Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, 26 August 2016, Havana — It’s been said that radically opposite ends end up looking alike. That truism has become irrefutable for those of us who are dedicated to independent journalism in Cuba, especially those who practice the basic right of free expression through opinion columns and end up subjected to relentless crossfire, both from the dictatorial power with its powerful monopoly of the press, and from the anti-Castro opposition, and even from “colleagues” of the profession, who are supposedly champions of freedom of expression.
Specifically the press, whose Cuban origins date back to 1790 with the emergence of the newspaper Papel Periódico de la Habana, founded by La Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País*, was one of the most solid pillars of the 1902 Republic, where dozens of newspapers and magazines circulated. In 1922 the first radio station emerged, and by 1930 the number of stations had grown to 61. Television, meanwhile, arrived in Cuba in 1950, and included new informational and news programs.
Somehow, over half a century a twisted and pernicious political system has ended up undermining the social foundations so deeply that perhaps the same amount of time will be needed — if not more — to recover, at least partially, the weak republican civic fabric that was taken from us since the “Revolutionary victory.”
If we add to this the newsreels that existed previously, it can be concluded that Cuba had a strong media tradition that promoted the development of public opinion and political formation of a good part of the population through a range of views of the most diverse trends in different subjects of interest to national life.
With its lights and shadows, journalism during the republic enjoyed a healthy development until Castro I took it over and “nationalized” it to found his private press monopoly and place it at the service of the government’s power, its role today. Nevertheless, its counterpart — independent journalism — emerged in the 90’s, and in recent years, driven by the use of new information technologies and communications, has managed to gain space and even grow under truly precarious and hostile conditions, against repression, harassment, and other adversities.
The history and ups and downs of Cuban independent journalism are too extensive to address in this text, since we would stray from the essential issue, which could be summed up in one cardinal question: are parties and opposition leaders prepared to assimilate the democratic paradigms which the Castro dictatorship is presumably facing? Or, more directly, do they have a clear awareness that freedom of expression is a basic, inescapable element of any society that aspires to be considered as democratic?
Judging from my personal experience and the reactions I’ve received from some leaders and their staunchest followers when I questioned their proposals, attitudes and methods, I fear that not all “democratic fighters” in Cuba and in exile are ready to take on the challenge of a free press. In addition, I would argue that the dangerous virus of “intransigence” has undermined the proto-democratic corpus of Cuba’s independent civil society and — together with the miasma of autocratic government, authoritarianism, and its evil companions — is replicating patterns of the system it iss trying to topple.
For certain “illuminati,” criticism of the opposition it is not only harmful, but practically an act of “treason” – a term very much in vogue in the media — as it “panders to the dictatorship” or “discredits” leaders “who are really doing something.” As the General-President Raul Castro always points out, some opponents consider that there is “a right place and a right time” for criticism. That moment, in his view, has not come, and since they feel personally attacked, they react with insults and reproaches, not with arguments, in an unadulterated Castro style.
A frequent accusation launched against any question or opinion that differs from one of these illustrious champions of democracy is that criticism tends to “divide” the opposition, and unaware individuals might think that it was once united. It is also the position of another obstacle: the opportunists; who, in the absence of their own limelight take the opportunity to pose as practical and as conciliators, paternally scolding the transgressor journalist and brandishing one of the most inaccurate phrases often repeated in the corridors: “at the end of the day, we are all on the same page.”
As if instead of politicians and journalists, positions commonly in tune in fairly healthy Western societies, we were school children who bicker for a treat at summer camp.
However, what is most alarming in this senseless contrapuntal — since a truly democratic leader infused by a truly democratic sense should be more interested in the well-argued criticisms he gets than in the servile adulations always at hand — is that reality is being reflected in the self-censorship on the part of some independent journalists, who often, with greatest dishonesty and hypocrisy, silently approve the criticisms that their boldest colleagues publish, so they utter low and furtive congratulations and keep quiet their own disapproval, for fear of being branded “politically incorrect” or “agents,” this time from the antipodes of the Castro regime.
There is also no shortage of neo-chiefs who get offended when some irreverent journalist, like this writer, refuses to be of service or to become a chronicler of his personal scrapbooks. They can’t imagine how anyone could be so “lacking in solidarity” that she decides to prioritize other topics rather than their heroic campaigns and unparalleled demonstrations of patriotism and bravery.
If, to be exact, the journalist of yore prefers to avoid in his writings such bombastic phrases as “the hyena of Birán,” “the blood-spattered tyranny” or other similar theater affectation to qualify the autocrats of the Palace of the Revolution, he becomes de facto a suspicious subject.
Is any similarity to the anointed of the olive-green dome pure coincidence?
It feels like something trivial, however, it is really worrisome for the health of journalism that tomorrow’s censorship is taking shape in certain niches of the opposition today. If it continues, the end of the Castro dictatorship would only mean a change in the color of the political power’s muzzle over the free expression of citizens, and the beginning of an authoritarianism with a different emblem, but equally restrictive.
Barring our having chosen the exercise of opinion in the press as a profession, let’s have enough sense of ethics and respect for ourselves and for our readers to continue doing that uncomfortable journalism that keeps politicians today and tomorrow under the rigor of public scrutiny, just as they should be in a democratic society.
Personally, I reject sappy and complacent journalism, journalism’s subordination to any leadership, and, particularly I reject impunity. That may not be what is expected of independent journalism by the very controversial “servants of the people”; but it certainly is what good Cubans expect.
*Translator’s note: Sociedades Económicas were established in the Spanish colonies (Havana’s is the only one that still survives to date, since 1793) whose mission was that of promoting local economic development, Members were generally drawn from the local aristocracy, scholars, professionals and skilled artisans. Some of the groups strayed into activities that bordered on the political, and were punished by having their legal licenses revoked.
Translated by Norma Whiting