Reporting on a Death from Cuba, No Easy Task

Foreign correspondents waiting for the announcement about the release of political prisoners. (Photo: Raquel Perez).

Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 26 — The Death of Cuban prisoner Wilman Villar put us reporters in a dilemma that, while not new, is more dramatic: that of finding out where the truth lies in the midst of a web of political statements coming from both sides.

The opposition informs us that this involves a dissident who died from a hunger strike, while the government denies his act of fasting, saying instead that he was a common prisoner convicted of severely beating his wife.

Many people have begun digging in around these two theories, thus discovering where the truth lies or how much truth there is in each version is a difficult task.

When politics colors everything, the facts fade into the background.

A government official called me to ask my opinion on the Cuban communiqué. I answered with the utmost sincerity that the official version seemed confused and late, but it wasn’t the first time.

I asked him how many political prisoners have there been in Cuba over the last 50 years. He replied saying none, because his government didn’t recognize them as such. Therefore, when they say that Villar didn’t hold that status, they’re not saying anything.

The editorial in Granma newspaper, for instance, accuses other countries of violating human rights, pointing to the US, Chile and Spain. This all may be true, but these claims against third parties don’t explain anything about what happened to the prisoner who died in Cuba.

The death of Villar occurred while he was in custody and it is the authorities responsibility to give an explanation. Photo: Raquel Perez

In this case, the best defense isn’t a good offense, but a good, serious and in-depth investigation with evidence to support each claim – such as photos of the battered wife, medical reports, the court ruling, etc.

The authorities had plenty of time to investigate, it was not a surprise. Well before Villar died there was talk of him being on a hunger strike, and he was said to have been a dissident. However, the government’s adversaries once again reported their information prior to the official media.

There’s a Cuban joke that if Napoleon had had a press like the one in Cuba, he wouldn’t have minded losing the war, because no French person would have learned about it. That may be true, but this is much more difficult to achieve in the Internet age.

Where they stand depends on where they sit

Yet nor can we be wedded to the opposition’s version, because it too is highly politicized. Not long ago they reported of the murder of another dissident in Santa Clara Province, though this was subsequently denied by the family and doctors.

This time dissidents are discrediting Wilman Villar’s mother and sister in advance, warning that they can’t be believed because they are pro-government “revolutionaries” and, supposedly, that would lead them to justify the death of a son and brother.

According to the dissidents, the testimony of the physicians is not valid because they do what the government tells them. Following such logic, we journalists could only believe the opposition’s version with the same faith that the government asks of us.

Admittedly, the dissidents are always willing to give information and provide it faster than the government, while the authorities refuse to grant interviews on these issues even when it suits them, like with the recent pardoning of the prisoners.

But this case involves the death of a Cuban citizen — beyond whatever his ideology or his crimes — who was in the custody of the authorities. It’s therefore their proper responsibility to explain to the family and the nation’s citizens what actually occurred.

Official information published so far (the cause of death, denial of him being a dissident, accusations of spousal abuse and refutation of any hunger strike) are mere statements unaccompanied by evidence to support them.

And finally, everyone is blaming the messenger. A Miami newspaper raised questions about “the apathy of more than one foreign correspondent” around the death of Villar, while the official Granma newspaper is indignant because “Cuba is denied the smallest space in the international media.”

Nevertheless, the mission of a foreign correspondent is not to take sides in political battles, but to report on what happens in these, avoiding manipulations in an attempt to achieve the objectivity and impartiality required by our profession.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.


15 thoughts on “Reporting on a Death from Cuba, No Easy Task

  • February 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm
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    Hopefully the Havana Times will refrain from suppressing this second attempt to bring to your attention the Associated Press story, “Widow of Cuban prisoner confirms domestic violence,” by Andrea Rodriguez, which was based on an interview with Mr Villar’s widow. This AP story is not hard to find on the internet.

    This interview by the AP reflects a genuine if modest and belated investigative effort which compares favourably with the spoon-fed blather of Mr Ravsberg’s article. The AP story directly refutes basic points of the imperial propaganda account you repeated here, Mr de la Yncera, instead confirming the Cuban government account that Mr Villar was convicted for domestic violence and resisting arrest rather than for any politically motivated crime, that he only joined the US-controlled opposition group after his arrest, and that he was not on a 50 day hunger strike.

  • January 29, 2012 at 11:42 pm
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    Mr Gieschen, Your comment concerning the acclaimed ‘Freedom’ in the US ignores the reality of the increasing militarization of the country.

    With Obomber signing the NDDA [which allows unlimited detention of anyone, citizen or not, by the Military] our freedom has gone the way of many other fantasies. We now, officially, have fewer freedoms than most Dictatorships – except for Military Dictators like Pinochet, The Generals in
    Argentina and those stellar examples of Human Rights, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

    Tourism in Cuba may really boom when the various protesters from Occupy Groups, Earth First, and Peace Groups like the SOA Protesters are declared ‘Supporters of Terrorism’ and shipped off to Guantanamo.

    During my month in Cuba, I didn’t notice heavily armed cops and soldiers, altho I took several photos of both. Those photos show young people in uniform talking and laughing and eying the High School girls in their uniforms. Not nearly as scarey as the cops with assault rifles you see everywhere in that grand Democracy, Mexico.

    As for Freedom of Speech, just about every Cubano I met wanted to talk politics when they discovered I was from the US rather than Canada. The big question was whether I thought Obama would end the Blockade. I had to tell them that I doubted it, even tho at that point he was still promising ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’.

    Even with a mandate, and a large majority in both houses of Congress, all we got from Obama was the same old same old, only worse. Because it was a Democrat tearing down the security of the Working Class it considered ‘Bi-Partisan’, just as it was with Clinton in the 90’s

    Should I mention I am voting the Justice Party this time around?

  • January 29, 2012 at 5:23 pm
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    Well Javier literally he was not murdered.
    But let me see.

    He was place in prison not for attacking his wife as the government now claims but because he was part of an opposition group. He was offer a deal either they got out of the opposition group and get free or continue in prison. He refused. He also refuse to eat and his jailers deprive him of cloth to wear to keep warm. This two actions. Not releasing him or not let him have cloth to keep warm or not supplying the medical attention point to the direction of murder. Yes, he was killing himself but they did their best to help him die.”.
    That is why I call it murder.

  • January 29, 2012 at 8:58 am
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    Thank you Okasis for the civilised tone of your comment.
    If you as a US citizen want to support a foreign government that is your right and your free choice, but will you grant the same right to support foreign governments to citizens of other countries such as Cuba? “Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently” (Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Communist Party of Germany).

    Javier,
    you may find it of interest that Amnesty International confirmed right after Mr Villar’s death that they had planned to declare him a prisoner of conscience and were about to launch an urgent action appeal for his immediate and unconditional release.

    In the meantime, and in the interest of humanity may I ask both of you, Mr Cheeseman and Señor Elpides Valdes and everyone else to join me in trying to save Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavalyo from being executed in Belarus.
    See Havanatimes,.org post http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=60737 Cuba Seeks Internet Control with the Help of Belarus or
    go directly to http://chn.ge/belaruspetition . Thank you

  • January 29, 2012 at 12:54 am
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    julio: he was not murdered, and no one has claimed that he was; so stfu.

    this article is awful. it is the antithesis of journalism. if you are a journalist, go and interview some of the people involved. truth is not an opinion if you know the facts. a journalist will risk life and limb to discover the facts.

  • January 29, 2012 at 12:25 am
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    Hubert Gieschen, I cannot have poor Mr. Cheeseman do all the heavy lifting for the first 3 commentators: I too was paid nothing for my comments. Hope this does not depress you too much, but there are many US citizens who support Cuba and its Government wholeheartedly.

    I can only dream of the day we will have a government as concerned for the well-being of the 99% as Cuba’s is. Until then, I can only hope Social Security lasts as long as I do, altho that is beginning to look questionable.

  • January 28, 2012 at 10:06 am
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    Mr Cheeseman, at no point have you been able to refute charges that the Cuban government violates human rights or that it is accountable for the death of Mr Villar.

  • January 28, 2012 at 7:59 am
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    Mr Giescher, it’s amusing to read your whining about imaginary “dirty accusations” against you, after you chose to launch your contribution to this debate by hurling the worn out “paid Cuban state agent” smear at every other commenter.

    Let me first refute your imaginary distinction between public broadcasters like the BBC and state broadcasters. There simply is no such difference in reality. Public broadcasters are nothing but state broadcasters. The BBC in particular is fully controlled by the British state and reflects the politics of the dominant forces in the British political system. It is the mouthpiece of the British ruling class.

    You point out that the BBC is sometimes seen by both sides of the narrow political spectrum between the two British ruling parties as favouring the other side. This is true, but it makes no difference to the implacable anti-socialist partisanship which informs the BBC’s hostile propaganda against Cuba.

    Both of the Labour and Conservative parties whose rule is entrenched in the British 2-party state system are staunchly anti-Communist and supportive of US imperialism. They both hate the Cuban revolution. The BBC’s “impartial” centrist position between the two ruling right wing capitalist parties in Britain is completely consistent with its brutally right wing, anti-socialist position considered in the context of world politics. The British state broadcaster fully participates in the anti-socialist international propaganda machine led by the United States, Britain’s imperial overlord and inheritor.

    Within the imperialist discourse generated by this media machine, the blood-soaked NATO regimes are presented as noble humanitarians tenderly concerned with the the human rights of Cubans, and also as moral paragons unquestioned in their self-appointed roles of prosecutor and jury over the Cuban government they have placed in the media dock. This apologetic fairy tale portrayal of the US and its European satellite regimes is a far cry from what they really are, i.e. the same old white capitalist empires, still driven by greed and the lust for power, as addicted to war as ever and still led by liars, torturers, murderers and war criminals. Naturally the servile media are obliged to make strong efforts at wilful blindness to these inconvenient realities to be able to stay on message, but they have proved themselves fully capable of this and worse.

    The US and European capitalist rulers wield their media machine (which still enjoys dominance in the world media market) as a war propaganda apparatus, for instance to applaud and promote the US empire’s illegal subversion campaign to reimpose its colonial domination over Cuba (and in general the media machine willingly promotes on command any other cold or hot war staged by imperialism against those countries who defend their independence). The recent “Cuban government murder of political prisoners” trope fits right in with the Western media’s despicable record of vicious lies against demonised targets, like the spurious Iraqi WMD scare, Iranian nukes, Viagra issued to Libyan soldiers for rape, Kuwaiti babies thrown out of incubators, etc. etc.

    Mr Ravsberg is deeply embedded in that imperialist media machine, as you can see from the way that for him this story of Mr Villar’s unfortunate death is one in which the Cuban government is on trial for murder and has to justify itself immediately or sooner to Mr Ravsberg and to its other anti-socialist foreign critics, preferably even before its accusers among the US funded mercenary groups have finished emitting their preconcerted smear into the ears of tipped-off foreign correspondents..

    The real story here is the way that reactionary forces in the US regime have been using the empire’s Cuban political agents to generate hate stories against the Cuban government, stories based on unsupported hostile allegations which are then, without ever having been checked or proven, retailed as pseudo-facts by the empire’s media, who cynically amplify the bogus scandals using the on-cue public crocodile tears of officials from the most shameless among the empire’s vassal allies, and eventually manage to puff up these manufactured incidents into burning issues of a supposed global importance which simply never applies to similar events in countries which are not, like Cuba, the target of relentless demonisation propaganda.

    The Cuban government’s highly relevant proof that the supposed concern for the death of Mr Villar is spurious (by showing e.g. that US hunger striker deaths are ignored by Western governments and media) Mr Ravsberg simply dismisses as off topic because it doesn’t fit his prejudiced Cuba-on-trial agenda.

    Mr Ravsberg can’t focus on the real story, i.e. the highly-organised and blatantly manipulated demonisation propaganda campaign against Cuba which is going on in the imperial media, simply because he is part of that smear campaign himself and too busy promoting it and promoting himself as its more respectable, pseudo-impartial and pseudo-objective, face.

  • January 28, 2012 at 3:16 am
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    Me Cheeseman, Mr Ravsberg works for the BBC. It is a public broadcaster not a government broadcaster like Cubavision. Every British government thinks the BBC is in bed with the oppoosition. You misunderstand public and government-run, a vital difference. Many people even think Mr Ravsberg is too sympathetic to the Cuban government. Read his other posts.
    . When Cuba opens its prisons fully to the Red Cross and Amnesty International we will find out if Cuba is as humane and law-governed as those with rose-tinted spectales like you believe. Until then it is mere speculation on your side. I saw nothing humane in the way Mr Villar died.
    As for your criticism of the USA I concur widely. I am on record of calling Mr George Bush junior a serial killer of US citizens. That does not excuse the extra-judicial serial killings at the beginning of the Cuban revolution or the state murder of 2003 in Cuba.
    In another post I called the execution of Troy Davis a state murder and Mr Obama’s refusal to get involved a disgrace. I also said an independent judidiary is the best chance – not guarantee – for the citizen against any state. There is a huge debate going on in Britain about the European Court of Human Rights. It would be wonderful if Cuban citizens could go to an international human rights court if they feel justice had been denied to them in their home country. The US Attorney General is part of the government, not a judge and not part of an independent judiciary! I think also that the USAs refusal to recognise the International Court of Justice is a disgrace.
    Do not confuse legitimate criticism of the Castro government with support for the US government, a dirty accusation many apologists for the Castros try to stick on people like me when they run out of arguments.

  • January 27, 2012 at 8:08 pm
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    “Is any of these commentators a paid Cuban state agent?” This says more about the paranoia which has been spoon fed to you with the propaganda pabulum than about any of the commentators, Mr Gieschen, but I assure you that my comment was unremunerated self-expression. It’s worth noting though that the author of the original dishonest screed, Mr Ravsberg, really does undertake his propaganda writing task as a “paid state agent” of the avowedly anti-socialist British state.

    The success of the imperial media’s incessant repetition of its deceitful “political prisoner” meme is well reflected in your assumption that any imprisoned opponent of the Cuban government is the victim of political persecution. All a wife beater or thief has to do is sign up to one of the US-backed political mercenary grouplets and their detention immediately becomes “political” and a matter for censure by the servile imperial media, taking their cue from their political masters in the US regime and its European satellites, those prize hypocrites whose pretended concern for human rights never extends to the hundreds of thousands killed and maimed in their wars of aggression, or to the victims of their other notorious crimes against humanity like their death squad murders, abductions, detention without trial and torture of prisoners.

    Mr Gieschen, the contrast you seek to draw between Cuba’s judiciary and the allegedly “independent” one which you assert exists in bourgeois states is laughable.

    Just take a look at the “extraordinary rendition” world-wide kidnapping and torture racket, for example. In which of the dozen or more North American and European bourgeois regimes unequivocally implicated in these official crimes against humanity has the supposedly “independent” judiciary taken any action whatever to punish the regime criminals? Some independence!

    What about the fact that the former US Torturer in Chief G W Bush and his war criminal henchmen in the Cheney-Bush gang are explicitly shielded from prosecution for the crime of torture by the US Attorney General, who is single-handedly able to pervert the course of justice even when crimes against humanity are involved? That shielding of torturers from justice is itself a heinous crime, but the plain fact is that there is no US justice to which any of these criminals could be brought.

    This protection from jail which the US judiciary does sometimes provide is just for the wealthy ruling elite who can afford to hire enough lawyers, judges and Attorneys General to keep out of trouble. For the rest of the population the story is very different: the US actually jails a larger proportion of its population than any other country in the world, mostly poor and black people of course. Some “chance for justice” they got! The US really ought to call itself the Land of the Jailed rather than of the “free.”

    And the empire’s Muslim detainees can’t even dream of the legal protections the US judicial system provides to criminals of the US ruling class. Just consider the illegal detention/torture camp maintained by the US empire on land it forcibly occupies in Cuba. What “independent judiciary” protects those Muslim prisoners, who have been caged and abused for years without trial? What about the cases some ex-abductees have tried to bring regarding their torture while in US custody, which the “independent” US judiciary routinely throws out because the executive branch it is supposedly independent from simply stops the trials on national security grounds, i.e. because US official crimes remain official state secrets even after they have been exposed?

    Even just considering Cuba it is an irrefutable fact that the US rogue empire holds more political prisoners on the island than the Cuban government, and that was true even before Cuba’s recent release of the so-called “political prisoners” who were tried and convicted for taking money from the empire’s illegal subversion campaign against their country (which would be a crime in the US too of course).

    The greatest contrast between those convicted of politically motivated offences and now in Cuban jails and the hapless inmates of the illegal US dungeons in Cuba is not in the numbers imprisoned. It is between the relatively humane and law-governed justice system under which the Cubans were tried and sentenced and the lawless US regime’s openly criminal detention policy for its political opponents, which is to kidnap people anywhere in the world who it has deemed to be enemies of the US state, to incarcerate them indefinitely without any right to a fair trial and to subject them to torture and abuse.

  • January 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm
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    Amazing three commentary. Is any of these commentators a paid Cuban state agent? Mr Villar may have been convicted of a non-political crime. But that is one of the oldest tricks in the book. To assume that the Cuban justice system is always right or just is not my conclusion. See the state murders in 2003.
    The real problem is that there is no independent judiciary in Cuba that decides independently from the government. You may call it bourgeois. I call it the only chance of justice for citizens against any state.
    As for USAs fascist friends and there are many that is hypocrisy, when ignoring the Castro government’s fascist friends of Fraga Iribane to Ahmedinejad. I recommend a sense of proportion. Mr Ravsberg is doing his job. He is credible. His detractors are doing a lousy job as they are not believable.

  • January 26, 2012 at 6:37 pm
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    Mr Ravsberg didn’t refrain from manipulation hostile to Cuba even in this piece purporting to oppose media manipulation.

    Take his fatuous claim that the Cuban statement that Mr Villar was not a political prisoner says nothing because the Cubans don’t recognise convicted US mercenaries as political prisoners. That’s just a slimy diversion from the real issue here: that Mr Villar was not convicted for a political offence like working for the US empire, (which would make him a “political prisoner” in the Western media if not for the Cubans) but was instead jailed for the common criminal offences of domestic violence and resisting arrest. Even the British and US aligned “human rights” organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don’t call wife beaters political prisoners.

    Or consider when Mr Ravsberg says, “There’s a Cuban joke that if Napoleon had had a press like the one in Cuba, he wouldn’t have minded losing the war, because no French person would have learned about it. That may be true…” Oh, may it just? Really, Mr Ravsberg? May that blatant nonsense really be “true”? Only in the mind of a person so hostile that they’re prepared to (at least pretend to) give credence to the most idiotic slur and retail it to readers, of course all in the interests of the objectivity and impartiality which Mr Ravsberg nonsensically claims for himself. It’s telling that Mr Ravsberg doesn’t even notice when his hostility to Cuban journalism shows through as imbecility.

    When Mr Ravsberg says, “Nevertheless, the mission of a foreign correspondent is not to take sides in political battles, but to report on what happens in these, avoiding manipulations in an attempt to achieve the objectivity and impartiality required by our profession,” he’s also lying by retailing the standard propaganda falsehoods of the western corporate media.

    In reality, the “mission” of a foreign correspondent is given to them by their employer and it is to write the stories the employer wants. Objectivity and impartiality in the media is a myth, the first lie they tell so as to make all their subsequent lies more saleable. In the end journalists are there to do what their employers pay them to do.

    The mission of the US press in Cuba, for example, is to abuse and slander the Cuban government in pursuance of the empire’s relentless cold war vilification campaign against Cuba.

    Mr Ravsberg’s mission, by contrast, is given to him by his own employer, the BBC, which is the propaganda mouthpiece of the British state, a rather different employer to the US media barons or the Miami mafia. The BBC’s line in Cuba as in all socialist countries is always implacable hostility to the socialist state, but a hostility couched in relatively genteel terms and relying on the malicious choice of news focus and on hostile insinuation rather than on outright slander and lies, generally eschewing the gutter abuse and infantile hyperbole of e.g. the Miami yellow press.

    As for the BBC line on US imperialism, the aggressor in the Cuban conflict, it is to remain always entirely supportive behind a mask of faint criticism of the very worst crimes and abuses. The “objective” BBC was a more dedicated cheerleader for the US regime’s Iraq war conspiracy even than the privately owned British press and gave even less space to those telling the truth about the “Iraq WMD” fabrications used as cover for the criminal invasion.

    Mr Ravsberg, with his constant, unjustified self-praise of his supposed objectivity, is a good fit for the particular brand of anti-socialist propaganda his employer wishes to purchase. In the unlikely event that he ever did begin to take his alleged commitment to the truth seriously and therefore strayed too far from his imperial masters in their anti-Cuban political battles, they would simply dump him and buy some other scribbler.

  • January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm
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    Cannot disagree with your appraisal of the difficulties involved in reporting this story. But, that said, the subject of your report is on those difficulties, not on the facts.

    Actually, you refer to things not reported in the Cuban Press, or the Right-Wing Propaganda Rags. So, have you talked to the mother, sister, wife, or mother-in-law? What about the Doctor? You refer to what they said, without affirming or denying it. Did they, or did they not, support the Government version?

    It may be difficult for a reporter, in Cuba, to gather the facts. Pity the poor interested person with access only to these confused stories, with no way to verify anything. If one prefers to make reasoned decisions about fact and fiction, reports like yours do not help.

    I’ve been to Cuba as an independent traveler. Frankly, I tend to believe the Cuban News rather than anything reported from Miami. Agree with Castro, or not, it’s impossible to ignore the acts of war and unending propaganda coming out of the US and its Fascist Allies.

    Kind of like believing in Santa, or that the CIA knew nothing about the assassination of the Iranian Scientists. Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge is still for sale, too…

  • January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm
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    I don’t know why this person is saying that is very difficult to know the truth in Cuba about the dead of a criminal in Cuba.

    First of all, if you really knows that in Cuba, nobody is tortured, killed or disappear because of the military or the police intervention, then this is the first step to get to the truth, second if you can not pointed out one person name who disappear, or killed of tortured in the Island during the last 50 years, then your in the second step to the truth.

    The mos important fact is not to follow the international mass media in their campaign against the Island, then you have the third step to the truth, and the last one, is do not follow the artificial and pro-USA opposition in his agenda and speech, because those people are paid by the USA Government and their task is to destroy the country, the process and the Cuban Government.

    So Mr.Ravsberg, put aside you ideology, your support to the opposition and mainly try to be impartial and objective in your newspaper work, and you will get all you need to understand what is happening in the Island and capable to give a good information about the Island.

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