Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line
by Tom Gjelten
In an unprecedented move, reporters at Cuba's Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) are being encouraged to investigate what's not working in their country.
The newspaper recently ran a three-part series on Cuba's agricultural sector — and why, despite all its farmland, the country has to import so much food.
Read part 1 of Juventud Rebelde's series on Cuban agriculture (in Spanish).
All Things Considered, May 28, 2008 · In Cuba, the daily newspapers are all owned and run by the government or the Communist Party. For years, speeches by Fidel Castro were splashed across Page 1, and barely a critical word was published. But Fidel's brother Raul, who has taken over as president, is now allowing more debate in the Cuban press, and one party-affiliated newspaper is rising to the challenge.
Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) was founded in 1965 as the newspaper of the Communist Youth movement in Cuba. Throughout its existence, the publication mostly has featured whatever dreary "news" party leaders wanted published.
But in recent months, Juventud Rebelde reporters have been encouraged to think like journalists and investigate what's not working in their country.
The newspaper recently ran a critical three-part series on Cuban agriculture. Reporter Dora Perez and a colleague spent weeks talking to farmers and farm workers across the country. They wanted to find out why Cuba, with all its rich farmland, has to import so much food.
"[We heard] nothing but complaints," Perez says. "Our report was very critical. We're bad in agriculture, and we have to say so."
Three months later, Perez followed up with another investigative series, this one on education in Cuba. She found out that many Cuban parents were so unhappy with the quality of their kids' schooling that they were hiring private tutors — something once unthinkable here.
An Unprecedented Approach
For years, Fidel Castro told Cubans that their problems were the result of the U.S. trade embargo, the loss of Soviet aid or globalization: There was always an excuse. But Herminio Camacho, deputy editor of Juventud Rebelde, says it's time for Cuba to acknowledge its own failings.
"These articles aim at raising people's awareness," Camacho says. "People need to know that things don't have to be like this here. We're bringing up problems that can't be blamed on our shortages, or on outside forces, or the embargo, or the world situation."
For a Cuban communist newspaper, this editorial approach is unprecedented. Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, is impressed by what he has seen in Juventud Rebelde over the past two years — even though the scope is limited and the paper is still under government control.
"You now have Cuban journalists actually going out and documenting facts and contradicting official versions of the facts," Peters says.
In one notable example, Juventud Rebelde reporters determined that Cuban authorities were grossly underreporting the number of unemployed youth, especially in the countryside. In one province, they found it was 18 times higher than what the government claimed.
Habits Hard to Break as Journalists Seek Independence
Such stories are still the exception in Juventud Rebelde, not the norm. More common are the stories that simply quote government functionaries uncritically. Editor Camacho says he and his reporters are still finding their way.
"We've made progress, but we have a ways to go, because our reporters have been conditioned to think in a certain way," he says. "They have inertia in their thinking. This kind of journalism we're trying to do is hard for us. Throughout our whole lives, we've done it in a different way."
In an effort to break old journalistic habits, Camacho and his fellow editors have eliminated the beat structure at Juventud Rebelde. Reporters now are generalists, not specialists.
"Journalists who take charge of one particular issue can lose their broader vision," Camacho explains. "They develop a close relationship with whoever they're covering, because they see them day after day. It makes it harder to be critical. In order to do this kind of journalism, we had to change that structure."
Stopping Short of Challenging Communist Tenets
What's notable is that Camacho is thinking like a newspaper editor in a democratic society and not as a propaganda boss, which is the role editors in communist countries have more typically played.
His paper stops well short of challenging the ideology of Cuban communism. But for a party organ even to raise sensitive questions could have unforeseeable consequences in a tightly controlled totalitarian state. Some of the paper's recent reporting touches on key elements of the socialist system, such as the state-owned companies that now control every aspect of economic life in Cuba.
"Their reporters went out and documented that a lot of the state enterprises just do not work," notes Peters of the Lexington Institute. "[They found] that there's no functioning supply system and that the enterprises actually exploit and cheat Cuban consumers. It was unbelievable."
Peters, who has been reading the Cuban press for years, says such reporting never appeared during the time Fidel Castro ruled Cuba.
"If Fidel Castro talked about these state enterprises, they were paragons of socialist virtue," Peters says. "It was, 'This is what we live for.' He would always contrast [Cuban] state enterprises with the exploitations that occur in capitalist societies."
Fidel Castro Expresses Displeasure
Indeed, Fidel Castro apparently doesn't much like the pro-reform ideas aired recently in Juventud Rebelde and a few other media. In a newspaper column published last month under the title "Do Not Make Concessions to Enemy Ideology," Castro lashed out at critics of Cuban socialism. "People must be very careful with everything they say," he warned.
Castro, whose mental and physical condition remains a mystery, said he was responding to a comment in one of Cuba's media outlets. He didn't say which one, and Juventud Rebelde editor Camacho says he got immediately nervous it was his paper.
"I'll admit it," Camacho says, "the first reaction I had was to worry. This was Fidel pointing his finger at someone. He's not president of the country anymore, but we still see him as the leader of the revolution."
In discussing Castro's commentary, Camacho was noticeably uncomfortable, speaking slowly and stopping several times to choose his words carefully. For nearly 50 years, Fidel Castro has been all-powerful in Cuba, able on his own authority to squash careers or send people to prison for the rest of their lives.
"For us, a criticism from Fidel is …" Camacho begins, but he does not finish the sentence. "It's more than just the fear. Among other things, we feel in some way like we must be violating his wishes."
Following Castro's critical column, Camacho says he and his fellow editors resolved to be more "responsible." A fully reported article on the shortcomings of the economic reform program was not published.
Despite Skeptics, Paper Forges Ahead with New Direction
Some writers who have broken their ties with the government are skeptical that Juventud Rebelde can be much of a force for change. Independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, who writes an opposition blog in Cuba, says he is impressed by some of the reporters working at the paper. But he does not see them as allies in the fight for democracy and free expression in Cuba.
"Any professionally aware journalist could write something that coincides with what I'm saying, but they wouldn't be doing so intentionally," he explains. Escobar is working deliberately for political change in Cuba. The Juventud Rebelde reporters are just trying to be journalists.
Shortly after Perez wrote her series on education in Cuba, she got a congratulatory e-mail from Adelaida Fernandez, a prominent Cuban writer. Fernandez had delivered a highly critical speech on Cuban education at a convention of Cuban writers and artists, and in her opening words she cited the Juventud Rebelde stories by Perez.
"I was very proud," Perez says. "One of the best things about being a journalist is when you know that what you write actually reaches people and moves them." It was hardly a radical thought, but coming from a reporter at a Communist Party newspaper in Havana, it was noteworthy.
"Nobody is in agreement…It’s that, no one says it and no one takes the risk to say it, to speak the truth. That’s what is happening. In other words, one of the foundations, of what are the regimes in the entire world, in all of history, has been fear and lies. In other words, once you are in fear that's when you don’t take a risk, where you collect yourself and don’t unite…understood? To be in fear is not to offer help to anyone because that signifies risk." -Gorki Águila Carrasco, lead singer, guitarist of the music group Porno Para Ricardo and political prisoner
"Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand." --Jose Marti
View Che Guevara's Forgotten Victims on Scribd
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line
Saturday, June 14, 2008
A Mercenary and Dangerous Old Man
Guilleuma Alfredo Rodriguez at his home in Havana / photo of the author
Click on a photo to enlarge
Havana (May 2008 – Cubanet) Members of the political police harassed an 80 year old opponent in his own home to prevent him from blemishing the festivities of the first of May.
Alfredo Guilleuma Rodriguez has become a "danger" for the authorities of the state. So much so that the State decided to place to two police officers and a member of the Committee of Defense of the Revolution (CDR) on his doorstep with the objective to stop him from leaving his dwelling on May Day.
According to him, he was told that he would not be able to leave while the parade was being performed. In spite of their threats, the elder was not scared because he needed to leave to find something for his grandson’s breakfast. After an exchange of words, in which he was branded a mercenary, the authorities were limited to following him to where he was going. Earlier, the leader of the police sector had already notified him that he was not going to permit him to moved around freely.
Why are they so infuriated with a grandfather that still needs a cane to travel? Guilleuma Rodriguez has spent his life fighting against tyrannies and as a true revolutionary. He fought against Hatchet, then against Batista and now against the ones in charge of Cuba.
Before the arrival of Fidel Castro to power, Guilleuma belonged to the revolutionary directorate of March 13th Movement, to the Triple A Movement of the Authentic Party led by Aureliano Sánchez Arango and Dr. Carlos Prío Socarrás. Later he became involved in the July 26th Movement. It almost cost him his life on several occasions, especially after the first failed attack against the dictator Fulgencio Batista on 5th Avenue in Havana. Two traitors betrayed the group by leaking that the weapons were hidden in a hotel in the Caballo Blanco (White Horse) neighborhood, and the tyrant, once notified, deviated from his habitual route. The friends of Guilleuma that were there were Julián Ortega Thorny, Osvaldo Díaz Sources, Abelardo Rodriguez Melero, the Galecian Lavandero ( a Commander from the Spanish Civil War), Arístides Viera (Mengolo), Sergio González (The Healer), the brothers Montalvo and Machado Amejeiras. Due to a setback, he did not participate in the Presidential Palace robbery on March 13, 1957, and therefore could not participate in the prison break where Lavandero died. Instead, he became a prisoner in the Castle of the Prince, in the Bureau of Intelligence (BI), in the 17 station in the Mariano neighborhood and in the ninth police station directed by Esteban Ventura.
After 1959, he chose to be a simple waiter at the Hotel Riviera. In 1990, the aging Alfredo retired from his work life and his odyssey began.
“I was born fighting” he says “against the contradictions of the political system imposed upon this country, but even by then these contradictions were insurmountable and they are intensifying every day.”
Little by little he became a dissident and later part of the opposition. Already at his age, he says that he had nothing to lose; all he could want for his children and his grandson was for them to not have to give in before any such tyranny.
He joined the Cuban Liberal Movement (MLC) directed by Pedro Ordoñez, who today lives in exile. He confronted the figureheads of the state to commemorate the International Day of the Human Rights, in the park Villalón, in 2007, and in 2008; occasions where he was placed under arrest. Later, he began supporting the Ladies in White. Various “acts of repudiation” have been carried out against him, but the majority of the neighbors have already refused to participate in such things. The political police offered him a job helping to pack bags in one of the “divisas” (foreign currencies) shops close to his house; work for which they would pay him some convertible 20 pesos a month, and, more the point, that would maintain his pension. All of this in exchange for renouncing his opposing activities.
The state tried to brand Alfredo Guilleuma as a "mercenary being paid by the Yankees" for defending Cuban’s civil rights and their dreams of social justice. This alleged mercenary is an old man with a young spirit that lives in extreme poverty in a room that includes his bathroom, kitchen and a barbecue in rundown building in Vedado. His only incomes are the 202 pesos from his retirement pension. From that he has to pay 57 pesos a month - after buying the only ‘luxury’ item in his home, his refrigerator, on credit, his part of the electricity and his other services. In the end, this does not leave him enough to eat and to dress himself.
To top it off, he is responsible for raising his grandson, after his son was threatened with being put in jail for the crime of being "socially dangerous" for not working for the State.