In Havana, Telling It Like It Is

On March 23, 1996, Raul Castro addressed the 225-member Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, reading a report from the party's politburo that stated, in part, "We are maintaining, and we will continue to maintain, that a press which is genuinely free is that which serves the liberty of the people."

The full text of that report was reprinted in the next day's Granma, Cuba's only daily newspaper. It provided Cubans with an extensive ideological framework for understanding the economic changes taking place and coping with the social contradictions that had arisen as a result. The report addressed such topics as elections ("Our elections are genuinely democratic, transparent, and widely supported"), civil society ("Civil society does not mean what it does in the United States"), and the role of the press.

That last subject, as Raul Castro explained, also means something different in Cuba. The island's press, he argued, was free precisely because it was censored: In order for Cuba's people to remain free and to be served by a free press, the Communist Party must remain in control. The report did not mention Cuba's independent journalists specifically, but three weeks later the foreign-language edition of Granma, which is distributed abroad, carried a story denouncing them as a fifth column of American imperialism who were merely "disguised" as journalists. The paper also decried international press reports "accusing Cuba of persecuting and massively detaining journalists." Cuban authorities, the article stated, maintained "strict respect for the personal integrity" of the independent press.

Cuban journalists who work for the official media show little sympathy for their independent colleagues. While they may stop short of calling them "fifth columnists," they readily accuse them of being opportunists. "This so-called independent journalism is just a way to leave the country," scoffs Roberto Cavada, a reporter at CHTV, the television channel dedicated to news about Havana. "They complain that their phone lines are cut. Well, my phone line is also cut and I'm not an independent journalist. Maybe I didn't pay the bill. Or maybe there's a problem at the plant, et cetera. They are making a political show out of daily life."

Cavada and his co-workers insist that most censorship in the Cuban press is really self-censorship. As proof they point to their own news program, which is widely praised as one of the most objective and critical television shows in the country. Reporters at CHTV have broadcast segments on official corruption, homelessness, and prostitution. They have criticized educational policy, bureaucratic incompetency, and they openly covered the August 1994 riots on the Malecon preceding the balsero crisis.

But even they admit there are limits to their criticism. "Nobody is watching over us and saying that you can't do this, you can't do that," explains Lisbet Barredo. "I think there are a lot of topics that we can address, and it depends on a reporter's personal courage. But of course there is a limit. I know how far I can go. I know which interests I am defending."

Barredo says this with an apologetic shrug. She has gathered with three of her co-workers in a small booth at the station to talk about her work. Staff members are nearly all in their late twenties and were hand-picked from the journalism program at the University of Havana six years ago to launch the program. Still sounding like idealistic students, they say they decided to work within the system to try to improve their society. They also sound as though they have been reading Raul Castro's politburo report.

When asked about freedom of the press, Daysi Ballmajo laughs. "Real freedom doesn't exist anywhere," she observes philosophically. "It depends on you. Freedom of the press is relative. However, if you are defining it in terms of whether or not there is censorship, I'd say that, yes, [in Cuba] there is freedom of the press."

Cavada points out that the government has begun allowing the Catholic Church to distribute its own magazine, and that government-owned cultural institutions also produce their own publications and that sometimes the content is critical of the government itself. "I think the Cuban government has the right to publish whatever it wants in its own press," he reasons. "The Cuban government has the right not to publish anything that attacks it." Cavada does not take his reasoning to the next step, however -- that no one in Cuba besides the government has the right to publish anything, much less attacks on the system.

Wilfredo Cancio, a former professor of communications at the University of Havana who now lives in Miami, taught Cavada, Barredo, and Ballmajo while they were students. He remembers them as risk-taking undergraduates who readily criticized the official media, proposing an alternative style of journalism. Cavada himself suffered from censorship as a result, Cancio notes.

"Sometimes the people you think have the greatest potential to bring about change end up getting crushed by the circumstances in which they have to work," he observes. "But I find it hard to believe that my former students have just given up and have assumed the same positions that they themselves used to criticize. Maybe I was too naive. Or maybe there was no other way it could be."

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