Reporting is the Least of It

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic "objectivity." [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’”]

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic “objectivity.” [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’” Minrex is the Foreign Ministry]


A few years ago I met a foreign correspondent based in Cuba who related an absurd and revealing anecdote. The International Press Center (CPI) had called him in to warn him about the content of an article. Receiving the summons didn’t surprise him, because warning calls like that were a common practice of this agency in charge of registering and controlling foreign journalists living on the Island. Nor could he refuse to appear, because he depended on the CPI for his credentials to report on a nature reserve and even to interview a government minister. So there it was.

The reporter arrived at the centrally located building on 23rd Street, where the CPI is headquartered, and was led to an office with two annoyed looking men. After bringing him coffee and talking about other things, they got to the point. They reproached the journalist for a report where he had referred to Cuba as “the communist Island.” This was a huge surprise to the correspondent because previous warnings he’d received were for “reporting only on the bad things about the Cuban reality,” or “not treating the leaders of the Revolution with respect.” But he never imagined that this time he would be scolded for the complete opposite.

But yes, the censors who minutely examine the cables written by foreign agencies had not been at all pleased with the use of the adjective “communist” to characterize our country. “But the Communist Party governs here, right?” asked the incredulous reporter. “Yes, but you know the word looks bad, it doesn’t help us,” responded the higher-ranking official. The man stood there in shock for a few seconds while trying to comprehend what they were saying to him and think of a response other than laughing.

The correspondent knew that annoying the CPI could bring more than just a slap on the wrist. Also in the hands of this institution is permission for foreign journalists to import a car, rent a house and—at that time—even to buy an air conditioner for their bedroom. The dilemma for the reporter was to give in and not write “the communist Island” any more, or to engage in conflict with the institution, where he had everything to lose.

The mechanisms of control over the foreign press go far beyond warning calls from the CPI. Should a correspondent get married on the Island, start a family in this land, his objectivity comes into doubt. The intelligence organs know how to pull the strings of fear to cause damage or pressure to a loved one. Thus, they manage to temper the level of criticism by these correspondents “settled” in Cuba. The perks are also an attractive carrot to keep them from touching on certain thorny issues in their articles.

I know one foreign journalist who, every time she writes a press release about the Cuban dissidence, adds a paragraph where she declares, “the Government considers this opposition to be created and paid from Washington”… But her texts lack the phrase she could add to give the readers another point view, briefly communicating, “the Cuban dissidence considers the Island’s government a totalitarian dictatorship that has not been subjected to scrutiny at the ballot box.” This way, those who consult the press release could draw their own conclusions. Sadly, the objective of correspondents like her is not to inform, but to impose an opinion framework that is as stereotyped as it is false.

Press agencies need to strengthen and carefully review their codes of ethics when dealing with Cuba. They should control the time their representatives spend on the Island, because as the long years pass here emotional bonds are created that the regime can use for blackmail and pressure. An objective examination—every now and again—wouldn’t be a bad thing, given the possible coercion and Stockholm Syndrome their employees might suffer. The credibly of an information giant sometimes depends on whether a new imported car, or a beautiful young Cuban partner, is valued more than a commitment to journalism.

Take care foreign press agencies! Your representatives in these parts are always in danger of becoming hostages, first, and then collaborators, of the ruling regime.

My Mother and the Onions

Onion seller (14ymedio)

Onion seller (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, 6 August 2014 – Who do I think about when I write? How does the reader imagine my texts come to me? Who do I want to shake up, move, reach… with my words? Such questions are common among those of us who devote ourselves to publishing our opinions and ideas. It is also a common question among those of us who engage in the informative work of the press. Defining the subject to which we turn our journalistic intentions is key to not falling into absurd generalizations, unintelligible language, or the tones of a training manual.

I do not write for academics or sages. Although I once graduated in Hispanic philology, the Latin declensions and text citations belong to a stage of my life I’ve left in the past. Nor do I think that my words reach people seated in the comfortable armchairs of power, nor specialists nor scholars who look for keys and messages in them. When I sit in front of the keyboard I think about people like my mother, who worked for more than 35 years in the taxi sector. It is to those people, tied to reality and dealing with adversity 24 hours a day, that I direct my words.

At times, when I talk to my mamá, I explain the need for Cuba to open itself up to democracy, to respect human rights and to establish freedom. She listens to me in silence for a while. After some minutes, she changes the conversation and tells me about the eggs that haven’t come, the bureaucrat who mistreated her, or the water leak at the corner of her house. Then, I ask her how much onions cost. My mother has to pay out three days worth of her pension to buy a pound of onions. I no longer have to say anything, she just concludes, “This country has to change.”

The Maleconazo in a Can of Condensed Milk

14ymedio, YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 5 August 2014 – We had run around together in our Cayo Hueso neighborhood. His family put up several cardboard boxes in vacant lot near Zanja Street, similar to those they’d had in Palmarito del Cauto. His last name was Maceo and something in his face recalled that Titan of so many battles, except that his principal and only skirmish would entail not a horse, but a flimsy raft. When the Maleconazo broke out he joined in the shouting and escaped when the arrests started. He didn’t want to go home because he knew the police were looking for him.

He left alone on a monstrosity made of two inflated truck tires and boards, tied together with ropes. His grandmother prepared water for him in a plastic tank and gave him a can of condensed milk she’d been saving for five years. It was one of those products from the USSR whose contents arrived on the island congealed, after the long boat ride. My generation grew up drinking this sugary lactose mixed with whatever came to hand in the street. So Maceo added the can to his scanty stores—more as an amulet than as food—and departed from San Lazaro cove.

He never arrived. His family waited and waited and waited. His parents searched the lists of those held at the Guantanamo Naval Base, but his name was never on them. They asked others who capsized near the coast and tried to leave again. No one knew of Maceo. They inquired at the morgues where they kept the remains of the dead who washed up on shore. In those bleak places they looked at everyone, but never saw their son. A young man told them that near the first shelf he had come across a single raft, floating in nothingness. “It was empty,” he told them, “it only had a piece of a sweater and a can of condensed milk.”

Editor’s note: Today is the 20th anniversary of “The Maleconazo.” You can read more about this uprising and the subsequent Rafter Crisis in previous posts:

Days to Turn Off the TV

Woman watching TV (14ymedio)

Woman watching TV (14ymedio)Days

YOANI SÁNCHEZ , Havana, 29 July 2014 There are days when it’s better not to turn on the TV. Right now, just pushing a button can dump us in an avalanche of official propaganda for the birthdays of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. From July 28 to August 13, the boring national programming will be filled with the cult of personality, ideological kitsch and political sentimentality. Children’s choirs will sing to the “Eternal Commander,” people who barely saw them pass by on the street will share anecdotes, and endless biographical scenes will bombard us from all sides.

“Right now the news has no news,” complained a neighbor who wants to know what is happening in the world and can’t see anything but processions of red and olive green. I felt the same today with the first news of the day. An hour after it started I couldn’t extract the least national or international information, only praise for the “immortal warrior of the race of Bolivar,” and the “wise guerrilla who loved him like a son.” I tend to have little patience with this overdose of flattery, so I turned off the TV and began calling several friends so they could tell me what was going on here and there. At least we have “Lip Radio”!

The ruling party continues to confront the distribution of information, serials and movies in the so-called “combos” or “packets.” However, it makes no real changes in its television programming to attract young people. Instead, the small screen becomes a loudspeaker for slogans and boring material that viewers find annoying and reject. Thus, they can never regain the ground they have lost to illegal satellite dishes, content copied onto USB sticks, and hard disks full of documentaries. If they continue with the ideological excesses of recent days, official TV will, very soon, become a monologue that few listen to.

Streets Without Protests

Protestors in the streets of Vienna (Luz Escobar)

Protestors in the streets of Vienna (Luz Escobar)

A friend sent me photos of a demonstration in the streets of Vienna in support of the Palestinians. I also received—from all over the world—images with signs of solidarity or rejection of one or the other of the parties implicated in the conflict in Gaza. Many take sides and demonstrate it, be it a tweet, a way of dressing, a shout or a public protest. In Cuba, however, only the official press and institutions may speak in headlines and statements. In the 14 days of the latest bloody confrontation between Israel and Hamas, no spontaneous demonstration on the subject has taken place in our public spaces.

Freedom can be simulated, replaced by false statistics of well-being and justice, but someone always puts it to the test. That public protests on national and international issues don’t happen in our territory is evidence of the lack of rights and social autonomy we endure. It is this same gagging of public speech that prevents organizations like those of the LGBT community from protesting the arrival on the island of Vladimir Putin, considered one of the most homophobic presidents on the planet today. It is also a bad sign that today, during the arrival of Xi Jinping, no one is seen outside the airport demanding the release of Chinese dissidents or asking for greater environmental protections in that country.

I repeat, freedom can be simulated, but its lack is obvious in a minute, its immense absence. So among my friends—one of whom has prepared his keffiyeh, while the other has a Star of David tattooed on his arm—cannot march through the streets of Havana showing their preferences or outrage. No one is allowed, of their own initiative, to denounce the deaths, the blood, the pain. Thus, we will not see pictures from Havana with the streets filled with people outraged by the events in Gaza.

Football Hangover

The World Cup on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

The World Cup 2014 on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

Gone is the last game, the German goal, Götze’s hands raising the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Gone are the get togethers with friends, wrapped in the flag of Italy or Costa Rica, to go see the games in some public place. Some of the excitement remains, it’s true, but the roar that ran through Havana when the ball entered the goal in Rio De Janeiro or Sal Paulo is now just a memory. The painted faces, the arms raised in imitation of the spectators from their seats, and the euphoria shared with millions all over the globe. The football party is over, now comes the hangover.

The hangover is a return to real life. Back to the store shelves and a realization that the shortages are greater than they were four weeks ago. Learning that yesterday a hundred Ladies in White were arrested for trying to pay tribute to the victims of the sinking of the 13-de-Marzo tugboat. There is no catchy tune performed by the famous to accompany this hard existence, rather the rumor of friends who warn us of “what’s out there”… “dengue fever, cholera, Chikungunya and even giant African snails.”

Like a kick to the head—and without failing to miss the opponent—reality returns. There are no arms to stop this fast ball that is daily life, unstoppable and painful. We are back to our world without lights, without loudspeakers that roar GOOOOAL, and without that familiarity created by competitive sports. In short, we live in “a world” where the rules are strict, the referee implacable, and there are no prizes.

Monday morning, I already saw them, as if waking from a dream. They were the hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially young people, who were immersed in the passion of the Cup as if they themselves had kicked the ball. Today they realize they aren’t Germans, Dutch or Argentines and that a difficult Cuba awaits them on the other side of their doors. A Cuba that in four weeks has not stopped in time, waiting for the whistle to resume its course, rather it has deteriorated. Will they be willing to change the rules of the game of this reality? Or will they wait for the next reason to escape in front of the TV or the ball?

Bowling Pins, Sweets and Dangers

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

“These are the last sweets!” The cry could be the simple proclamation of a candy seller, but I heard it twenty-three years ago at my high school in the countryside and it was the first evidence I had of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The person shouting was Olga, a student who resold what the wives of the Russian technicians in Alamar gave her. She was the bridge between our Cuban money, worth less every day, and a series of products such as candy and canned goods “Made in USSR.” I remember this teenager, who warned us of the coming of shortages, like a blind Tiresias, alerting us to the adiós of the “bowling pins” (as we called the Russians).

The old relationship with the Kremlin comes to mind now, with Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cuba. We have seen the official delegation on national television with its businesslike demeanor in suits and ties, no longer speaking of Marxism-Leninism or the dictatorship of the proletariat. They look different, but so much the same. The same glance from above they once had when they knew our island was just a small domino in the game of power. They come looking for alliances, to define the contours of those blocks they are reassembling – right before our eyes – in a new return of the Cold War. We are one step away from returning to our old status as a satellite, diminished before Moscow’s power, its oil, the debt relief it just granted us.

Not a single official commentator has hinted at the dangers entailed in this approach, nor to the Russian government’s need to use Latin America as a diplomatic “launching pad” against its old enemy, the United States. In the midst of this renewed confrontation among the great powers, we are trapped as a disposable and negotiable part, as the case may be. The risk is such that I again remember Olga and the last Soviet candies she offered us in that dorm. Those sweets in extinction predicted an end, the goodies being announced today, like a new airport and possible Russian investment in the Port of Mariel project, compromise our future. You don’t have to be blind, nor Tiresias, to realize it.

12 July 2014