The Media: Where Cuba Blockades Itself
Throughout the world there is opinion and debate about the Cuban crisis. Is it debated in Cuba? The Cuban mass media can play an important role in an open debate which includes all Cuban society, not just the revolutionaries and the cadres. What role are the media playing?
María López Vigil
In August, the waters of the Florida Strait teemed with Cuban rafts and wire services teemed with interpretations of what was happening. Once again, Cuba and the future of Cubans was lead news in the international media. And, as always, the news appeared in two stark colors: black and white.
No Authentic Culture of DebateOne of the challenges perpetually facing the Cuban revolution is its image. It's a huge challenge, since 9 out of 10 news images circulating around the world are fashioned by the United States, with its abundance of teachers skilled at simplifying historical and human realities, and home to the most ardent adversaries of the process that radically changed things in Cuba 36 years ago.
But Cuba's image also depends on Cuba. The Cubans, too, have an image factory, whose product is presented in their own media. Perhaps the time has come for Cubans to put their media on trial, because they are not equal to the current situation. Their "specialty" in the current "special period" seems to be little more than accentuating the many faults that already existed during the "normal" period.
This issue of the media is not a minor one. It goes to the very heart of Cuban political practice, which, more than party pluralism, needs a plurality of opinions, of voices, an authentic diversity. The media problem is longstanding, but today, when Cubans' social consensus regarding the revolutionary project is undergoing such a severe crisis, it becomes central.
The palette in Cuba has the same two colors: black and white. Sorely lacking in Cuban society is an authentic culture of debate, which is reflected with utter clarity in the teaching of social sciences and communications. This grave deficiency is at the root of many of the subjective problems that limit the capacity of Cuba's economy and society to transform themselves today. The only thing the Cuban people can hold on to to survive with their human values intact in this "new world disorder" is to know, discern and contrast, so they can make choices. And all discernment must be based upon debate.
Mariel 1980: Why Did They Go?In 1980, thousands of Cubans, tired of socialism's privations, occupied the Peruvian Embassy and demanded to leave the island for Peru or anywhere else. It was in the wake of that incident that the exodus from Mariel Port took place. The Cuban government authorized all who wanted to leave for the United States to do so from there. A "corridor" was set up between Florida and Cuba. Cubans in Miami sent small boats, yachts, all manner of craft, and some even went as far as Cuba's own coasts to pick up family members. The Cuban government facilitated the departure of all who wanted to go and made use of the occasion to "exile" thousands of criminals and other socially undesirable elements.
Over 100,000 Cubans left the island in 15 days. Before leaving, those who decided to go had to face public acts of repudiation organized in their neighborhood, schools or workplaces. "I threw rotten eggs at a classmate who was leaving and today I'm ashamed of having done so," an architect confessed to me. "Get the bums, the lumpen, the scum out!" became a virtual mantra repeated in the communiqués issued by revolutionary organizations. This attitude was also a constant in the news media. The events of Mariel were the clear expression of a serious crisis for the revolution, and merited thorough analysis, as well as open and public debate. But it didn't happen. Other pre existing realities, also critical, simply pushed it aside. After the waves of repudiation, mobilizations and press campaigns, there was only silence. Why did so many people want to leave? Silence. The economic crisis already existed by then. It was not comparable to the one facing Cuba today, because the USSR was still there, as eternal seeming as God, but it was lurking nonetheless. And its causes were not only external. There were also serious deficiencies and imbalances in the Cuban economic model itself.
In the end, however, the official line emphasized a single reason for Mariel "the community." In one of the many ups and downs in Cuba US migratory relations, groups from the Cuban community in Miami had been returning to Cuba to visit their families for some time. The gusanos (worms, as Cubans refer to the anti Castro exiles) came down loaded with appliances, clothing and all kind of gadgets "Made in the USA," along with fabulous stories of the paradise in which they lived. "They've turned into butterflies!" the people said, dazzled by the apparent success with which those who had left with hat in hand were now returning to the island.
These visitors had influenced those they were visiting and in this context the Mariel stampede began to take shape. This was the most oft heard interpretation of events. From the constellation of factors that could explain the Mariel crisis, the Cuban image factory selected only one, the one most in their political interest.
Today, fourteen years later, Cuba has undergone a Mariel by trickle rather than by gush, but it is much more dramatic and complicated than in 1980. As then, the government "authorized" the departure of those who wanted to leave. But, this time, no safe boats waited to carry people away from Cuban shores. During the 15 hottest days of the crisis, the US Coast Guard rescued some 30,000 Cubans from the flimsy rafts on which they were risking their lives. On the Cuban shore, their com patriots did not repudiate them, but saw them off with curiosity and concern, often even with applause and prayer. On the other shore, the Clinton government did not receive them with open arms. After the Coast Guard retrieved them at sea, it took them to the US military base at Guantánamo, Cuba, where they were confined in idle boredom, with no future.
Despite this, they kept leaving. And, had it not been for the Cuba US accords signed on September 9, they would have gone right on leaving. "How many do you think would have gone if there had been a `bridge' like the one in 1980?" was my cautious question to a Cuban professional. "A million. Today, a million people would have gone and maybe even more," was her emphatic reply, even as she made it clear that neither she nor her family would ever leave Remedios, their home town.
A Triple BlockadeOne million of the nearly 11 million Cubans who live on the island today. This comparison should always be established: those who would stay behind are more. A comparison should also be established with other Latin American emigrants: 1,500 Mexicans flee to the US every single day in search of a better life, one they can no longer find in their own homeland.
For all that, a million people is quite a lot. It is far more serious than what happened in Mariel.
But, just like 14 years ago, this event was barely debated in the Cuban media. For weeks, swarms of homemade rafts set off from Cojímar and other points on the Havana coastline. Nobody in Cuba talked about anything else. Yet the media hardly touched it.
The rafts were front page news throughout the world, but not in Cuba. In the 15 most critical days of the crisis, not a single headline, not one photo, no mention in Gramma, the official newspaper. Did the other media say anything? They referred to what was taking place, but very discreetly. At the beginning, they characterized the raft people as "lumpen." Later, the numbers and professional level of those leaving engineers, doctors, even some biotechnologists led to a change of language. Now they were called "illegal emigrants." But the media never expressed either compassion for or understanding of the personal crisis each for of these Cubans as they set off at sea. Even putting the country's interests first, did the drama involving these Cubans not merit some attention?
Despite the media omission, the crisis of the raft people weighed heavily on the conscience of the Cuban people as a whole and people did reflect and understand. But, even after the storm had calmed, silence, rather than debate, was still the order of the day, just as 14 years earlier. From the outset, among all those factors which could explain such a massive desertion, the most politically convenient was the blockade. It explained the rafters because it explained the economic misery that moved people to leave. But that's not enough. As in 1980, the responsibility was sought only outside Cuba. In the United States, to be more exact.
The US responsibility for the crisis in Cuba today and for over 100 years of Cuban history will never be contemplated calmly or even denounced enough to empty the reservoir of resentment. Imperial arrogance, immunity, myopia and ill will have fueled US policy towards Cuba from the time of Adams right up to and including the Clinton administration.
But precisely because Cuba is at the helm of a revolutionary project, it should be more creative and not settle for the role of victim. For many years now, Cuba has also been painting images only in black and white, and thus has a share of responsibility for the fact that the problems are not sufficiently understood in Cuba, even among those who sympathize with the revolution. The official line since 1990 is that Cuba is suffering a double blockade the one decreed by the US and the one provoked by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But that's not the whole picture. There's a third blockade. Cuba has blockaded itself ideologically, and is still doing it.
Debate: The Unknown Variable"Why have I been unable to find even one creative discussion with distinct points of view regarding the waves of raft people in the Cuban media?" I asked one editor colleague. "Chica," he argued, "that's a very thorny subject and the situation is very delicate right now. We can't risk it." But even with other topics that were not so thorny, and even when conditions were far more stable, the Cuban media have never really been open to debate.
June, 1994. I turn on the radio. Radio Rebelde, from Havana, is broadcasting one of its most listened to programs, the morning magazine, "Haciendo Radio." The "debate" of the day: breastfeeding. The announcers go back and forth over the advantages of nursing babies. And they ask the listeners to call in with their opinions.
Waiting for the first call, which took a while, they went on offering data and panegyrics in favor of breastfeeding. Finally, a listener joins the "fray," reaffirming what has already said by the announcers, and stressing the point that, in the "special period", breastfeeding is even more important, given the severe milk scarcity. It is almost a political point, but sparks no digression. After an hour of one way arguments even using the same words the "debate" is closed.
This was not an exceptional example of a particularly non controversial issue; it was typical of what the Cuban media call "debate." No topic is laid out as a problem, a dilemma, a multi sided issue. Certainly not the transcendental political ones that some want to see appear in Cuba (one party or many? who will replace Fidel?). Not even less weighty day to day ones are perked up by suggesting a "for" and "against" position (is it better to nurse or bottle feed?) Since a truly open debate is, on principle, a dangerous and distracting enterprise, no distinct voice is heard in the media, nor even as a "theatrical" way of exploring the dimensions of a topic. Any "debate" in the media usually has, aside from the moderator, one or two specialists who stake out the correct position and always have the last word.
Nor is there room for "error," which explains the fear of live programs and improvisation in front of the microphones. It's why so many programs are read straight off scripts. The sacred and revolutionary right to err in public simply does not exist either for journalists or for the population at large. Only the official line can backtrack. A high political cost has been paid for this ideological monopoly.
In the Cuban media, official discourse has the first and last word; only intermittently is anyone allowed to get a word in edgewise. The Cuban media understand and defend that if they lay out a "debate" on breastfeeding, it is not to think about the issue collectively, much less give rise to fear or doubts, but exclusively to encourage women to breastfeed their babies.
"Wouldn't it be more efficient to reach the same conclusion by opening a real debate so women can express their concerns, hear others, then decide for themselves whether or not to breastfeed?" The question in itself seemed to disconcert the journalists. "What would be the point, then, of talking about this nonsense? So in the end each person goes off and thinks what she or he wants?" commented one. "Listen! We've got priorities here!" was the response of another. But Cuba today is submerged in the details of daily life. And they are not debated.
Are the great priority topics too complex? Are the daily issues of the "special period" too delicate? If so, then the radio could use a debate forum for any of a thousand and one other topics should boys play with dolls? why doesn't anyone like soy? how do you pick a name for your child? is man really descended from monkeys?
With virtually any topic, radio and tv could begin to exercise their thought muscles and, more than anything, to unblock public expression of this thought. The lifting of this blockade falls to Cuba.
Thousands of Suggestions for ImprovementsIn 1989 and 1990 the Call to the IV Communist Party Congress was discussed, based on a text that was stellar in the history of the revolution for its sincerity and provocativeness. This discussion did not happen in the media but in a massive participation of grassroots party members and independents. People made thousands upon thousands of suggestions for improvements in all aspects of the country. They were particularly critical of the media.
People perceived the media as apologist, boring, routine, and triumphalist, and emphasized the gap between the media line and reality: the news would say that plantain production for a given year had far surpassed its goal, while none were to be seen in the markets. That's how it went with virtually everything. People insisted that the media be the channel for criticizing government officials and improving services. The topic of the media was among those that sparked the greatest number of comments and suggestions.
Growing out of these demands, a number of decisions were made to expand information formats that had already started to appear. In particular, radio stations were given the essential task of mediating between state officials and individuals or groups from society who, over the radio, could make not just complaints but also suggestions.
Such programs have become increasingly popular throughout the world. They are, in effect, a safety valve, an efficient channel of information regarding very real problems and one through which a good number of these problems can be resolved. They are also a step towards the democratic task of relinquishing control and management power to society, to the people as a whole, organized or not.
These sorts of programs came late to Cuba, but they came. Right on their heels, however, came the disintegration of the USSR. The island found itself in a "special period," with shortages, uncertainty, realignments in all areas of the economy another Cuba in another world. New and excruciating problems arose, and many of the suggestions made at the time of the Congress were shelved.
The media, which had barely begun to make changes toward filling this mediator role, took a big step backwards. They became more monochromatic than ever. The reason given? "What's the point of saying what's bad if we can't resolve it? It only creates more discontent, and tends to demobilize people." And that was that. "What demoralizes us is to see a truck pull up with a literally rotting load of grapefruit, but nobody does anything about it, and nobody says anything!" was the angry opinion of a housewife. But she could no longer say that on the radio. And that's that.
Radio: Special ProtagonistThe "special period" also caused other upheavals within the Cuban media. The paper shortage Cuba had long depended on the socialist camp for paper forced the closure of several specialized periodicals and dramatically reduced the circulation, frequency and number of pages of those that survived. Of course, school and university texts and notebooks were also affected. Granma doesn't even look like a newspaper anymore it often comes out with only two pages.
Is there any bright side to the crisis? Abel Prieto, president of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, admitted to local journalists during a visit to Argentina in July that the Cuban press was "dreadful," but said the crisis had "improved" it: with less paper, it has less opportunity to show how bad it is. The reality is that people in Cuba are eating and reading less and less in terms of both quality and quantity. This is a sad and weighty reality for a population that had previously been so well fed and well educated by the revolution.
Rationing of the country's electricity supply due to a shortage of petroleum and obsolete machinery reduced the two television channels' broadcasting hours to six, slightly more on the weekends. They had previously broadcast from the morning hours on. The long power cutoffs further reduce these hours in practice, cutting severely into the few hours of distraction available to people.
Generator run radio has become the medium with the greatest supply capacity, and demand is high among people with battery operated radios. Three national stations transmit almost all day long from Havana. Sixteen provincial stations one in each province and 32 municipal ones (there are 169 municipalities in Cuba) do so at the regional and local levels. The latter transmit information on social services with a bit more freedom and freshness, and maintain "the people's telephone," which preserves something of the spirit of the mediation programs suppressed at the national level. There is less central control over these stations than over those in Havana.
Today, 33% of the total 878 hours of daily programming on Cuba's radio waves including the 31 hours daily of multilingual transmissions by Radio Habana Cuba, the international station is dedicated to strictly informational programs. Before the special period, such programs were only 19% of the total.
DOR: An Outmoded ConceptThe simplistic black and white model of journalism was introduced in Cuba quite some time ago. Ever since the unification of the different revolutionary groups in 1960, the Cuban Communist Party apparatus upon which the media depends the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR) has been in the hands of close minded cadres, strongly influenced by a Stalinist conception of the role the media should play in society. It is not only a top down and ideologically intolerant concept, but is also out of sync in today's global village, where the media and images play such a crucial role.
For a brief time in the 1960s, the DOR was headed by open minded people such as César Escalante, who died quite young. But the dogmatists prevailed, and the whole structure soon petrified. The seriousness of the "special period" has made this historical tendency more acute, offering a perfect excuse to the most mediocre and dogmatic. "If, at other critical moments, managing the media this way was beneficial to us, why not now?" is an argument trotted out routinely. Even more frequent is the argument regarding the need for national unity vis a vis the United States.
This is the daily bread Cuban journalists have been fed for the last 30 years. Many colleagues remember the late 1960s, when the School of Journalism was reactivated in Havana. It brought together intellectually respected professors and very inquisitive students, most of them revolutionary and very bright. Many say that debate did exist in that period. Those were the times of Fidel's gab fests with university professors and students. But the dogmatism copied from the Soviets, enshrined in the DOR's structure, condemned that debate, those different and fresh interpretations, as "ideological diversionism."
Those were the times in which one writer, also a journalism student, was sanctioned for writing in a story about the battles at the Bay of Pigs in which he had taken part that an officer had been afraid. The armed forces, which still today has tremendous influence in the DOR, demanded an explanation, declaring that fear had no place in the revolution. Those were the times in which the dean of the School of Journalism which already depended less on the university than on the increasingly powerful DOR also asserted that doubts had no place in the revolution. It was an era of revolutionary enthusiasm and turbulent participation, and many students were sanctioned for expressing doubt or fear. For using their minds, for debating. Those sanctions institutionalized the petrification. The DOR has controlled the media and the journalist ever since.
"The supposed model of a socialist press that some countries offered to us was false," read the conclusions of the VI Congress of Cuban journalists, held in 1993. "Now there is no model, nor will there be one. The task is creative. We must move forward, discovering our path, very realistically." Theoretically, the Union of Cuban Journalists has excellent statutes and, in its documents, pushes for renovation, always calling for creativity. But, in practice, both it and the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television depend wholly on the party's ideological apparatus and have virtually no autonomy. Speculation is unnecessary. What anyone reads, hears or sees in the media reveals strict and centralized official control.
Cinema: A Happy ExceptionThe valuable exception is the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), which enjoys hard won autonomy. Even though it is formally within the straitjacket of the party structure, it has never allowed itself to be controlled or permitted its creative work to be inhibited. The moral authority and lucidity of Alfredo Guevara, the guiding light of Cuban film, has a lot to do with winning this autonomy, but it hasn't been easy.
Cuban director Humberto Solás ("Lucia", "Cecilia", "Un Hombre de Exito") recently talked about this in Costa Rica. "We have forced the state to accept self criticism in the sphere of cinema. Of course, we have not done this in a coercive way, because it's very difficult to make a state bend, and would be particularly difficult for a group of film artists to do so. But I'm very proud of being a Cuban filmmaker, because, even though we can only make two films a year now, due to the special period, we've won a very important space in Cuban society. I think film is the one area of culture that has been capable of caustic, biting and thus constructive criticism from within the revolution."
That can be clearly seen in a glance at Cuban film over the last three decades. The recent "boom" of "Strawberry and Chocolate" is neither coincidence nor state opportunism for export purposes, as some in Miami would have it. From the time of "Death of a Bureaucrat" to the more recent "Plaf!" or "Alice in Wonderland" or "Adorable Lies," Cuban film has always been full of humor and life, as if it were a very challenge to debate. It is something of a creative factory of images in which all colors possible are used to paint the Cuban reality.
Humberto Solás recalls how it was as he works on his upcoming film, "Honey for Oshum", which deals with tolerance among Cubans in the United States and those on the island. "My upcoming film is very difficult for me," he acknowledges, "because apologists for a traditionalist culture get confused with the extreme rightwing of Stalinoid conservatism, that viscous group out there with its areas of power. From a distance, the revolution is seen as a homogenous mass, where there are no discrepancies, where all measures are taken by the political bureau and Fidel, but it really hasn't been that way. An entire clandestine, subliminal struggle a very costly one has taken place throughout the cultural warp. There have been periods in which these sectarian and orthodox groups gained a prominent place within the cultural movement. And we must not forget that something of a witch hunt took place in the 1970s, in which the group of us on the other side had to hunker down in prudent silence until we could win the next battle. And that still exists; that other group is still out there."
It's out there indeed, and its influence over the media is great.
Military LanguageIn the opinion of some analysts, the Soviet model had the greatest influence in Cuba in three areas: the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Interior and the media. This influence is still strongly seen today.
In military terms, Cuba was able to achieve quite advanced organizational forms and functions. The Ministry of the Interior, too, learned efficiently and has scored many successes. Nonetheless, that influence has been very negative regarding the ministry's migration policy.
A strictly police oriented vision of migration has prevailed in Cuba. Cubans who decide to leave the island and live in Miami or wherever else and for whatever reason and whatever length of time feel more abandoned by their government than perhaps any other citizen in the world. And that feeling starts even before they've gone.
Everything is restrictions, controls, denials, suspicions. Then, when a green light is finally given, huge fees are charged for visas and passports. The migration authorities look for problems. Each Cuban who lives outside the country has a dozen or so incredible anecdotes. Steps have recently been taken to ease this situation but the odyssey of making one's way through migration paperwork is still crushing.
There appears to be little change in the area of the media. The Stalinist influence infected the Cuban media with a militarist viewpoint. "Truth" was to be imposed, and the objective was to triumph, rather than convince. Even when attempts were made to convince, the arguments seemed to be aimed at the already converted. There is still no space within the media for doubt, fear or worry not even for tactically letting people "unload," because these emotions are seen as demoralizing on the eve of "combat" as well as a waste of time. Journalistic language in the country, already quite rhetorical, is permeated with military terminology "combats," "battles," arguments that are "decisive weapons," and the like. And when the news deals with the "enemy" the United States it is always negative, talking about an unjust and failed system, while news dealing with Cuba is incessantly positive, just like during a war. "But," a fellow journalist asks me, jutting his chest out in good military fashion, "Isn't it true that Cuba has been at war for 30 years now? And isn't it true that we are an island under siege by a powerful enemy?"
The Jineteras and the Silence
Cuba's thoroughgoing financial, economic and ideological crisis contradicts the media. Many aspects of this rapidly changing reality are simply not reported. And because the media don't debate, they neither inform nor form, in the sense of educate. "Why don't the media deal with Cuba's new reality, one that is increasingly complex, and with such diverse points of view?" I put the question to a group of Cuban journalists, who, the younger they are, are the quickest to recognize the media's deficiencies. "For instance, why does nobody really delve into the issue of the jineteras?"
The "special period" this crushing, complex and prolonged economic crisis affecting everybody brought with it open prostitution, which is on the rise. In street language, prostitutes are known as jineteras, the word for an equestrian, because they "mount" tourists. Young Cuban women and men (of course, there are also jineteros) plague tourists or foreigners linked to the new investments and the "dollar area" for money or increasingly scarce goods, or sometimes just to leave behind the tedium of daily life, perhaps dreaming that they will fall in love and be swept out of Cuba. All too logical, but very complicated and difficult to interpret, because it is a very atypical prostitution when compared to what one sees in the rest of Latin America many of them are trained professionals in important fields. Everybody knows of at least one person involved in this and has formed some opinion about the issue. It is thus an ideal theme for open media debate. But, once again, the silence is deafening. "Why?," I ask. The journalists' responses vary, but all are symptomatic:
* "With the revolution, prostitution was eradicated in Cuba and this is 'something else'."
* "Fidel has not spoken at length about this issue."
* "Talking about jineteras would give them tacit approval."
* "Discussing the subject would actually promote it."
* "If we talk about it, we have to condemn them, so it's better not to say anything."
* "And what if we have a debate and they win? That wouldn't be good at all!"
* "With so many serious problems in this country, talking about those girls is just wasting time."
* "We can't give more weapons to the enemy."
* "Why discuss it, if the problem is going to continue and we can't come to any conclusions about it?"
* "The whole thing overwhelms me; I wouldn't even know what to say about it, so better I say nothing."
All these paths, then, lead Cuban journalism to silence.
What is Opinion?All these arguments reveal a journalistic style in which lies are not told and truths are not invented when dealing with controversial topics. But nor is what is really happening discussed unless the topic is such that it permits saying what should happen. A tight linkage between paternalism and voluntarism. The media preach a doctrine of what should be and offer neither information nor reflection about what is. The media are state authority's loudspeaker, not a space in which the distinct actors of civil society are represented. Journalists are not society's critical consciousness, they are the system's uncritical pawns. They don't conceive of critically supporting the system, only of unconditionally identifying with it.
Cuban journalists work very tied to "broad themes." While I was in Cuba recently, the "Youth in Summer" campaign had just begun. The idea was to show happy Cuban young people, doing voluntary work, or just hanging out. Campaigns take place all year long, touched off by some official or another making declarations about whatever the new theme is. These campaigns reveal something key to the Cuban information model: what prevails is not reality, but an unreal reality, a created one. "We all end up saying the same thing through all the different media," was the slightly ashamed comment of one of the younger journalists.
Thirty six years after constructing a project in which each and every Cuban was offered so many opportunities in life security, employment, food, work, education, free time, culture, sports as well as a feeling for life itself, this communication model is indefensible. It is also unpresentable, now that Cuba is seeking integration with the rest of Latin America and has increasingly close relations with foreign tourists and investors, as well as with international journalists. From overprotecting the people perhaps justifiable in the early 1960s, when everything was still to be done and defended the evolution has been toward underestimating the people as producers of their own thoughts, as capable of having mature opinions.
A journalist from the Cuban agency Prensa Latina tells a joke that captures the problem poignantly. "An FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] official was carrying out an international survey. He goes to Africa and asks: What is your opinion about the world scarcity of foodstuffs? The African doesn't understand the question: Foodstuffs? What's foodstuffs? He goes to Germany and asks the same question, but the German doesn't understand either: Scarcity? What's scarcity? He finally gets to Cuba and repeats the question there. And the Cuban says, Opinion? What's an opinion?"
Cuban society is used to receiving more than it produces. Today's productivity crisis is the Cuban economy's key problem. There are no real incentives to spark production. And this cannot be explained only by referring to the US embargo.
Do Cubans produce opinions? On certain occasions and in some structures, but even then the process is far too controlled. In the media, no. The media could serve as an incentive to spark the generation of massive and open opinion throughout society. The raw material is there: the Cuban people's brain power, that tremendous human capital created by the revolution, available to Cuba today, is vastly underused. This squandering of its own resources, this serious omission in the area of democracy is a blockade that Cuba is imposing on itself.
The Journalist on the Street"It is censorship or self censorship?" I ask. "It's lack of practice," is the excuse some give. "Our journalistic tradition doesn't include debate because it's a format we haven't paid enough attention to, that's all." But this is not valid. The lack of media debate reflects an entire political conception.
Journalists remain silent in the face of what they believe to be complex. And the public remains silent in the face of those they believe to be journalists. In a June radio journalism workshop on opinion, a technique was used that was very revealing to many participants. Tape recorders in hand, they went out into Havana's streets in pairs to gather opinions about a key event during those particular days: the occupation of the Belgian Embassy by more than 200 Cubans trying to leave the country. Official information had not gone beyond a terse communiqué in Granma condemning the attitude of the "antisocials". The journalists who went out were afraid. Never, in their many years of work, had they done anything like this. The "harvest" they brought back were of three main types:
* Police warnings. They had been followed and told that what they were doing was prohibited; they were advised to desist. (In Cuba, journalists never "look" for news on the street or cover what is happening, even right in front of their offices. They only go out on the street when authorized by an editor to search for predetermined information or cover an official event. Sometimes, events are reported even when they aren't covered since it is already "known" what will happen.
* Precise data about what was happening in the Embassy that interviewees had heard in the broad coverage given by Radio Martí and other Miami based radio stations. (People are increasingly turning to these stations in an avid search for more information about any of a number of events. The information blackout in Cuba is thus essentially handing over the telling of these events to the counterrevolution).
* Silence. Faced with a tape recorder, many people were unwilling to say even one word.
Why the Silence?There is silence in Cuba. Is it fear? Of what, repression? Some speak of subtle mechanisms of repression. Others mention compulsion and social pressure. It would also seem to be the silence of mistrust, reflected by the communication model itself. Journalists don't trust in their own words if they are sincere, they'll have problems with their bosses. The media don't trust in the people's words they don't seek them out, don't allow participation, have not known how to create a culture of debate. The people don't trust in the media's words they sense them to be divorced from reality. And, most serious of all, the people don't trust in the value of their own words as efficient tools to change things, to influence this adverse reality they are living.
In an August edition of Bohemia magazine, a journalist defined Cubans who, like himself, support the revolution: "We who protest and discuss, who cross words with government officials on every corner, and speak up to say that things aren't going well." Why don't the Cuban media multiply through their microphones these protests and proposals, why don't they try to capture the essence of this debate?
Humor in CrisisIf debate is absent from the Cuban media, so too is humor. In a population that has always been characterized by its joy and ability to laugh and poke fun, a country that has exported comedians and humorists, the revolutionary media have had an ongoing tendency to be rigid and serious. They use measured, cold, correct, totally idealistic language in a materialistic society! with read, not spoken words, that have neither flavor nor fragrance. Everything is stiffly formal. The island's tropical exuberance and it's people's traditional loquacity is not reflected in the media. The language is flat and the written script is in control. At this time of crisis, the media is more Siberian and severe than ever.
More tension in life, more laughs on the antenna it's just common sense. And political sense as well. But, in Cuba, we've seen the opposite. A few humorous radio and tv programs have survived, but they are generic, not timely. Only once in a great while do they deal with the thousand and one daily adventures involved in surviving and "making do" in this "special period." The dramatic genres which Cubans pioneered for all of Latin America have been reduced to strictly sentimental radio or television soap operas, or historical topics. More current dramas from Brazil are sometimes aired, but are disappearing. Any dramatic format including humor sketches needs a conflict to be lively and credible. And as the model rejects controversy, national production of this genre is in total neglect.
Radio Martí, the US government financed radio station against the Cuban revolution, has a program that many Cubans listen to and laugh with: "Teté Comité". Teté, the protagonist, is president of her block committee and, in her house and with her neighbors, she lives through the small and not so small daily conflicts of the special period: government officials who say one thing but do another, appliances repaired through divine intervention, buying and selling on the black market, "inventions" to eat and survive, all the rumors making their way around Havana...
The scripts are well written and funny. They are purely Cuban and transmit more humor due to surprises, misunderstandings and mix ups than ideologically charged messages. Any Cuban could easily identify with the situations the show touches on and the characters it presents. Of course, Radio Martí is neither neutral nor naive. It knows very well what it wants, and knows how to get it.
And doesn't Cuba know what it wants? Why is Cuban radio and television unable to produce good, funny programs, with the salt and pepper of everyday life? Congresses and debates are held to take up the topic of the humor crisis in Cuba everyone knows it exists and laments the fact that it does. These events feature speeches exhorting people to overcome the humor crisis. But the media's face continues to be serious and its language severe.
Human beings capable of laughing at themselves demonstrate, with every laugh, an unequivocal sign of their maturity. So do societies. Although it is evident that Cuban society is mature, for many reasons having to do with the values constructed over these last 30 years, and although it is true that in their homes, Cubans "unplug" and joke about their national and personal contradictions, the media does not reflect these real Cubans nor does it attempt to lighten the country's daily load. Thus does it demonstrate its weakness and immaturity.
In What World Do the Media Live?"Thirty five years ago, they told me that this revolution, which I have loved so much, was for our children. I have grandchildren now and I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," said a 60 year old Cuban woman as she lined up for the daily bread allocated in her ration booklet.
A 40 year old driver, who earns 153 pesos a month ($1.50 at the real exchange rate), expressed his frustration this way: "I go home every day and there's no water, no electricity, nothing to eat, and nothing to do. So I go down to the Malecón to throw stones into the sea." And a young raft person on a beach near Havana gave this answer to a journalist who asked him why he was leaving: "I'm drowning here. I want to carry the world forward, or let the world carry me! But I want to try!" He is a doctor.
The Cuba of today is fundamentally different from the one of five years ago. The past is in question, the present unbearable, the future a tunnel of uncertainties. Daily life can only be withstood with an extraordinary political consciousness, and then it's not easy. "Even so, you get desperate," confesses a long time party militant. Cuba is not only a "citadel under siege" by foreign enemies. It is also a citadel lost in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of an increasingly inefficient centralism, in which a people full of potential lives with very few forms of expression and realization. "This is an adult population, but they've decked it out in baby clothes," one journalist bitterly remarked.
The media live in another world, and talk of another world. "Difficulties and shortages only intimidate the weak, and this as has been demonstrated many times over is a country of giants," one commentator declared in Granma in the midst of the raft crisis. All the political commentary these days repeats that, "for every unworthy person there are 100 worthy ones." The unworthy ones, needless to say, are those leaving on rafts. "They have a cardboard identity and revere junk merchandise," is how another commentator described them. He professed to be thus "contributing" to the "ideological debate" over this crisis.
A Bohemia editorial following the August 5 counterrevolutionary demonstration in the Malecón acknowledged that it was "the first in 35 years held in the light of day and without fear of showing one's face." It then went on to declare that "we must accept that, in the disturbances, some decent people might throw the spittle of their discontent or disaffection onto the street from their window or their balcony. But the protagonists belong to a marginal substratum within which adventure or defying authority could be a way to kill time or unthinkingly change their lives."
Nowhere in all this rhetoric and triumphalism, did either medium offer figures of how many raft people were leaving or how many had participated in the Malecón riots. Nor did they give any other basic data or pose any serious debate.
Meanwhile, the entire world watched the images of hundreds of people setting out from the island on rafts: technicians, many professionals, young people, most of them tall and developed, but incredibly thin after the shortages of these last years. It was only a partial image of the real Cuba today. "Those who stay behind are also real. And they are many more," some argued. And that's true. Perhaps the time has come for those Cubans who live and suffer in Cuba to analyze the two Cubas and begin a debate about both realities.
The Youth Deserve to ParticipateA cruel joke is making the rounds in Havana: "They asked a child: 'And you, little boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?' 'Me?' he replied. 'A foreigner!'"
The generation gap in Cuba explains many things that the revolution's official discourse doesn't seem to be measuring with an adequate yardstick. Cubans born in the 1970s and 80s more than a third of the population did not know their country before the revolution nor did they taste the heroic beginnings of the revolutionary project. Their only participation, as adolescents or young people, has been as recipients. They have had incredible opportunities to study, play sports and, until recently, live without many worries. Meanwhile, Latin America's other youth were suffering hunger, conspiring in clandestine movements, remaining illiterate, learning from the school of hard knocks, emigrating, participating in educational projects based on debate. They were being tested, and were testing themselves.
Many young Cubans today are perplexed by the new situation confronting the island. They are passive, unmotivated, unexperienced in how to sacrifice and seeking meaning without finding it. They are searching for something to do in the emptiness of each new day. The Cuban society they grew up in, so safe and sure, so boring, offered little incentive to those desires for adventure and risk that any young person has. Many see the horizon as closed off and their dream is to leave the island "in search of the world."
This generation deserves to participate in a debate about a project that would be viable for their country. They are prepared for that debate. But the only call they receive is to heroically resist, in order to win who knows when? or what? This call to resistance never includes a real debate about precisely that: what is to be gained or lost by resisting. The project they are told about is in the heads of others. Many desert particularly in their hearts and minds, but also through other means. The majority of those who left on rafts were between 20 and 30 years old. The rafts, the sea, the sharks, the unknown, mark the first risk many have taken in their lives.
What's the Risk?A change in the media towards debate, participation, reality, pluralist opinion would clearly go to the heart of power. It could put it at risk. But, shouldn't revolutionary power put itself at risk within the revolution? Is that not possible? Won't it have to do so, sooner or later? Can't openings be made to pluralist opinion that don't mean caving in to the United States? With Cuba's reality so complex, how can there only be a single interpretation of events, and only one voice doing the interpreting?
"The worst opinion is silence," is one Uruguayan radio station's motto. "Worse than the dangers of error are the dangers of silence," Fidel told journalists some years ago, during their V Congress. Is there awareness of the risks of this silence in the media? While the revolutionary leadership decides this issue, silence continues to substitute for debate. The media, potentially an extraordinary tool to creatively accompany the people in this crisis, are rust bound, jurassic. They could be the channel for a massive consultation survey temperature taking to find out what Cubans people, not just leadership cadres think or imagine is the way out of this crisis. But they are static, with their channel hatch closed.
It is not possible that the most educated population in Latin America, with so many intellectual resources, with thousands and thousands of professionals and technical experts, with such an extraordinary historical experience, could perish of hunger, could languish with the wings of its initiative cut, could remain silent. It is not possible that a now adult revolution could fear debate so.
With Its Own VoiceAfter the events in the Malecón and the crisis of the raft people, the Cuban leadership has given some public signs that it is aware of the crisis' subjective dimensions. Minister of Culture Armando Hart wrote an editorial in Granma on August 16 that struck many Cuban media as a "thematic focal point" of the moment: "I start from the criterion that, however large the economic difficulties, and they are indeed large, precisely due to their magnitude we are more obliged than ever to undertake a profound political and ideological reflection, and draw up a program of action. To be effective, it must be brought up to date with what has happened in the world in recent years."
Two weeks earlier, on August 3, Raúl Castro had made a speech in the National Assembly that was repeatedly underscored in the Cuban media. It was an exhortation sparked by the "bitter taste" that by the Assembly deputies' routine interventions left in his mouth to party cadres to acknowledge and deal with the subjective problems that rarefy Cuba's reality even more: bureaucratism, opportunism, laziness, insincerity. Central to his message was this call: "All revolutionaries and, I reiterate, revolutionaries must be encouraged to openly express their criteria in place, time and form. In other words, in the right place, the right time and the right way."
The Cuban revolution has before it the challenge of building a credible and creative image of today's reality. Above all, it faces the challenge of overcoming this reality. The challenge belongs to everyone. The "profound reflection" Cuba is obliged to undertake should involve all Cubans who are suffering in Cuba today, not just revolutionaries. And the "program of action" that emerges from this reflection, to be "effective," must understand that the problems cannot be solved only by "cadres," but by all of society. In an army, only officers think and decide, but a society can't be like that. The process should be participatory, involving everyone. The goal is to forge a nation that conserves its gains and that, being just, is also attractive and stimulating, a place where people can dream and realize their dreams. Everyone's dreams.
Cuban society's challenge is to debate its own identity, and the viability of its project in these extremely complex times. Debate within Cuba and within the revolution. And debate in the media. But debate there must be. This presupposes space for questions, vacillation, fear, hope, fantasy, ideas, brainstorming, suggestions, proposals, tests. And space for some of it to be off the wall. It also presupposes expressing criteria in inopportune moments as well as opportune ones, in the wrong places as well as the right ones, in an incorrect way as well as a correct one. Life isn't a military unit. Besides, such a snarl can't be avoided after so much silence and triumphalism. Only by starting to untangle it will the golden thread, spun by all, be pulled free so Cuba can fashion its new clothes with it.
Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, defending Cuba's revolution in Spain in September, when the raft people were going and coming, referred several times to what is "nonnegotiable" for Cuba. He insisted several times on Cuba's right "to speak with its own voice." Not a small thing. In this world dominated by a few big powers that pretend to speak in the name of all and try to impose a single economic and political formula, demolishing the cultural biodiversity of three quarters of humanity in its wake, it is no small thing that such a tiny country dares too say it will not bargain away its voice.
The world will come out ahead if Cuba conserves the strong voice of solidarity with which it has spoken all these years. Its own voice. And Cuba, too, will come out ahead if it incorporates all of Cuba's voices in the search for ways out of the crisis.