HAVANA TIMES, March 19 — Not too long ago I had the pleasure of being invited to the University of Havana’s School of Journalism for a conversation with students. There were about fifty of my young colleagues in attendance, all of them very respectful yet unhesitant to speak their minds.
The initial idea was that we remain within the academic realm; that’s to say, discussing the work of the foreign press registered in Cuba. However, the questions of the young men and women veered into national news and political issues.
The teachers didn’t get upset; on the contrary, they took off the stops to discussing everything that interested the students. We centered the discussion on the Cuban press – its challenges and the changes required to recover lost ground.
I made the students note that their professional work would be much more difficult than that of their predecessors because their seniors wrote for a “niche” protected by the State’s monopoly on information. The new generation, however, will have to compete with the entire international press.
Tens of thousands of clandestine satellite antennas and hundreds of thousands of Internet connections —legal and illegal— are providing citizens first-time access to another vision of what’s happening in the world, and even as to what’s occurring within Cuba.
Now every time the national press avoids a story, it has to consider that Cubans will look for the information they need in the foreign media. Silence will never again be total. Water is flowing through the dyke everywhere, and there aren’t enough fingers to hold it back.
If anyone had the illusion that they could brush aside national debate concerning the issue of the crimes at the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital [in which at least 26 patients died of exposure to the cold this past January], very soon they saw how mistaken they were. The only result of censorship was that the sole version of the facts was reported by the foreign press.
It was not that our Cuban colleagues had lower professional abilities, but that they were prevented from writing about the issue, as several of them related to me – frankly indignant. “They destroyed our credibility,” they fumed.
“In speeches they urge us to practice critical journalism, and later—back in the office— they tell us not to go any farther; it’s like a joke,” another journalist told me. To disobey can mean sanctions, suspensions and even the offender’s definitive firing.
An ossified siege mentality
For my Cuban colleagues the situation is as difficult as or more so than for us [foreign correspondents]. Moreover, dialogue with those who manage the press is almost impossible. As Eduardo Galeano once said, among these leaders there are many who know how to heap praise on the Revolution, but very few who know how to defend it.
Undoubtedly, the officials who define news policies —assuming these exist— are divided into two categories: those who order but don’t know, and those who know but lack power. It’s a rough dichotomy for those of us who have to deal with it.
This reality is very serious in a country where there exists only one editorial line for all the media, as can be confirmed by anyone who compares what is disseminated every day on the various radio and television channels and in newspapers.
But they’re optimistic. A Party official told me one day, “We can’t be so bad if we’ve managed to survive for half a century.” One can also survive for decades smoking, until lung cancer appears and makes you think that just maybe a different lifestyle would have been better.
A few years ago the minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, told me in a conversation that technological development would very soon make it impossible to block satellite signals, and added that the failure to prepare people to receive information from other sources would be suicidal.
Notwithstanding, those who retain the “siege mentality” continue believing the best defense is to maintain their positions, to continue surviving in the trenches like they’ve done “successfully” up to now.
On March 14, “Cuban Press Day,” each of my colleagues must have wondered to themself what they could do to dislodge journalism from the weight that impedes it from emerging as recommended by Jose Marti…what they could do to free the “harnessed horse,” under the “whip in hand and the spur on the heel.”
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.