Granma editors raise challenges facing Cuban journalists

August 15, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Two editors of the Cuban Communist Party's newpaper, Granma, have recently made important contributions to the ongoing debate over censorship and the role and character of the press in socialist Cuba. As part of making this debate available to an English speaking audience, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is republishing the comments by Sergio Alejandro Gomez (right), Granma's international editor, and Karina Marron (left), the newspaper's deputy editor. These translations first appeared on the Cuba's Socialist Renewal blog.

Granma's international editor on the press

Introductory note by Marce Cameron Sergio Alejandro Gomez is the international editor of Granma. He's just 29 years old. Like Karina Marron, the paper's deputy editor, he's part of a new generation of Cuban journalists moving into senior positions and shouldering heavy responsibilities. He's a familiar face on Cuba's premiere TV current affairs programme, the Mesa Redonda (Round Table), which calls him in for expert commentary on international affairs from time to time. His personal blog is his outlet for his own unsolicited commentaries, which are always incisive and on occasion sharply polemical. His more polemical ones would be regarded as unfit to print under the prevailing Cuban press model that is now in crisis.  A case in point is Sergio's commentary on the Chanel fashion parade and the filming of the latest Fast and Furious Hollywood blockbuster earlier this year. For Fast and Furious, Havana's iconic promenade, the Malecon, was turned into a giant film set; for the Chanel catwalk, a few blocks of Old Havana were sealed off for an invites-only, 'VIP' event. Two worlds collided with potent symbolism: elitist high fashion and the humble lives of the city's poorer residents, to the annoyance of the latter. To add insult to injury, the Cuban media barely mentioned either event. As Sergio pointed out, nobody explained why Chanel and Hollywood had been welcomed, how many millions of dollars they'd paid for the Cuban backdrop and how the Cuban in the street would benefit. In the commentary below, Sergio takes up the relationship between politics and journalism in Cuba from the vantage point of his youth. It serves to contextualise some of Karina Marron's comments at the UPEC plenum (see further below). A first draft of this translation was undertaken by a collaborator who, for reasons of modesty, does not wish to be credited. So I thank them without naming them.
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The troubled relationship between journalism and politics in Cuba By Sergio Alejandro Gomez June 7, 2016 — Cuba's Socialist Renewal translated from Sergio Alejandro Gomez’s blog — I’m used to writing from the safety of the third person, but it would be hypocritical for me to take up the debate over journalism and politics in Cuba without making clear from the outset that the writer has a vested interest. For some years now I’ve been getting up every day wanting to practice journalism. Yet not infrequently I go to bed wondering if it wouldn’t have been better for me to have studied engineering. Kapuscinski banished the cynics from this profession, but said nothing about the masochists.[1] During a 1961 function in honour of the newspaper Revolucion, Fidel [Castro] issued an appeal to prepare for the imminent confrontation with imperialism. “We must always keep in mind that the interests of the Revolution come before those of the newspaper. First the Revolution, then the paper.” He then clarified that he was not asking for “the variety, style, or characteristics of the newspapers” to be sacrificed. I first read these words in the Granma [newspaper] library, on the back cover of a book from the 1980s about the profession. Later I looked for the place and the context in which they’d been said, only a few days before the Bay of Pigs invasion. It seems to me that defending the collective project of sovereignty and justice begun [in the Revolution of] 1959, and at the same time addressing society’s problems honestly and as comprehensively as possible, are still the key objectives of a revolutionary press. The conflict arises when [these twin objectives] appear to contradict each other. The way in which the debate has been resolved during recent decades is perhaps the main cause of the many problems that weigh heavily on the Cuban press—which is criticised just as much in the street as it is in the Council of State. What we might call the ‘dogmatic’ conception [of the press] views the relationship between the political and journalistic domains as one of direct subordination [of the latter to the former], with no scope for dialectics or intelligent negotiation. Hence, political interests (or worse still, the interests of the politicians) would always stand above the honourable practice of the profession, and even above logic. From this flows the silences, the half-truths and the questions that everyone asks but which are never reflected in the media. With few exceptions this is, I think, the dominant viewpoint at the present conjuncture—not only that of the press, but that of communication in Cuba.[2] Some excuse these silences and omissions on the basis that they are precisely the reason why the Revolution has got this far, beset by a history of adversities too numerous to mention. Nevertheless, with every passing day I’m more and more persuaded of the opposite: that the Revolution has got this far ‘in spite of’ those mistakes; because it has other strengths, above all the genius of Fidel Castro. But the accumulated distortions generate monsters here and there that can end up repeating the myth of Saturn, who devoured his own children.[3] There are more and more journalists who don’t know how to ask questions and politicians who don’t know how to answer them, yet those are the basic skills required of each of them respectively. Such is the state of affairs that comic relief is called for, as in the already legendary tale of a president who got off the plane and approached a group of Cuban journalists, ready to be interviewed, but none of them had a question to ask him.[4] On the other hand, the attempt to abolish the vices of cheap politicking [in the Cuban press] has aided the rise of the shadowy technocrat who is inept when it comes to accountability and has no real interest in being held accountable. All they care about are their superiors. They don’t know how to communicate with ordinary people, and when they try to do so they use the same jargon that is spoken in a meeting of specialists.  The recent lowering of the prices of some [basic food] products ended up creating confusion because the government ministries involved were unable to explain how people were going to benefit from the measure. If the atrophy is such that it’s hard to come up with good news, one can perhaps better understand why no Cuban leader has stepped forward to publicly justify the astronomical cost of cars in the open market.[5] And the worst thing is when roles are mixed up. The media are asked to do the work that the politicians don’t do while the politicians devote themselves to doing the work of journalists. The disconnect between the political agenda, what the media says and how the average citizen lives and what they say, is taking a heavy toll on the Cuban press and therefore on the Revolution. Though this is a recurrent theme of private conversations, time and again it gets minimized in the public debate. There’s a contradiction: while the press is the platform for the discussion of many social problems—not always successfully and insightfully—it’s almost impossible to find a critical analysis [in the press] of the role of the press itself. The minutes of the congresses of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC) testify to our profound dissatisfaction with the way that [journalistic] work is being done, but when the congress is over, we return to the editorial offices to read the news or put together tomorrow’s edition of the paper in the same way we did it yesterday [i.e. nothing changes]. I really don’t think this can be explained by fear of the repercussions of the debate. Rather, it’s the loyalty of a profession that has always been convinced that the solution will come ‘from above’, when someone finally heeds our solid and irrefutable arguments. How does it go against the Revolution to expose a corrupt official? How is it counterproductive to know what sentence was imposed on someone who has been found guilty? Why do we not have the right to know what our foreign debt is and how much we’re spending each year on debt repayment? How can a citizen evaluate a minister’s financial management if their annual budget is not made public in a transparent way? Who established the regulation that prohibits taking pictures inside a store, a decision that in the final analysis could help those engaged in criminal activities? The list is painfully long. Far from improving, the situation deteriorates every day. Just as in ‘Words to the Intellectuals’, after what Fidel said something is left hanging in the air: who decides the limits of what is revolutionary—what is within [the Revolution] and what lies outside—or how is it decided?[6] The answer cannot be anything but a participatory, democratic approach, because the Revolution is all of us, including the journalists. The ‘antidogmatic’ vision needs to be empowered. That vision rests on the assumption that there is an indissoluble relationship between politics and journalism that is, however, always subject to negotiation and a striving for consensus. It views information as a civil right and not a mere tool to achieve certain objectives, however altruistic they may be. It’s the vision that arises from internalising the revolution that has occurred in recent years in the ways in which audiences consume information. The TV can be turned off and the newspaper can end up in the rubbish. The idea that controlling the media ensures an audience hasn’t been true for a long time. Furthermore, people can always choose not to believe. And there’s nothing more dangerous to a system than to lose its credibility. Nor can we be naïve. Journalism is an inherently political activity. Nobody speaks just for the sake of speaking. But trying to do politics—for political ends—through the media ends up undermining the essence of our profession. Journalism must first of all be journalism. Only then can it orient itself towards its goals, with much wisdom and intelligence, always adhering closely to principles. And this reflection is all the more urgent in light of the evident emergence of private media that use journalism—in the majority of cases quality journalism—to further their political interests. I don’t wish to be ambiguous about this. I support the right of every Cuban to put forward a vision for the country that is different to the present one, as long as they act ethically and not in the service of foreign powers. What I’m concerned about is the right to defend my own. Translator’s notes [1] Ryszard Kapuściński (1932–2007) was a Polish writer and journalist. [2] ‘Communication’ here appears to refer to the media in general and to the communicative style of political leaders and public institutions. [3] Jacques Mallet du Pan was a French journalist who took up the Royalist cause during the French Revolution and coined the phrase “the Revolution devours its children”. It was later applied to Soviet Stalinism. [4] Cuban journalists notably refrained from questioning Barack Obama during his state visit to Cuba. They were presumably directed not to do so by the Communist Party’s Ideological Department. Meanwhile, US journalists put Raul Castro on the spot during the presidents’ press conference. [5] Refers to the prices of vehicles sold to the general public by state-owned dealerships. [6] ‘Words to the Intellectuals’ refers to Fidel Castro’s landmark speech of June 30, 1961 in which he explained the state’s policy on freedom of expression to a gathering of writers, artists and other representatives of the cultural sphere. One line from that speech has been immortalised and variously interpreted ever since: ‘Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing”.

Karina Marron's UPEC intervention

Introductory note and translation by Marce Cameron The following is a translation of Granma deputy editor Karina Marron's intervention at the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC) plenum on June 28. The global corporate media have seized on her comments, in the paragraph beginning "A perfect storm is brewing", to speculate that social unrest might be about to break out in Cuba as it weathers a difficult economic conjuncture. See footnote 5 below for further contextualisation of these comments. What shines through Marron's intervention is the sincerity of her revolutionary convictions.
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June 28, 2016 — Cuba’s Socialist Renewal Translated from Kokacub@ — In a meeting we had at the Journalism Institute with young people from all over the country, if there was one thing that pleased us it was identifying other young people from the press sector who also wanted to try to transform, to change [the press], who had the desire to work together to transform the reality. And it was said in this meeting that there's a concerted effort to bring about a rift between the [Cuban Communist] Party and the press; and we can't ignore this. But as long as we, the Party and the press, continue to look elsewhere rather than where our real problems lie, while we continue viewing things in isolation rather than as a whole, we'll never resolve the problems we've been discussing for years. And will Karina [a reference to herself in the third person] perhaps be the Rosa Miriam[1] of that era [i.e. of the new blood of Cuban journalism], and other people such as Sergio[2], saying the things that Raul Garces[3] has been saying for so many years, and others who are older than me; then they'll be the ones who'll do the talking, and we'll continue repeating the cycle. If we're fortunate enough to repeat the cycle, [because] what's happening, señores, is that we don't have time to repeat the cycle. [APPLAUSE] I sincerely believe that what we have to see when the young journalists quit on us, is simply that we have, in the youth, the expression of the society we have today, and it's just as Iramis said. We can't view this as purely an economic problem, at the heart of it there's a problem with the profession, because those youth who chose a career in journalism didn't choose to create propaganda, publicity, they didn't opt to just keep quiet and on the sidelines, because if so then they'd have chosen another profession. But we also have many young people studying who, when they graduate, are so disillusioned that they get a job in the media—I don't even know why, really, because sometimes one gives them the chance to do things, to make changes, to work, and it doesn't interest them, it doesn't matter to them one bit. Why? Because he or she belongs to that same generation of disengaged youth that we just didn't get to earlier on in their lives, and we can't pretend that now they're not interested in clothing, high heels, [brand-name] shoes, how to get online or have 50 or 70 convertible pesos, not to cover basic expenses, as we do know that there are some who work for our [Cuban government-supported] media who contribute [i.e. moonlight for better-paying, 'independent' Cuban or foreign media organisations] in order to pay the rent. They're young people who do it [i.e. moonlight] to keep up a certain standard of living, and deep down you can see this isn't bad, but this is where what Dario Machado said comes into the picture, and it's that consumer ethos which we've established in our society, which is also part of all these material deficits we've accumulated over years. So I think we can't just view this thing as solely and exclusively a matter of UPEC having to make an effort so that young people feel drawn to the organisation, because at the end of the day, if UPEC has no decision-making power, if UPEC has no impetus, if it wears itself out talking about the same problems congress after congress, then why would I want to belong to this organisation, why would it interest me, why does it matter to me? What am I changing, what am I transforming? In the end the only thing that one has in life is one's time, what one gives to the struggle is one's life, one's years, one's dedication and sacrifice. And this is done for an ideal, it's done for love, but there are those who simply decide that they're not willing to do it because they don't have faith in that future; because they don't they see that possibilities exist for changing it. What's sad is that among those who are today writing for foreign publications, there are youth who opt for this for different reasons, because they believe that that's where they'll accomplish their professional development, and it pains us that they don't see [that possibility] on our side or they don't try to change things on our side; or they do it out of the economic motivations we talked about, but it's never a sole motive, and that's what we cannot lose sight of. And I insist: if we keep looking away we're never going to see the blow that's going to land at precisely the spot where they're going to kill us. I don't have the answers. In Granma [newspaper] there's a group of young people, we're doing what we can to keep rowing, we don't know if we'll really arrive at a safe port at some point, but there are youth who want to continue piloting the yacht[4] and I am convinced, because I know many of them, that there are many [such youth] in several places around the country who are also doing the same. So I invite all of you to join forces for this, but above all those who decide to avoid doublespeak, those who decide, when faced with this situation of people who know what happens every day on the editorial boards, in radio, in TV, in the most insignificant place in this country where there's a journalist trying to defend this society that is all of us, these people that maybe don't have that lofty culture to understand all the scenarios of phenomena, but where there's a journalist who simply knows that defending that institutionality of which Garces spoke means defending this Revolution, a journalist who may be able to change someone's mindset. That's something we have to care for, we have to defend it and we cannot disrespect the Cuban people, telling them things which one knows don't happen that way and promising them things that won't be fulfilled. So I think this is a debate that we cannot continue having among ourselves and looking at each other and telling ourselves the same thing and fooling ourselves, because there's no time. A perfect storm is brewing. We discussed it yesterday on the [Granma] editorial board, this phenomenon of the reduction of fuel, of the reduction of energy, señores this country won't tolerate another 1993, another 1994, if we don't want to see street protests, and there isn't a Fidel to go down to the Malecon[5]. Or at least so far there hasn't been a figure in this country that faces the people to explain things to them as they're happening today with this situation, and it's going to be very difficult to confront. And with the press, the situation we have today is going to get us nowhere. [Fernando] Ravsberg[6] was talking yesterday about these fuel reductions, as often happens to us there's someone who just does projects and things, accepts money and they sometimes do it wanting to look the other way. I draw attention to this because we're in a situation in which 2018 is imminent and all hopes are being pinned on this date[7], and everything is being done so that that storm lands here in the worst circumstances for this country, so this is not a time for doubt, not a time for vacillation, not a time to lend our strength, our ideas to something that doesn't work—and that's why our youth often leave, and that's why our youth are often absent from the editorial boards, even when there are people that still have faith and keep trying to do everyday journalism. (APPLAUSE) Translator's notes [1] Rosa Miriam Elizalde is a respected Cuban journalist and editor of the pro-Revolution Cubadebate website. [2] Sergio Alejandro Gomez is the young Cuban journalist responsible for Granma’s international coverage. [3] Raul Garces heads Havana University's journalism faculty and is a member of the UPEC executive. [4] This figurative reference to revolutionaries voyaging in a yacht might be an allusion to the legendary Granma yacht in which Fidel Castro's band of revolutionaries crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The newspaper is named after the yacht. [5] The year 1993 was the nadir of Cuba's post-Soviet 'Special Period'. In August 1994 frustrations with economic privations boiled over into the streets along Havana's seaside boulevard, the Malecon. Having forbid the use of force, Fidel Castro arrived on the scene and reasoned with the restive crowd, after which it dispersed. In July this year Raul Castro told the National Assembly that cuts to the supply of Venezuelan oil and other adverse factors necessitated some belt-tightening—but stressed that fears of a Special Period 2.0 were baseless. [6] Fernando Ravsberg is a Uruguayan-born former BBC journalist who has lived in Cuba for more than two decades. [7] Raul Castro has announced that he'll not seek another term as president when his current term expires in early 2018. Here, Marron refers to the Revolution's enemies seeking to take advantage of that juncture.