse the existence of some of these online operations with freedom of the press.  Freedom exists when it’s for everyone, including those who express opinions that we don’t share.

Perhaps it has become a worn-out phrase, but I can’t get tired of repeating it: “I hate what you’re saying, but I will defend to my death your right to say it,” (I owe you readers the author of this quote).

6 thoughts on “Freedom of the Press in Cuba

  • What you called “capitalist” press it’s not reduced to a few “mega media organizations” , neither you’ll need millions of dollars to start you own publication.
    Besides the giants, are outlets covering the needs of niche markets: Hobbies, small towns, ethnic groups, professions, outdoors, politics, religion, activism… you name it.
    I’ll give an actual example: Here in South Texas a print shop charge +/- 250 dollars for 5000 copies, tabloid format 8 pages, black & white; lets double this amount (dist./trans) and you’ll see how a “lone wolf” will supply a niche market with just $ 500 dollars per edition.
    Once he/she breaks that market, may increase the numbers of copies and editions per -week or month, decreasing the cost per copy and pulling in more sponsors.
    So, to launch your own traditional -on-paper- publication (“capitalist press???) you won’t risk your freedom, plus nobody will tell you what and how to write… just few dollars and you’re running your own show!
    And ain’t touch the digital market with free blogging, video and podcasting, kindle publishing and printing-on-demand ’cause I’m telling you something can be done in Cuba.
    So, what’s your issue with the “capitalist” press? Oh, come on!!!
    and by the way, it’s not a such thing as a “capitalist” press; it’s just a F-R-E-E and democratic society, a free and independent press… thanks to capitalism.

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