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`Orientalism' and Cuba: How Western media get it wrong

By Tim Anderson

September 14, 2010 -- Misunderstandings over Cuba run very deep, and not just among the enemies of socialism, or those who have had little contact with the country.

Naturally, people are influenced by the corporate media, which wages a ferocious and relentless propaganda campaign against the little independent island. As Salvador Allende told the Chilean Senate in 1960 “day by day and minute by minute ... they [the corporate media monopolies] misrepresent what is happening in Cuba”.

However, we can also see elements of what Edward Said called "orientalism" – a series of false assumptions about the country, conditioned by cultural prejudice.

For example, the constant moral pressures of the revolution are often misinterpreted as state "coercion"; while a well-coordinated and caring health system has been derided as "paternalistic" and denying "choice" in health care. These are the results of trying to understand Cuba through a set of individualistic, liberal assumptions.

Let's look at some recent misinterpretations.

The corporate media has seized on Fidel Castro’s comment to US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine that “the 'Cuban model' now doesn't work even for us” as an admission that Cuban socialism had failed and that Cuba would now have to take on US-style capitalism. Julia Sweig, Goldberg’s adviser on Cuba, said she took the comment “to be an acknowledgment that ... the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country”. Goldberg excitedly interpreted the comment to mean “Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long demanded it adopt”. Goldberg’s article launched thousands of other stories.

Ahem. Neither writer had much sense of Cuban phraseology. On September 13 Fidel clarified and Cuban television pointed out (by reference to an episode of The Simpsons, in which Fidel is shown as admitting the defeat of "communism") that the Cuban leader meant Cuba was constantly adapting, and that there had never been a rigid "Cuban model". What they have held onto are principles, not models.

Furthermore, and in response to Goldberg's specific question about "exporting" a Cuban "model", Fidel was repeating an old theme that "we don't export any model". Among English-language articles on the Atlantic interview only a few, such as Steven Wilkinson’s in the September 10 British Guardian ("Cuba: from communist to co-operative?"), noted this point.

The misinterpretation of this simple phrase is a good example of the "orientalism" regarding Cuba, where a revolutionary country, constantly adapting, is portrayed by its enemies as representing a rigid model of the past. Any change or admission is seen as the fracture of a monolith; but what monolith?

A second example of this same process can be seen in stories on the restructuring of state enterprises in Cuba. The BBC reports on September 14 ("Cuba to cut one million public sector jobs") that Cuba’s peak trade union body the CTC says “more than a million workers would lose their jobs ... [they] will be encouraged to become self-employed or join new private enterprises” and half a million will be laid off in the next six months. On the back of this a multitude of right and left commentators predict Cuba’s reversion to capitalism.

The thinking here is that a major efficiency drive in Cuban state enterprises must mean a surrender to the logic of private corporations. Never mind that hundreds of thousands were laid off from Cuba’s sugar industry, almost two decades ago when the sugar-for-oil agreement with the Soviet bloc collapsed. In its much worse economic crisis of the 1990s, Cuba maintained its system of social guarantees, allowing foreign investment through joint ventures and a small private business sector.

On the current restructuring, if the BBC and others had read further in the September 13 CTC statement, they would have seen that the “alternative employment” for the laid-off workers comprises “land renting and usufruct leases, cooperatives and small business”. Big corporations don’t get a mention; where they exist in Cuba they are joint ventures in which the state owns land and buildings and hires all the labour. Nevertheless, work bonuses are being revised in a wider range of sectors.

The CTC says state employment is to be maintained in some sectors of agriculture, in construction, teaching and industrial work. Furthermore, there is an ongoing diversification of state industry into petroleum (Cuba is developing its own reserves and is set to become an oil exporter), construction (including for expanded tourism), biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, tourism and other areas.

Change is a constant in Cuba, as one might logically expect of a self-described "revolutionary" society. However others portray this society as a monolithic state.

Does any of this matter to Western audiences, with their short attention spans and modernist tendencies to see the world through their own self-image? Outside commentators have been characterising Cuban socialism according to their cultural prejudices for half a century now, and no doubt will continue to do so. Those who look closer might understand a bit more.

[Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University.]

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