HAVANA TIMES — We hear many complaints to the effect that Cuba’s official press does not fulfill its informative duties. Sometimes, people blame the ineptitude of journalists, their lack of cunning or motivation to criticize bad practices and offer solutions to the problems that affect the population.
Over the last fifty years, however, we have had no shortage of courageous and sharp journalists who have reported on Cuba’s ills with professionalism and have shared their ideas and suggestions with us. The fact no one has paid any attention to them, the fact they were later demoted, is a different story.
Other times, the blame is laid on mid-level bureaucrats who supposedly “do not want to give out information” about the problems journalists try to investigate, the notorious “secrecy” criticized by President Raul Castro himself, someone who, in conjunction with Cuba’s historical leadership, has maintained all of the restrictions and censorship that have been in existence for over half a century, stating these are in the interest of national security or designed to keep the “enemy” from using information against the “revolution.”
Cuba’s official journalism has been the victim of this mentality and the notion of a “city under siege”, wielded by those in power to protect themselves and justify the censorship and repression of dissenting thought. It is also true that, faced with these enormous levels of censorship, self-censorship (the worst kind) has been a survival mechanism for people.
The fundamental problem facing the Cuban press, however, resides in the logic of a system in which government and economic planning are integrated, where those who hold political power, the eternally unchanging Party leadership, are also the entrepreneurial planners of the economy and those who control the policies that govern the media.
The centralized and planned economy of “State socialism” aspires to operate like a massive, nationwide company, managed by one, central political command post. Under such circumstances, the chief aim of the officially authorized press – which is also financed by this leadership – is to defend these interests and, at most, publish criticisms designed to make the established system work more smoothly, never to change it.
In capitalist countries, the mass media are in the hands of large capitalist companies linked or financed by big capital and, of course, their chief aim is to defend the interests of those they respond to. The freedom afforded by the Internet and new communication technologies, however, makes it impossible to prevent the divulging of dissenting thought.
In Cuba, the government controls the traditional media and restricts the flow of information through the Internet, keeping the majority of the people from accessing the web. Despite this, Cuba’s alternative press and blogosphere have been challenging the official press more and more. We must acknowledge that, faced with criticisms and pressures at home and abroad, the Cuban government has taken a number of modest and positive steps, such as broadening the still limited and extremely expensive Internet access and allowing some comments with differing opinions to be published in the web pages of official publications.
Journalistic criticisms that have sought to bring about changes to the country’s political and economic system, coming from the Right and Left, have had no choice but to turn to alternative media, because the official ones have not offered them any space to do so.
When a journalist or media begins to encroach on established interests, they are in some way censored, punished, suspended and even expelled. It is the same thing that happens to mid-level bureaucrats who offer the press information or opinions that contradict the interests of those “above,” which is why many evade the press or omit or distort certain statements.
And that’s to say nothing of the repression of dissident journalism, which has always been accused of being the work of “mercenaries” or of serving the interests of the “enemy”, as though it had no interests of its own. This does not mean there are no pens that are moved exclusively by money, but we come across this in all political contexts.
There are “reasons of State” to conceal economic and political information, if not downright conflicts of interests at mid-level administrative positions. For instance, “the prestige of leaders and the image of their dedication to the interests of the people” must be maintained. “The fact the resources needed to overcome local problems are in the hands of superiors, centralized so as to be given better use, must be justified.” Or, one has to lie about the fulfillment of a given plan in order to retain one’s position.
Officials must also “avoid having the foreign press find out about epidemics, because that could reduce the number of foreign tourists who visit the country, and the propaganda portraying Cuba as a medical force to be reckoned with must be kept up in order to continue to export doctors.” “Cuba must demonstrate that the opposition represent a small minority,” and so on and so forth – all of this secrecy, all of these prohibitions, are to be found in “reasons of State” or bureaucratic interests.
In short, as long as we have an all-controlling State above the interests of the people, of the workers, of citizens and communities, a system in which those above “elect” those below (when the opposite should be the case), things will remain the same.
A Press Law could solve many of these problems, if it were established on the basis of democratic principles, with the full, horizontal and uncensored participation of all journalists, without any kind of exclusion because of political or ideological reasons – if it were established by those who believe that the press should not be subordinate to the establishment and that it should struggle to get the truth out.
To date, however, the government has refused to discuss such a law and even turned down the proposal advanced at the last Cuban Journalists’ Association (UPEC) Congress, demonstrating it is not interested in freedom of expression and press.
In order to have a press free from bureaucratic fetters and political prejudices, a press capable of undertaking investigative processes that cannot be hindered by the powers that be and that can both inform the public objectively and divulge points of view that differ from those of the government, Cuba’s political system must be democratized.
Cuban theatre actors and visual artists have secured niches of freedom for themselves on the strength of their courage alone, as have a number of musicians and singers. Cuban filmmakers have been battling for greater creative freedoms and a cinema free from impositions. Writers and poets are engaged in similar quarrels. Journalists, however, have been left behind.
The struggle for freedom of expression and press is very difficult in a country as centralized as Cuba. This is evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding declarations made by award-winning Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, “accused” by a number of his colleagues of failing to mention imperialist aggression and the US blockade when he referred to Cuba’s problems, of offering statements to a foreign, reactionary newspaper and voicing unjust opinions about the degree of dependence Cuban intellectuals have on the State.
Those interested in a free and responsible press in Cuba, no matter what their ideology, will have to make the democratization of the country’s political system their top priority.