If someone were to ask me, what is the principal weakness, the most glaring problem suffered by Cuban journalism today, I believe I could summarize it without hesitation: It doesn’t resemble Cubans.
It doesn’t resemble anyone. Neither the audience to whom it is addressed, which recognizes less and less these triumphalist news items they read and hear everywhere, nor does it resemble even those who fabricate it. I, along with Leonardo Padura, also believe that there are great journalists in this country — as there are great practitioners in nearly all our social spheres — but they lack a medium in which to practice.
Bearers of the word are not lacking. What nobody sees around them is a democratic platform in which the word is free.
A first element to consider is the distance between the reality reflected in the media, and what every Cuban knows from his own experience starting from the time he opens his eyes in the morning.
The newspapers talk about exceeding targets, labor efficiency, clever methods of cultivation in agriculture, and the same reader who follows the news with his eyes, then has to ask himself through what loophole did the food evaporate, that food the media promised would not be missing from his table.
Cuban Television has patented a macabre cliche it repeats every year with manic precision: All the conditions are guaranteed for the start of the new school year.
We’re already coming to the end of August; it’s only a question of days until the phrase is heard on National Television News.
The journalists, adapting their rigorous questions to comply with the directives of whatever sphere, without going into great detail, without conducting an interview, reproduce the complacent (and often false) words of some officials who announce the upcoming opening of Cuban schools will occur without any mishaps.
What then do the hundreds of thousands of students who walk the halls of the high schools, the universities, find on the first day of the school year? They find a desolate landscape lacking chairs, tables and blackboards; unmotivated teachers discouraged by the lack of current literature needed for the curriculum.
The list of similar differences is endless.
But I think there is a central issue that, in my view, is the principal fault of Cuban journalism, and its professionals.
How many issues vital to the public welfare and national public opinion have been ignored by the journalists in this country? How much information has been withheld from the citizens who consume what the media tells them as their only possible way of understanding the national and international reality? How unprotected have national analysts left a people? People whom they should defend and protect with their questions, faced with their totalitarian leaders entrenched in power for life?
A perfect example of this would be the uncompleted history of an event that is taking place on the Island today, and about which the rest of the world possesses much more information than the people who live where the event is taking place.
This is the release of prisoners of conscience imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003. The well-known 75.
What has been the media coverage inside the country of this event which would be socially important in any country in the world? None. Zero. The totality of information available to Cubans from the officially controlled media, has been the trifling note published by the Catholic Church in the Granma newspaper, when the prisoner release was made official. A note, to paraphrase Garcia Marquez, whose wording served not to tell but to hide.
The international media reported extensively today on the release process — and later the exile — of these independent journalist; and in Cuba, the country’s owners continue to speak of apocalyptic nuclear threats, the tension in the conflict with Iran, and books about the guerrilla adventure in the Sierra Maestra.
Stunning, startling disinformation.
Three Examples of the Information of Bewilderment
Taking as a reference point that note published by the Cuban Church on page 2 (inside) of the newspaper Granma, we can deconstruct a trend in the media that has been verifiable for too many years.
Something we could call information about the confusion.
It would be presented something like this: an incident takes place on this Island of Events. The official media (which is all the media there is) look elsewhere, and Cubans, well trained in the exercise, must appoint themselves — it’s never been said better — to clandestinely ferret out the desired information.
However, later, for reasons of political expediency, the establishment decides to respond to some kind of international media pressure. And does so from its media. That is: from ALL its media.
But as connecting to the Internet is an impossibility for the reader, he can only read Granma or Juventud Rebelde (Young Rebel) every morning, sometimes wondering what they’re talking about in these articles which, logically, make no sense.
Here are three recent examples.
1. One day young Eliecer Avila from Las Tunas, from a packed room at the University of Information Sciences (UCI), challenges the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada. First the BBC and then the whole world are talking about it: a young computer science student had the unfathomable courage to ask uncomfortable questions, and to publicly demonstrate his disagreement with the head of his parliament.
Who heard about this in Cuba? Only owners of a computer, with a USB port-connected DVD player, the friends of friends who could access the video. The Cuban press remained absolutely mute.
When they wanted to “disprove” before the whole world that there had been any dissent from this young peasant activist, National Television headed off at full speed to his eastern hometown and stood him before the cameras where he confirmed his support for the Revolutionary process.
The problem was, he was providing follow up to an event that had never been reported on national television.
2. In 2007, a prominent intellectual signing himself James Petras published, together with Robin Abaya, an essay entitled Cuba: Continuing Revolution and Contemporary Contradictions, a serious analysis of the Cuban reality.
Both Petras and Abaya are recognized as comitted intellectuals of the Left. But like so many academic progressives, they tried to defend a social model which is impossible to subject to rational thinking.
Ignoring the stagnation of a country that, like the pillar of salt going back to Sodom has not advanced for decades, is something that requires great persistence from mentally handicapped people, but not from men with their own ideas.
But we all know that admitting criticisms, wherever they come from, has not been a tradition in this land of dreams.
A few days later, Fidel Castro reappeared on the front pages of all the newspapers, and made speeches on all the radio and television newscasts, with a Reflection entitled The Super-revolutionaries, which was an apparent reaction to James Petras’ and Robin Abaya’s article.
The huge percentage of Cubans, completely uninformed about what he was talking about, totally unable to access the original article, could not understand what this exposition of the Comandante was all about.
3. Last, but not least: A poor man dies a grisly death in a hospital in my country. He dies of hunger. Having begun his strike from Kilo 8 prison in Camagüey, 86 days later he stops breathing in the General Hospital of this same city. His name is now sadly famous, Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
Of him, of his martyrdom while he was still alive, very few Cubans knew anything. A few activists from opposition parties knew of him, as did the privileged ones who have access to the Internet. No one else.
The rest of us Cubans living on the island learned of this painful case more than a week after his death, when National Television received the order to counter the huge wave of international protests that were beginning to spread with an awesome force.
I was one more of those taken by surprise, one more of those dismayed with what seemed like something taken from a horror fantasy; and this had just happened right under our noses without a single decent journalist being able to inform his people of the disgrace. A national journalist delivered an embarrassing report on primetime news which simply slandered Zapata Tamayo, manipulated his story and bent the news to the will of the journalist.
The reporter told us that Zapata had been treated at the hospital, never mentioned that he had been on a hunger strike, nor even that he was a prisoner. It was a story that began with the last days of a man whose previous acts we were not given to know.
A journalistic aberration
I cannot describe today the feelings of pain and overwhelming impotence that overcame me after contemplating this material. Minutes after seeing it I wrote an article titled The Death That Never Should Have Been, which is still circulating on the web.
I believe that was the decisive article that led to my expulsion from Cuban institutional journalism.