Cuba's media curbs spark ingenuity
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana
The France-based organisation Reporters Without Borders has consistently
placed Cuba near the bottom of its global league table in terms of press
Communist Cuba currently ranks 165th. Only North Korea, Turkmenistan and
Eritrea are below it, while Burma, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are
considered slightly more open.
The area around Revolution Square in Havana is where much of the power
resides in Cuba.
The powerful defence and interior ministries have their offices here, as
does the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It is also home to
the country's two main daily newspapers.
Granma is the official paper of the Communist Party; its sister
publication, Juventud Rebelde, belongs to the Union of Young Communists.
Both make fairly dull reading. On the inside pages, Juventud Rebelde
will carry more articles on sexual and educational issues as well as
science and technology, but both tend to share the same lead stories.
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Series marking the BBC World Service's 75th anniversary will include
On the day I researched this article, the front-page headline in both
papers was about a letter written by Fidel Castro reflecting on the past
and arguing that "history will show who is right".
The same letter had also been the lead story, read in full, on the
previous night's television news programme.
Rogelio Polanco is director and editor-in-chief of Juventud Rebelde. He
argues that in communist Cuba a journalist's role is to defend the
revolution and to work for a better society.
"Every day we publish a lot of things which are critical of society.
What we are not going to publish are things which give tools to our
enemies to overthrow our government."
In many ways, it is Cuba's siege mentality that defines its attitude to
criticism and internal opposition.
Most Cubans today have grown up living under the strict US trade and
financial embargo, which has been in place since shortly after Fidel
Castro came to power following the revolution in 1959.
President George W Bush has also set up the post of "transition
co-ordinator" in Washington with a multi-million dollar fund to ensure
that communism does not continue following Fidel Castro's eventual demise.
One of the reasons that Cuba is rated so poorly by Reporters Without
Borders was the arrest in 2003 of 26 independent journalists along with
some 50 dissidents.
All had been involved in reform efforts known as the Varela Project,
which had raised signatures calling for a referendum on greater democracy.
According to the government, they were all counter-revolutionaries,
imprisoned for being mercenaries in the pay of the United States, a
charge they deny.
Following the arrests, Miriam Leiva formed a group called Women in
White, which still holds a rally every Sunday to highlight the plight of
the people she calls prisoners of conscience.
Her husband, Oscar Chepe, was sentenced to 20 years in jail, although
later released on health grounds. Both continue to write and speak out,
though their work is rarely seen in Cuba.
"There are very few independent journalists and we are heavily
repressed," Ms Leiva told me.
""We can't publish in Cuba and we have to post or publish our works
abroad. Here our works are passed around by hand."
The internet is tightly controlled in Cuba.
According to the Cuban government, the US trade embargo means that Cuba
is unable to access the main undersea cables which run not far from its
Instead, all internet access here has to be via satellite, which is both
expensive and generally very slow.
The authorities here argue that regulating internet usage is a
democratic way of sharing limited resources.
Critics such as Amnesty International call it an attempt to shield
Cubans from alternative views.
Cubans are allowed to access the internet through their work places in
government offices, hospitals, universities and state-run media.
Foreign companies can also use the internet but private individuals are
not allowed to have it at home.
But Cubans are famed for their inventiveness and many have found ways to
get around the restrictions.
Many find foreigners who are working in Cuba who do not need internet
connections at home.
The Cuban then opens an account in their name but pays the monthly bill.
It is in hard currency and doesn't come cheap.
"People are trying to find ways to be in contact with the world,"
explained Juan, a teacher, who asked for his real name not to be used.
He and a friend have saved enough to pay for 15 hours each a month via a
foreigner's internet account. He believes the sacrifice is worth it.
"The more information that we have the more decisions we can make about
our lives and our way of living," he said.
It is now almost a year and a half since Fidel Castro underwent
emergency stomach surgery and handed temporary power to his brother, Raul.
Since then, acting President Raul Castro has called for the Cuban press
to be more critical about the country's shortcomings, at least on the
In early December, the government also announced that Cuba would finally
sign the two main United Nations human rights accords. On paper at least
these guarantee the right to a free press.
And on 17 December, a message from Fidel Castro was read out on
state-run television, hinting at his possible retirement.
Cuba is in a period of transition. But so far no-one knows just where it
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/12/20 12:13:06 GMT