Reports from Cuba: The thousand faces of ‘journalism’

By Miriam Celaya in Cubanet via Translating Cuba:

The Thousand Faces of “Journalism”

A tourist walks along Calle Monserrate, in Old Havana
A tourist walks along Calle Monserrate, in Old Havana

An opinion piece published in recent days by El Nuevo Herald gives me a disturbing feeling of déjà vu. It is not the subject – overflowing with a number of articles by different authors – but its focal point, which presents as adequate a number of superficial and highly subjective assessments to validate conclusions that in no way reflect the reality it alleges to illustrate.

With other hues and nuances, it has the same effect in me as the experience of participating as a guest at a meeting of journalists, politicians and academics – primarily Americans – held October, 2014 at Columbia University, just two months before the announcement of the restoration of relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States, where the wish to support rapprochement and to substantiate the need to eliminate the embargo was essentially based on colossal lies.

For example, I heard how the “Raúl changes” that were taking place in Cuba favored the Cuban people and a process of openness, and I learned of the incredible hardships that Cubans had to endure as a result of the direct (and exclusive) responsibility of the embargo, of the fabulous access to education and health services (which were, in addition to being easily accessible, wonderful) enjoyed by Cubans, and even the zeal of the authorities to protect the environment.

To illustrate this last point, an American academic presented the extraordinary conservation state of the Jardines de la Reina archipelago and its adjacent waters, including the coralline formations, as an achievement of the Revolutionary Government. She just forgot to point out that this natural paradise has never been within reach of the common Cuban, but is a private preserve of the ruling caste and wealthy tourists, a fact that explains its favorable degree of conservation.

The Cuba that many American speakers described on that occasion was so foreign to a Cuban resident on the Island, as I was, that I wondered at times if we were all really speaking about the same country.

In my view, the question was as contradictory as it was dangerous. Contradictory, because there is certainly sufficient foundation, based on realities, to consider the (conditional) suspension of the embargo or to show partiality for dialogue between governments after half a century of sterile confrontations, without the need to resort to such gross falsehoods, especially – and I say this without xenophobic animosity or without a smack of nationalism – when they are brandished by foreigners who don’t even have a ludicrous idea of the reality the Cuban common population lives under or what its aspirations are. Dangerous, because the enormous power of the press to move public opinion for or against a proposal is well known, and to misrepresent or distort a reality unknown to that public, can have dire consequences.

But it seems that such an irresponsible attitude threatens to become a common practice, at least in the case of Cuba. This is what happens when overly enthusiastic professionals confuse two concepts as different as “information” and “opinion” in the same theoretical body.

It is also the case of the article referred to above, that its essence is the answer to a question that is asked and answered by the author, using the faint topic of the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba and some conjectures about the continuity of the relations between both governments with the new occupant of the White House.

“What repercussions have the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba had on the Cuban people?” the writer of the article asks, and she immediately answers herself by assuming several suppositions, not totally exempt from logic, but regrettably inaccurate.

“Greater openness to Cuba has undoubtedly meant greater interaction with the Cuban people through the exchange of information from the thousands of Americans who now visit the island”, she says. And this is partially true, but this “exchange of information” about a society as complex and mimetic, and as long closed off as Cuba’s, is full of mirages and subjectivities, so it ends up being a biased and exotic vision of a reality that no casual foreign visitor can manage to grasp.

A diffuse assertion of the article is one that reassures: “Tourism represents the main economic source for the country, and at the same time it leverages other sectors related to textiles, construction and transportation.” Let’s see: It may be that tourism has gained an economic preponderance for Cuba, but that it has boosted the textile, construction and transportation sectors is, at the most, a mere objective, fundamentally dependent on foreign capital investment, which has just not materialized.

In fact, the notable increase in tourist accommodations and restaurants, bars and cafes in the private sector is the result not of the tourist boom itself but of the inadequacy of the hotel and gastronomic infrastructure of the State. If the author of the article has had privileged access to sources and information that support such statements, she does not make it clear.

But if the colleague at El Nuevo Herald came away with a relevant discovery during her trip to Havana –job related? for pleasure? – it is that many young people “believe in the socialist model.” Which leads us directly to the question, where did these young people learn what a “socialist model” is? Because, in fact, the only thing that Cubans born during the last decade of the last century have experienced in Cuba is the consolidation of a State capitalism, led by the same regime with kleptomaniacal tendencies that hijacked the power and the Nation almost 60 years ago.

About the young people she says that “many are self-employed and generate enough resources to live well.” There are currently more than 500 thousand people In Cuba with their own businesses, about 5% of the population, according to ECLAC” [U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean]. This is another slip, almost childish. The source that originally reports the figure of half a million self-employed workers belongs to the very official National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), a Cuban Government institution, and not to ECLAC. This number has remained unchanged for at least the last two years, as if the enormous migration abroad and the numerous returns of licenses on the part of the entrepreneurs who fail in their efforts or who are stifled by the system’s own circumstances, among other factors, did not make a dent.

But even assuming as true the immutable number of “self-employed” that the authorities refer to, on what does the writer base her assumptions that the self-employed generate sufficient recourses to live well? Could it be that she ignores that that half a million Cubans includes individuals who fill cigarette lighters, sharpen scissors, recycle trash (“the garbage divers”), are owners of shit-hole kiosks, repair household appliances, are roving shaved-ice, peanut, trinket and other knickknack vendors, and work at dozens of low-income occupations that barely produce enough to support themselves and their families? Doesn’t the journalist know about the additional losses most of them suffer from harassment by inspectors and the police, the arbitrary tax burdens and the legal defenselessness? What, in the end, are the standards of prosperity and well-being that allow her to assert that these Cubans “live well”?

I would not doubt the good intentions of the author of this unfortunate article, except that empathy should not be confused with journalism. The veracity of the sampling and the seriousness of the data used is an essential feature of journalistic ethics, even for an opinion column, as in this case. We were never told what data or samples were used as a basis for the article, the number of interviewees, their occupations, ages, social backgrounds and other details that would have lent at least some value to her work.

And to top it off, the trite issue of Cuba’s supposedly high educational levels could not be left out. She says: “While it is true that education in Cuba is one of the best in the continent, the level of education is not proportional to income, much less a good quality of life.” Obviously, she couldn’t be bothered going into the subject of education in Cuba in depth, and she is not aware of our strong pedagogical tradition of the past, destroyed by decades of demagoguery and indoctrination. She also does not seem to know the poor quality of teaching, the corruption that prevails in the teaching centers and the deterioration of pedagogy. We are not aware of what comparative patterns allow her to repeat the mantra of the official discourse with its myth about the superior education of Cubans, but her references might presumably have been Haiti, the Amazonian forest communities or villages in the Patagonian solitudes. If so, I’ll accept that Cubans have some advantage, at least in terms of education levels.

There are still other controversial points in the text, but the most relevant ones are sufficient to calculate the confusion the narration of a reality that is clearly unknown can cause to an unaware reader. It is obvious that the writer was not up to the task, or is simply not aware of the responsibility that comes from a simplistic observation. And she still pretends to have discovered not one, but two different Cubas. Perhaps there are even many more Cubas, but, my dear colleague: you were definitely never in any of them.

Translated by Norma Whiting