The Media in Post-Castro Cuba (ARI)

The Media in Post-Castro Cuba (ARI)

Theme: This ARI examines the possible scenarios for the media in Cuba after the Fidel Castro era.

Summary: In the context of the process of succession to power currently underway in Cuba, there are several possible scenarios for the island’s media in the post-Fidel era. The history of Cuba’s media in the revolutionary period, the experiences of the USSR and other Eastern European socialist republics in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the special circumstances of China are some of the factors to be taken into account.

Analysis: When Fidel Castro temporarily handed over power to the Vice-President and Defence Minister, his brother Raul, Cubans were thrown into a state of political and social turmoil unprecedented in the last 46 years. Although this turmoil has not exactly made itself felt by explicit public celebration, news of Fidel’s illness and the designation of his successor, on 31 July 2006, marked a significant milestone in the island’s history. The ‘beginning of the end’ now really does seem nigh, although since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the USSR the term has been bandied about too lightly by the government’s opponents and those wishing for an end to the Communist regime and a transition to democracy.

In this unexpected succession to power, the figure of Fidel Castro continues to be at the forefront of national politics, since his existence still largely determines the continuance of what he is, represents and defends. However, in real terms, Fidel Castro has disappeared. His style of politics has gone, as has his permanent presence in the media and in every act of national political life. The secretive way in which details of his illness have been concealed has made him disappear from daily life in Cuba, something unheard of for more than four decades. This absence was most notable on 2 December last year, when he did not attend the postponed celebrations for his birthday, and where very few references were made to him.

Regardless of repeated messages that the Commandant is still in charge from his sick bed and remarks by some Cuban leaders auguring his certain return, it is obvious that Fidel will never govern again, even though, for the sake of political necessity, he may return formally to his post. There are not even any jokes about him now, despite being the favourite target of national wit for the last 46 years. The acting President, Raul Castro, when asked about Fidel’s political activity at the Havana book fair in February answered that ‘he doesn’t interfere at all, but he is informed of everything’.

What has already started to happen in Cuba? And, above all, what will happen with the imminent demise of the country’s leader of the last four decades, with a bomb-proof charismatic leadership and unquestionable political success both at home and abroad? Although this analysis is aimed at presenting the possible scenarios for the media in the post-Fidel (not post-Castro) era, it is worth mentioning a few aspects of the current situation in Cuba as a basis to examine the future of the Cuban media.

First Steps in an Organised Succession
After Fidel temporarily handed over power to his brother (the Vice-President) and another six of his most trusted men, it could be said that the situation in Cuba has hardly changed, except for a few symbolic and premonitory changes at the political and economic level. The country is quiet, is working, there is no public disorder and the people continue to wait. No-one in Cuba took to the streets to celebrate and self-censorship has reached unimaginable limits (there is no talk of Fidel’s illness even). Obviously, Raul Castro is perfectly able to control the country in a post-Fidel era, and the US needs this control to avoid a massive exodus towards its shores. To a considerable extent, the fact that Raul Castro is a reality permeates the message from Washington and from the most hawkish elements of the Cuban exile and will, to a great degree, shape future events.

The idea of moving from an individual leadership to a more collective and collegiate one had already been put forward by Raul Castro even before his brother fell ill. The acting President insists on this line as forcefully as he underlines the need for continuing the socialist, pro-Fidel line, rather than relinquishing it, and highlights the irreversible nature of Cuban socialism. In a completely different style to that of his brother, in the eight months he has been at Cuba’s helm, Raul Castro has hardly appeared in the media and has not given long speeches or major interviews. However, he has made important decisions, more in line with his style, such as moves to boost economic efficiency, including the immovability of the working day. Raul has appointed two new Ministers. One of these appointments, the IT and Communications Minister, constitutes a symbolic decision and one which will influence the future of communications in Cuba. So far, a technocrat had been in charge of communications and Internet policy. From now on, the person in charge is a military veteran, a former Interior Minister, and recognised as a hard-liner known by Raul himself as the ‘keeper’ of the Revolution. This new appointment is a political statement and, as if not already evident, his first comments regarding the Internet leave no doubt as to his future line of action.

In February, the government withdrew press accreditation from three foreign correspondents –and threatened to expel several more–. The correspondents for the BBC, Chicago Tribune and Mexico’s El Universal were punished, although the government alleged no professional complaints, only ones regarding their perspectives of reality in Cuba. There were also renewed police raids on the aerials transmitting satellite signals and enabling access to international television. Neither of these measures is exclusive to the new Cuban government, but part of the routine repression in the access and control of information about Cuba abroad which has fluctuated in recent years between waves of repression and tolerance. There cannot be said to have been any substantial change in the style and intensity of the control and repression of dissidents. Some political prisoners have been released, while other dissidents have been imprisoned, although some people assert that the control and repression of the best-known dissidents has actually increased.

For many years, Raul Castro, at the head of the army, has imposed on many army units a relatively effective military-style production model which might be extended to the civilian world. His famous catchphrase about the need for harvesting beans in order to avoid having to take the tanks out on the streets earned him a reputation as a pragmatic leader, aware of the need for a minimally viable economy to maintain political control.

Last December, the visit by the largest delegation of members of the US Congress since 1956 was met with suspicion and optimism on both sides of the Florida Straits. Although not actually received by Raul Castro, this does not undermine the importance of his statement regarding Cuba’s willingness to sit at a negotiating table with the US government, provided it respects Cuba’s national sovereignty. Although such a statement had basically been made by Fidel himself in the past and is the key to Cuba’s foreign policy, it is significant because a ‘man of few words’ like Raul has made these remarks so prematurely and so insistently, which could be taken as a sign of possible future dialogue with the historic enemy: the US.

The Cuban Media Today
In predicting future scenarios regarding the media in Cuba it is impossible to overlook either the country’s history or its current situation. All media in Cuba are state-owned, and directly controlled by the state, which not only dictates the editorial lines but also enforces compliance therewith, by appointing the most trustworthy politicians to management posts. Since 1959, Cuba’s Communist Party has always decided which issues would be discussed, kept any criticism in check and thoroughly censored any attempt to make audiovisual media banal or frivolous. The media in Cuba is conceived and used as an ideological instrument of the Party, basically for political-ideological training and propaganda.

Communication with the public is organised vertically, in an authoritarian manner, with the state institutions being the only sources of information. Journalists receive a highly ideological training –they have been considered to be ‘political-ideological workers’– and there is widespread censorship of any news from abroad. Internet is banned for citizens at large and only some 150,000 professionals, linked to major research centres, universities, newspapers, etc., may use the Internet selectively (with opposition websites both at home and abroad entirely blocked). The only foreign press read in Cuba were Eastern European newspapers and magazines, especially from the Soviet Union, which were suppressed and highly criticised at the end of the 1980s, with the advent of Perestroika.

Today, there is clandestine readership of the press that is smuggled into the luggage of the few Cubans who travel and their tourist friends from abroad. People also listen to radio broadcasts from the US and the Miami exiles which are broadcast for Cuba and which the government has not managed to block entirely, and via satellite dishes, which are banned and every so often dismantled in police raids, but which are soon set up again by their owners, especially in the major cities.

Scenarios for the Beginning of Transition
The future of the media in Cuba will depend largely on how national politics develop, on how stable and widely accepted the political situation becomes and on how recognised and efficient the government is, but it would be naive to envisage true democracy, true ideological plurality, in the short term. It is almost impossible to expect, at the outset, a democratic, plural and diverse media.

If, as it would seem, Raul Castro and the first generation of post-Fidel leaders opt for the Chinese economic model, adapted to Cuba’s circumstances, with economic liberalisation and tight political control, the media will probably enjoy some degree of freedom for funding, but will remain firmly in the clutches of the Communist Party.

On 1 January 2007 there were at least 31 journalists under arrest in China, according to Reporters without Borders. The Department of Propaganda never ceases to counterattack every article considered to be contrary to the new ideology of the ‘harmonious society’, proclaimed by Hu Jintao. Regularly, editors-in-chief receive lists of banned subjects. The authorities punish the newspapers which for some years have been spearheading investigative journalism with articles that are considered too independent. In 2006, Xinhua, the official news agency, boasted that it was the only agency that could sell news, photos and videos to the Chinese media. The official agency thus sought to preserve its economic and political monopoly, while at the same time earning the dividends from economic news, whose circulation used to be free. Foreign investment in media and entertainment has also recently been banned.

Copying China’s model exactly would be very difficult for the first transition government in Cuba in five decades, pressured by international public opinion regarding issues such as human rights and freedom of speech, in permanent ideological conflict with the US and the Cuban exiles, a government which will not easily be able to exercise blunt, strong and ongoing ideological repression.

The new government may have to relinquish to a large extent the extremely vertical, ideological and functional structure of the media in order to ensure international approval and at the same time marginalise the problem. In this case, there could be some easing of Party control, allowing regulated criticism of economic issues, non-transcendental political decisions and indeed of the authorities themselves, permitting some investigative journalism and more diversity of opinion. To some degree, this version of the press is the one Raul Castro has sometimes said he supports, especially during the 1980s, during the process of rectifying errors and opening up at the information level. Obviously, the concept of greater transparency and criticism of Raul Castro and the Cuban authorities, even during the decisive phases of the period of opening, has been limited to allowing specific and circumstantial criticism, without ever touching any aspect of the essence of the system and without changing the centralised and partisan structure of the media one iota.

The model of China, in a more moderate tropical version, could be effective in a first instance. Cuba has survived half a century of information starvation. Most Cubans have never read a Western newspaper, nor travelled, nor accessed any kind of tabloid press. Old copies of newspapers from trips abroad, news about Cuba downloaded from the Internet and circulated in the small world of professionals with access to the network and groups of dissidents, and smuggling and illicit trafficking of magazines and books from the exiles is the most Cubans have had so far. Accordingly, at first, small spoonfuls of news might satisfy most Cubans, eager for knowledge of the rest of the world. A variety of moderate and controlled criticism, a press with less ideological news and more cultural, sports and social coverage of the rest of the world, similar to that of the news opening era in the 1980s, would be acceptable to broad sectors of the country; an initial mirage of democracy and freedom of expression. As in China, there would be a place for civilian discourse, but it would scarcely be effective, largely because of the institutional model of economic dependence and partisan authoritarianism.

For their part, the Eastern European socialist republics, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of their respective democracies, witnessed a chaotic liberalisation in which the media were acquired mostly by foreign investors, and today a model of essentially commercial press persists, with broad freedom of expression. In Cuba, one should not underestimate the importance of the acquisition of media and the emergence of new newspapers financed by the Cuban exiles in Miami. These wealthy and nostalgic exiles, who are mostly hard-line opponents of the Cuban Revolution and everything it has stood for over the last fifty years of Cuba’s history, would almost inevitably carry a strong ideological component. It may be up to the Miami exiles to finance the first incursions into the press by internal opposition groups in Cuba, which until now were supported, despite the differences and rivalries between them and with exiled Cubans, by the US government and Cuban colonies abroad. These are media which could be clearly ideologically positioned in favour of the new Cuban right wing.

A more moderate sector of the Cuban exiles, currently residing in Europe and Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in the US, could represent a more restrained ideological line. Since they are generally less resentful and less militant than the dispossessed emigrants of the 1960s, with close relations in Cuba, and with physical and emotional ties that are less characterised by resentment, this group could bring some ideological moderation. The key to an opposition press at a greater remove from ideological extremes will be the capacity of these exiles –who are not as wealthy as those in Miami– to win some backing for the new media.

If, on the other hand, in Cuba a new charismatic hard-line leader were to emerge, who needed the media as a linchpin of his new authoritarian government, along the lines of Vladimir Putin, Cuba would again follow Russia’s example. Soviet influence has not yet disappeared completely from the island: thousands of graduates from the Soviet Union, in important posts in the country and even nostalgia for the soviet era, when there were no major material shortages, is evident in many professional sectors.

In Russia, the immediate liberalisation of the media was followed by a reconstruction of the state’s power, with the presence of former communist leaders heading some media companies, and the direct investment by the state therein, becoming a majority shareholder in a large part of the communications industry. Repressive retaliation against freedom of speech, persecution and mysterious murders of journalists, particularly those who denounce the Russian government for crimes in Chechnya, are other characteristics of the current Russian model. The latest report by Reporters without Borders again denounced the concentration of the media, which hinders pluralism. Gazprom, the gas conglomerate which is extremely close to the Kremlin (its core shareholder), has acquired via its ‘media’ subsidiary a number of national and regional daily newspapers, including Kommersant, which was considered one of the last bastions of the independent press. The company has declared that it plans to acquire Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s leading newspaper (2.1 million readers daily).

The long tradition of authoritarian control to which Cuban reporters have been subjected could make both the Russian and Chinese models more viable. In any of the alternative scenarios, the absence of a solid independent professional culture, and politically influential and prestigious professional organisations, prevents the profession from playing a more active and pivotal role in social change. While it is true that the professional ideology of Cuban journalists is closer to the liberal-democrat model than that of the soviet press, in Cuba there is still an old generation of journalists who do not know and who are suspicious of the liberal western press, and who are generally very unprepared for the independence of political opinion, the use of technologies and a market-oriented media. This generation, educated by and loyal to the subsidised media, directed and strictly controlled by the Party, could be gradually replaced by the new generations of professionals who have graduated in Cuba, with a much less orthodox education, and the return of some exiled journalists from the US, Spain or Mexico, with democratic and market-oriented social and professional practices.

The media now operating in Cuba might adapt to the new circumstances in line with the groups or institutions that take control of them. The Communist Party would retain the newspaper Granma, although perhaps, as happened in Russia with Pravda, and in the rest of the socialist republics, it would become the mouthpiece for the political groups that succeed the Communist Party and the left, while other newspapers, like Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores or the regional papers, might take on a more centrist or less official left-wing line and become more moderate serious press options, vying for readers with the innumerable small newspapers and magazines that would emerge as soon as this possibility were established. Perhaps only a few newspapers and magazines would survive this initial bubble, most with a marked commercial rather than political tendency.

Some of the media controlled by Cuba’s opposition both at home and abroad could disappear after a while, as the main reason for their existence disappears. However, many broadcasters in southern Florida which broadcast solely for Cuba and the exiled Cuban community, and websites of the internal dissident movement, could retain their traditional audiences and even increase them, varying their content but responding to the same editorial lines as now. Many have considerable experience, a loyal audience and in many cases will likely become publications of the same political organisations they represent today, once these are made legal.

Both Radio and TV Martí, both of which belong to the US government, could stay on air for a time, performing a similar role as now, until such time as the country’s stability and the road to democracy are more consolidated. Similarly, El Nuevo Herald with its loyal audience in southern Florida would keep Cuba among its most significant themes.

Obviously, all of these alternatives and models are superimposed upon one another, and might be complementary. Needless to say, the broad spectrum of possibilities set forth here and in other scenarios not mentioned in this analysis, and the variety of media at the time of the transition and in its aftermath will be determined largely by the political events in Cuba and the international circumstances which surround them.

Conclusions: Although there are a number of possible scenarios for the Cuban media in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, it is unlikely that the initial model of communication and media will respond to a democratic, plural, moderate, varied and highly professional model, and that it will, in itself, be a major player in building a post-Fidel era. It is more likely that there will be a media system which, used and financed by the various political options in play, will tend to maintain its authoritarian and instrumentalist tradition with considerable ideological input on the one hand, and a powerful light-hearted tabloid commercial press, devoid of ideological content, on the other. At all events, a truly free model –if we can talk of one– could only come after Cuba becomes well-entrenched in a genuine culture of democracy, tolerance and diversity. 

Iris Cepero