By Ernesto Perez Castillo (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — If there’s one thing that makes me uneasy, it’s watching a shark fight a sardine. Even more so, when the fight is rigged in the shark’s favor. This is the same uneasy feeling I’ve had watching some recent news reports on Cuban TV, which deal with the fight against corruption that has been sweeping the nation.
Sometimes, you even feel sorry for these poorly-paid figures (even if they are doing something wrong), because you see them trapped in front of a camera, having to give explanations which they don’t have.
Let me explain: a sales clerk at a store, whose job is to sell, isn’t responsible for whether stock comes in or not. What is he going to say? Or when taxi drivers are attacked when it comes to gasoline sales, for example, even though we know many of them are speculators. We feel sorry for them because no one is interviewing the transport body responsible for public transport running smoothly, for the lack of spare parts or fuel availability and prices. This uneasy feeling comes from a lack of answers and interviews with people higher up the ladder who are the ones truly responsible for these problems.
Black market fuel
One of the most recent reports, carried out in the Cienfuegos province, was about evidence showing that cars consuming Diesel only buy half a liter a day at gas stations. Clearly, it only exposes an open secret at best because this isn’t a secret to anyone: if it’s not the majority, a large part of this country’s cars run burning on illegal fuel.
First of all, we have to ask: how did the press get hold of this information? I’m pretty certain that it didn’t come from investigative journalism. Normally, the journalist who would have tried to investigate wouldn’t have got a single answer from gas station employees or from responsible officials because they only open their mouths if they’ve receive an order “from above”. Otherwise, any uncomfortable question from the press will be taken as them meddling in their super important and secret duties.
We mustn’t forget that many stores also have signs warning that it’s forbidden to take photos, as if you could be stealing classified information from them which would affect national security if they were to be published.
Now that that’s clear, I can speculate that there was a meeting “with key players” (players who aren’t journalists or work in media) who recorded the issue (in Cienfuegos) in full detail and then gave the order. Then, when the news feature was ready, these players came together again to revise it, edit it and to add and, more importantly, remove, things until they gave it the thumbs up.
But here, we already knew that. The fact that these reports appear in our media, where the corrupt seem to only be those on the bottom rung of the long and bureaucratic ladder, prove that there is a painful pattern.
Theft at government bakeries, building material yards and markets
In another recent news report, state-run bakeries and the widespread and poor service of these was attacked. The morning after it was published, two journalists said on camera that it wasn’t the report’s objective to make somebody lose their job, but to show how the government’s lack of concern played an important part in the poor quality of this service. The thing is that they found out that the sales assistant at a bakery has been fired, in a move to start over with a clean slate. What did she do wrong? She was handling bread with her hands… as if this wasn’t the established practiced, as if this wasn’t our daily bread.
An earlier report was on the sale of building materials outside of government retail outlets, where these things are usually missing but are available on the black market. It was followed by some resellers being accused. It was a short or medium-term precaution: others will take their place when things settle down. Speculators of the hour were shown on camera, but the real people responsible for delays in building material supplies, who contribute to these speculators’ existence, are very rarely shown.
And the same thing happens at agro-markets, where scales have always given the reading they want to, where meat rests peacefully with the gentle humming of flies, where… do I really need to say more? And before this topic, it was the people at car parks, who charge whatever they want, without anyone pointing out the tariff to them.
What is the common denominator in all of these news reports? That the offenders (which they are) are struggling to make a living, are in everyone’s eyes and don’t hide. They do harm people and make a profit off of people’s hard work, but the destiny of the national economy doesn’t lie in any of their hands. They are just chicken thieves, riffraff who are at the end, right at the end, of the list of those who profit from chaos and impunity.
Fighting against all of this isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s the government’s priority. The thing that really ticks me off is that it’s always the chicken thieves who have to show their faces on the news, handcuffed in front of the cameras.
Going after the big fish
It would be worthwhile for the press to look up from time to time when dealing with corruption and the evils it produces, to look higher up this long ladder, and that they do this because they want to, not because they are following a one-off and explicit order. No matter how big the corrupt market of these people at the bottom of the ladder is, it is probably nothing, just a drop (to use a word the government has used) compared to the monkey business those at the top are involved in. However, they never get the finger pointed at them because the press doesn’t investigate independently.
Where they move, everyone’s money is being diverted and squandered, real money, the money that counts, but our media can’t stick their noses in any of that. These cases have been reported, sometimes, but they have never been the result of a journalist’s investigation into the ins and outs, shady deals and messes of the people who have a few mansions, swimming pools, cars, restaurants and other rotten apples. Most of the time, they end up in a small note on the corner of page 2 in the newspapers.
This also happens because there isn’t a law which forces public officials to report back to the population and to answer the media’s questions. The most investigative journalist would get covered in mold if he were to wait for a manager to respond to an interview if he hadn’t been ordered to.
When Cuba’s media manages to obtain its inquiring role, in an ecosystem that can live with this independence and not see responsible information as being bad for the people, and begin to look at offices where the air-conditioning is never switched off; when features about company X or ministry Z are not only to praise their over-achievements but to find the real reasons for problems, then this will be a media that is a lot more revolutionary, a media we need and a media that it wants to be.