Foreign Correspondents in Cuba: The Fascination with the Dictatorship / Miriam Celaya

A conference at the International Press Center in Havana (Photo: CPI / Twitter)

Miriam Celaya, Cubanet, Havana, 2 June 2021 — One of the most effective pillars that has helped to cement the legend of the “good Cuban dictatorship” has been the work of not a few accredited foreign press correspondents in Havana.

It is not something new. Since New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews’ crush on Fidel Castro in 1957, when he interviewed the guerrilla leader in the Sierra Maestra, many reporters have succumbed to the mythology (and mythomania, it should be added) of the Castro revolution.

Perhaps dazzled by the color and heat of the tropics, the cheerful carefreeness of Cubans, the beauty of the beaches, the refreshing taste of mojitos and the comfort of what, more than the work of being a correspondent, turns out to be a perennial state of paid vacations, the truth is that most of these foreign reporters are more interested in not upsetting the Cuban dictatorial power than in honoring the professional commitment to objectively narrate the reality of what is happening on the Island.

It is not surprising, then, that several press media, among the best known and most prestigious at the international level, echo the supposed technological and scientific advances that are produced in Cuba thanks to the high level reached by Cuban specialists in the shadow of the “Revolution,” or that they don’t extend themselves in praise over the imaginary social security and quality of health care enjoyed by the inhabitants of this Island either, and that they even tear their clothes off against the forever-villain: the US government, with its most deadly weapon, the “blockade,” which has prevented us from reaching greater heights in all categories and occupying our rightful place on the world stage.

The most recent installment of this type of half-truth journalism – all the more harmful because it selects a fragment of reality but show only one of its faces – is a column authored by Mauricio Vicent, published in the Spanish newspaper El País, dated May 31st, whose sole title (“Cuba and the United States Return to Times of Confrontation”) constitutes an inexplicable slip by such an experienced writer, given that the confrontation between the Cuban authorities and the United States government has not only been a constant, with brief and scant intervals of truce during the last 62 years, but constitutes the backbone of the foreign policy of the Castro dictatorship and its heirs of today, pledged to “continuity.”

To such an extent, it is of capital importance for the Palace of the Revolution to keep the confrontation embers and the “imperialist enemy” burning, because without this it is not possible to conceive the very survival of the dictatorship, as was definitely demonstrated during the thaw period prompted by the Obama Administration, when Cuban authorities hastily backed off from the dangerous effect of openness and détente offered by the powerful northern neighbor.

Mauricio Vicent, correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País in Cuba (Photo: El País)

The avalanche of unilateral measures by Obama, which made the embargo more flexible with the intention of favoring the nascent sector of entrepreneurs and Cuban society as a whole, was capitalized on by Havana to establish itself in power without taking real steps towards the freedoms and rights of Cuban citizens. This is a reality that Vicent, who has lived in Cuba for over 20 years, should know by heart. However, his article is not only biased, but chooses to openly attack the new US president, Joe Biden, and side with the Cuban regime.

What is Vicent accusing Biden of? First, of having spent five months at the helm of the US government and having lifted “not a single of the 240 measures adopted by Trump to intensify the embargo” as if the Cuban issue had to be a priority for a foreign president, particularly for the American one, and as if the Cuban side did not have to make any internal moves to try to improve the situation in our own country.

But Biden’s bag of sins is bulkier than that. The El País columnist seems to be irritated both by “Washington’s reproaches” for the human rights situation in Cuba and by the fact that the current US Administration has kept Cuba on the black list of governments that sponsor terrorism or are not doing enough in the fight against this scourge.

To support the position of the Cuban side, Vicent cites the fiery reactions of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, with an arsenal of phrases and cumbersome adjectives which he uncritically seems to agree with, to conclude that “every day returns to the fierce rhetoric from the Trump era, and Obama’s normalization is no longer talked about…”

In order not to skimp on quotes, Vicent also makes use of the American academic William Leogrande, who recalls Joe Biden’s support for Obama’s open-minded policy towards Cuba when Biden was his vice president, plus his campaign promise about resuming the dialogue between the two governments, whose stagnation Leogrande attributes to an unresolved debate that would be taking place between the forces in favor of the policy of rapprochement and those who prefer to maintain pressure on the Cuban dictatorship.

So far, it could be said that Vicent’s position is valid: each one with his own political sympathies, only that you would expect more objectivity from him as a journalist. Because, while his article gives voice and place to the Cuban and US authorities – obviously in favor of the former – at the same time, he conveniently avoids including the claims of dissident artists and activists, whom he does mention in the column.

So, when he speaks of the forced transfer of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara to the hospital, where he spent “almost four weeks as an isolated in-patient,” Vicent fails to allege that it was actually a kidnapping and that this isolation included the artist’s abduction, prevented from having any contact with his friends and colleagues from the San Isidro Movement, deprived of his phone and possibly subjected to medical or other practices not authorized by Otero himself. Vicent also avoids mentioning the illegal arrests, house confinements and police harassment of activists and dissidents, or of all the violent events related to the hunger strike and the subsequent kidnapping of Otero.

Prodigal in epithets when it comes to condemning the US government, he seems to suffer a sudden language impoverishment when he refers to the flagrant human rights violations in Cuba, as if the existence of the much-used “US blockade” – which undeniably affects everyone – justifies police repression and lack of rights of Cubans.

It goes without saying that this journalist doesn’t make any critical mention either – I don’t remember his ever having made it – of the internal blockade of the dictatorship toward Cuban nationals, of the discrimination implanted by the government both towards Cubans who have access to hard currency and those who do not, of the new provisions that force Cuban travelers to pay in dollars for their stay in isolation centers and transportation to their places of residence when they return from a trip abroad, among countless other perversions that have nothing to do with the embargo.

But the greatest offense is that this correspondent, like a sounding board for the official discourse, attributes a political handicap to us Cubans, as if we were a herd, incapable of claiming rights on our own. Perhaps because of that colonial mentality that permeates many children of the old metropolis settled comfortably in Cuba, because of that congenital resentment towards the United States or simply because the hierarchs of the regime also have in their hands the power to keep them in Cuba or to allow them to leave, this foreign correspondent joins others in the assumption that all of us who stand up to the dictatorial power are responding to an agenda imposed on us by Washington.

Everyday Cubans and dissidents, those of us who are actually suffering from both the pressures of the embargo and the repression and twists and turns of the dictatorship, don’t even figure as political subjects in Vicent’s imagination. Reduced to a simple uncomfortable reference, he doesn’t recognize in us the capacity nor the right. His reductionist proposal, which only conceives of the Biden Administration and the Cuban dictatorship as debaters in the solution of the Cuban crisis, mimics the same position that Cubans faced at the end of the 1898 war, when they were excluded from agreements between defeated Spain and victorious U.S.

Vicent concludes that the “blockade” and US politics show that Cuba and Cubans are not interested in the US, and this may be true. Though, at this point he failed to say that he does not care about us either – in short, a foreigner whose stay among us depends on the benefits of the regime – or, what is worse, on the elite that has held the dictatorial power in Cuba for more than six decades.

Translated by Norma Whiting