Orphaned From Journalism (Part 1) / Ernesto Morales Licea

Just recently I discovered with regret that I had only one task pending in my passage through the institution of Cuban journalism. A yearning that had been building since my feverish college days maybe five or six years ago.

That is, to attend as a delegate a National Congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists. A difficult undertaking for someone who was not linked to this organization of the Cuban press, and who was not a member of the Union of Young Communists.

It so happens that these congresses stir in me an irrepressible curiosity which, clearly, I can no longer satisfy first hand. Like secret organizations, like the rituals of mystical sects, this meeting where specialists would gather to discuss or analyze a profession that does not exist in their country, seems to me an exotic thing worthy of having lived through and immortalizing in marble.

It would be the same to me if Cuba decided to hold a National Symposium on Eskimo Culture.

To speak without shame about journalism, in a country that has killed its essence, can only be understood as a cruel irony. In any case, it has not lost its attraction for me, nosy person that I am.

I think had I been able to get myself a seat I would have played an amusing game of suppositions. The game would have been this: guess, behind the poses of the meeting, which of these royal colleagues were the ones who thought of themselves as the paladins of information in Cuba, the ones who slept soundly thinking themselves the defenders of the public truth; and which only played the role to survive, knowing in their heart of hearts that real journalism was much more than obeying directives without any opportunity to ask questions.

Because yes, contextualizing a phrase by Pedro Luis Ferrer, there is a question I haven’t stopped asking myself from the moment I became a communications professional in Cuba: are many of the journalists of this country aware of the past that awaits them?

Are they aware of what it will mean, in the future of conciliation that I want to imagine without bitterness or violence, to read what they wrote, full of lies or hiding the truth, repeating the slogans of the tabloids; hearing themselves on the radio energetically supporting decisions which, in the privacy of their own homes, they criticized just as much as everyone else? Seeing themselves applauding in front of the television cameras while listening to speeches they didn’t even want to attend?

I’m speaking not from the point of view or distance of someone who has long since lost contact with our reality. I speak with the knowledge of someone who knew the circumstances, who until just a few months ago talked ad nauseum with my journalist colleagues, believing in our bonds of friendship and listening to revealing testimonies about the blatant and cruel hypocrisy that surrounds journalism in my country.

Any time you evaluate a phenomenon as complex and diverse as communication, in a country of exceptional conditions, multiple possibilities always present themselves, inviting us to dissect the various parts of Cuban journalism. Looking inside one of the leading causes — I say this without hesitation — of the strictures of thought that the society in which I live suffers today.

Just a starting point

I don’t have to make any special effort to remember the initial event that made me question, honestly, the world I was about to join. It happened in an editing booth at the local television station in my province. The year was 2004. I had just turned twenty.

A well-known colleague was editing some material about the single comparison most recreated and manipulated in our national history: Cuba, gray and weighed down, before 1959, vs. Cuba resplendent after 1959. The voice over emotionally narrated the transition, from darkness to light.

But an unforeseen delay threatened the program: the presumably ancient images of the impoverished nation were nowhere to be found. They had looked through all the files, in vain. The documentary had to air the following day.

That journalist’s solution is something I will never forget. She probably will.

She extracted a cassette from among her things. She mounted it and told the editor to capture what came next. Before us was a succession of images of malnourished children with distended bellies, ruined houses threatening to collapse on the camera itself, mud and misery, hunger in hundreds of faces, people in rags, skeletal dogs eaten by scabies.

I was struck dumb. Not by the gruesome impression of the scenes before me, but by my sense of what the journalist was about to do.

The images had been taken (I believe for internal consumption within certain political circles) a week ago in a rural village called Rio Cauto in the province of Granma. The color of the DVC Pro camera they had been taken with revealed their currency. This was no problem, however, for the cubicle with the latest editing software.

Removing the color was the work of seconds. The editor said nothing. Soon the same hungry faces emerged, the same third world landscape, but now in the black and white of a distant past, to which, according to the material, we should never return.

The voice overs of that journalist, now an icon in the local press, spoke of the misery of living on the island before 1959, while images taken just a few miles from home the week before, flashed on the screen. Minutes later, the montage displayed the rebirth of the country in colorful scenes of smiling healthy children and the openings of new buildings.

I didn’t have the courage to watch the film, the following day, when it aired in primetime.

August 22, 2010