Saturday, December 3, 2016

Fidel: Dead or alive, a dangerous subversive

This commentary is based on something I wrote in 2012. The updated version has just been published in Progress in Political Economy and in Green Left Weekly.

Remember Elian Gonzales? Here's his 90 second tribute to Fidel.

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For years, those who had hoped and prayed for his death were repeatedly disappointed by a photo, a newsclip or a commentary in that unmistakable style.

The rumours were always unfounded. Fidel Castro, who had dodged some 600 attempts on his life orchestrated by the CIA, was very much alive and making the most of his twilight years.

There were no rumours this time. His brother Raul, voice quavering with emotion, read out a brief statement on TV and a sombre stillness descended on the Cuban archipelago.

Outside Cuba, Twitter feeds buzzed and the corporate media saturated our inner recesses with words and images conveying, for the most part, how the global capitalist elite view Fidel’s life and legacy.

In US allies such as Australia, it will be difficult for those who admire Fidel and feel a sense of loss at his passing to be heard amid this din of demonisation.

A propaganda offensive against Fidel and the Cuban Revolution has been unleashed across the planet, and a new ‘battle of ideas’—a concept promoted by Fidel—is now raging over his legacy.

Some of this demonisation is of the relatively sophisticated, leftist variety. At the tabloid end of the spectrum is the Murdoch media empire, which claims Fidel led a double life.

The austere revolutionary was just a front, you see, behind which Fidel lived a life of luxury with numerous mansions, a private island and a special room where he sated his lust for teenage girls.

Dead or alive, Fidel was, and still is, a dangerous subversive. He must be denigrated, demonised or—in the language of subservient Western academia—‘deconstructed’.

The battle of ideas over Fidel’s legacy must be joined by all those for whom Fidel has been a political compass and a spiritual guide in the secular sense, and our best weapon is the unvarnished truth.

In countering lies and half-truths, we should resist the temptation to idolise or idealise Fidel. Between the extremes of hatred and sycophantic adulation there is the need for critical, nuanced reflections on Fidel’s contributions to revolutionary thought and practice from his side of the struggle for socialism.

In this battle we are joined, first and foremost, by the millions of Cubans committed to the continuity and renewal of Cuba’s socialist project, the stage from which Fidel set out to change the world and, to a degree, succeeded.

Would a pregnant woman in a remote East Timorese village be seen by a doctor today if it were not for Cuban medical personnel and medical training?

How much longer might apartheid have dragged on in South Africa if Cuban blood had not been shed in the sands and jungles of Angola and Namibia? Would Venezuelan’s Bolivarian socialist revolution even exist? According to Hugo Chavez, probably not.

Cuba’s feats of socialist humanism are the work of multitudes, not an individual. But Fidel had come to symbolise those feats and their anonymous heroes.

Fidel's wake in Havana, November 29 
Thus ‘Fidel’ is something more than an individual. Fidel, in this wider sense, is certain ethical and political principles and ideals; a cause and a devotion to that cause. It is adherence to principles but rejection of dogmatism and sectarianism in the struggle for a better, socialist world.

Fidel’s essential message is one of hope: that we can reverse the gradual descent of global capitalism into a 21st-century barbarism, besieged by ecological collapse, if we can only unleash the power of masses of ordinary people acting together with a shared vision and strategic compass.

‘Fidel’ is faith in humanity, in the noble side of our human nature; in our capacity for heroism, compassion and reason.

‘Fidel’ is, above all, solidarity in a selfish world.

It is asking what we can contribute and share rather than what we can plunder and hoard. It is worrying about the infant mortality rate in Western Sahara and the waves lapping at the doorsteps of Pacific islanders—and doing something about it.

‘Fidel’ is internationalism: the rejection of subservient seclusion behind our white-picket fences and national borders decked out in razor wire.

Australia doesn’t have a revolutionary tradition like that of Cuba. After the European invasion and dispossession of its Indigenous peoples, it developed as an outgrowth of British imperialism.

Relative stability and prosperity for most has blunted radical urges and channelled them into the English gentleman’s game known as parliamentary reformism.

Waves of progressive radicalisation have ebbed and flowed, but none has yet succeeded in placing the country under new management, as did the Cuban Revolution under Fidel’s leadership.

The next wave may just do that, opening the way to a very different kind of Australia. Call it socialism or call it whatever, it will have to bury capitalism.

‘Fidel’ is daring to dream of such a revolutionary transformation of our own society. And working patiently towards it in ways that are meaningful to each of us, respecting each other’s contributions and seeking the path of principled unity.

‘Fidel’ is contributing our little grain of sand to the revolutionary hourglass, recalling that he began his struggle with a handful of idealistic youth with hardly a cent among them.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Fidel is dead. But 'Fidel' is more than a person. He is an idea, an ideal, a cause, a struggle. Fidel lives on in the heart of insurgent humanity.

Hasta la victoria siempre.

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Here's something I wrote in 2012 in anticipation of this painful moment.

Condolences to our Cuban comrades especially.

Marce Cameron

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reply to Jordan Wilson

A reader of my blog, Jordan Wilson, posted the following criticism of my analysis of the struggle over the role and character of the Cuban press to Links, the Australian-based 'international journal of socialist renewal' (Links has kindly republished some of my blog posts).

Jordan's comment and my reply are posted here with Jordan's permission.

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José Ramírez Pantoja deserves our full support

The struggle that is unfolding over the media is part of a wider struggle to renew the Cuban revolution. What is at stake in this wider struggle is Cuba’s ability to meet the many pressing challenges that it faces, most notably the attempt by Washington to impose “regime change” by maintaining its crippling economic blockade of the country while seeking points of leverage to divide Cuban society from within and undermine its resistance to U.S. domination.

Marce Cameron, Cuba’s Socialist Renewal, and Links are performing a valuable service in bringing the debate over the media in Cuba to the attention of English-speaking readers. The translations of the contributions of the protagonists are particularly valuable and Marce’s translation skills are first-rate. Another valuable resource is Fernando Ravsberg’s blog, Cartas Desde Cuba, which has reported extensively on this controversy. A selection of informative articles in English are available there.

In my view, the dismissal of Pantoja is a compelling story that tells itself, through the words of those involved. Very little presentation / background material is necessary. Marce has chosen a different approach, weaving his interpretations and opinions into the narrative at every opportunity. To be sure, he has every right to do so. But making this choice carries with it the additional responsibility of presenting the issues in their proper context, with objectivity and balance, and avoiding egregious characterizations that hinder readers forming their own opinion of the issues being debated. Part I failed to meet this standard and contained a number of serious political errors. I pointed these out to Marce in a private email soon after the article appeared.

Part II here avoids many of these pitfalls and fills out the next stage of the narrative in a relatively straightforward way. Readers will get an even better understanding of these matters when Marce publishes translations of the blog posts by Aixa Hevia and José Ramírez Pantoja, as I believe he intends to do.

Pantoja has paid a very heavy price for posting Karina Marrón’s comments on his personal blog – he has lost his job and been expelled from his union (UPEC – which also functions as the professional association of journalists). He has little or no prospect for finding work in his field. In today’s Cuba these are extreme economic and professional penalties. In mid-September the National Ethics Commission of UPEC rejected his appeal and ratified his exclusion from the organisation for the next five years.

It is plain enough that Marce sympathizes with Pantoja and considers him to have been unjustly victimized for his attempt to promote discussion of the issues facing the Cuban press. Marce clearly agrees, too, that Pantoja’s fate has acquired a special significance in the context of the struggle over the press and related issues.

Yet, astonishingly, in this article Marce suggests that Pantoja is a liar. In the first paragraph Marce “casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja’s innocence in this regard”. He states that Pantoja “must have known he was risking his livelihood and his professional reputation.” He declares that “almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly.” Marce presents his suppositions – for that is what they are –without any supporting facts. Each of them directly contradicts Pantoja’s explanation of his actions and his motivations. They undermine critical elements of his defense. Moreover, at the time he wrote those lines Marce knew that unofficial sources were reporting that Pantoja’s appeal had been rejected. I sent those reports to Marce. Surely under those circumstances even greater caution and objectivity was required. (There is no longer any doubt about the UPEC decision, as Pantoja posted the text of the ruling on his blog a few days ago.

Pantoja’s explanation for his actions is straightforward and consistent. Having read everything that I have been able to find on the issue, for and against him, I find it completely convincing. Pantoja’s accusers have attacked him fiercely but have failed to undermine his account. Yet Marce for some reason does not even grant him the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, given the sharp polarization that has developed over the related issues of Pantoja’s fate and radical reform of the media in Cuba, it is highly irresponsible to state that Pantoja “has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict” over the press. Clearly, powerful conservative forces in Cuba are using Pantoja as a scapegoat in order to intimidate other reform-minded journalists. There is no evidence that Pantoja set out to sharpen this conflict and much evidence to the contrary. A statement like this further damages José Ramírez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice.

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Thanks Jordan. Your appreciative comments and sharp criticisms are most welcome.

You frame your specific criticisms by saying that the Pantoja story tells itself through the words of those involved, so “very little presentation/background material” is needed. That’s true in your case, because you’re well informed: you’re familiar with the Cuban context, you read Spanish and you’ve been following this story very closely. That sets you apart from most readers of my blog. For the benefit of less well-informed readers, I preface my translations with introductory comments that contextualise the translated material. That context is both factual (e.g. biographical details) and political (e.g. identifying which current of socialist thought somebody belongs to). The political context is inevitably viewed from a particular standpoint: my own, because it’s my blog.

You worry that in expressing opinions of my own that you happen to disagree with (“egregious characterisations”, as you put it) I might “hinder readers from forming their own opinions”. I don’t share your concern at all. I assume, first of all, that at least some readers of my blog are interested in my opinion, because it’s my blog; and that if not, they can choose to ignore my ‘editorialising’ (as long as the distinction between translations and reportage, on the one hand, and editorialising on the other is clear enough). Secondly, I make the unpatronising assumption that all readers have the ability to form their own opinions; that I can’t possibly ‘hinder readers from forming their own opinions’ by expressing mine, because opinion-formation is spontaneous and irrepressible among thoughtful people. I assume that other readers, not just you, can read my posts with a critical eye.

Cuba’s Socialist Renewal is not limited to original translations preceded by introductory comments. From time to time I also post my own analyses, a format which gives more scope for contextualisation and synthesis. It’s also a format that happens to allow my opinions to come to the fore. In the case of ‘the Pantoja affair’, I decided to preface the translations with a series of my own commentaries. Why? Because I don’t think the translated material ‘speaks for itself’ for the typical reader of my blog. That material needs to be contextualised, synthesised and summarised, not only to introduce that material, but for the benefit of readers who don’t have the time to wade through extensive translations.

You concede that I have every right to express my own opinions, but you add that this imposes “an additional responsibility of presenting the issues in their proper context, with objectivity and balance”. As explained above, the purpose of my introductory comments, and of my editorialising, is precisely to ‘present the issues in their proper context’ as I see it. You may view that context differently. So be it. Of course, I do strive for objectivity and balance. You feel that Part 1 of my serialised commentary on the Pantoja affair “failed to meet this standard and contained a number of serious political errors”, which you pointed out to me “in a private email”. At the time, I invited you to express these specific concerns on my blog (and suggested that you do the same on Links). That invitation still stands. If you don’t wish to share these concerns publicly, that’s OK with me. But it’s not constructive, nor fair, to make a cryptic reference to a private email exchange. That’s not a responsible way to conduct a debate among comrades. I think you should either withdraw the claim (a bit late now) or justify it to readers of Links and Cuba’s Socialist Renewal. What are these errors and how can they be rectified?

Publicly, you make two specific criticisms here of my coverage of the Pantoja affair.

You dismiss my suggestion that Pantoja was almost certainly aware that publishing Karina Marron’s intervention unabridged, in the way that he did it, would risk his job and professional reputation. You claim that I offered no facts to support this supposition of mine. Actually, I did. Here’s what I wrote: “The fact that no other Cuban journalist who had heard Marron’s intervention made such a naive assumption casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja’s innocence in this regard” [emphasis added]. You cite only the second half of that sentence: “Marce ‘casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja’s innocence in this regard’”. The distinction deserves to be hammered home: it’s not ‘Marce’ that casts doubt on Pantoja’s innocence in this regard; it’s the fact that he broke ranks with his journalistic colleagues.

How does Pantoja explain that singular fact? In his interview with Ravsberg, he said he assumed that all of Marron’s comments at the plenum were ‘publishable’ because some of them (some relatively innocuous remarks, I pointed out) had been published on the UPEC website, and the event had been covered (again, selectively) in a Cuban TV news broadcast. So he just went ahead and uploaded his transcript to his blog, never suspecting that he might be fired from his job and suspended from UPEC. I don’t buy that explanation. It just doesn’t make sense. To see why, let’s draw on some other facts I included in either Part 1 or Part 2. The facts are there: it’s a question of interpretation.

1. The content of Marron’s intervention. That intervention, unabridged, was dynamite for the reasons explained in Part 1. It was, as I said, the kind of intervention that would arouse Cuban journalists’ well-honed instincts of self-censorship and thus self-preservation. “Wow. This had better not leave this room”, would probably have crossed the minds of all those journalists present, in a gathering of journalists, who wanted to keep their jobs and reputations. Pantoja among them.

2. The fact that not one Cuban media publication, nor any other publication of any kind, published Marron’s more incendiary comments, in part or in full, until Pantoja uploaded his transcript. They did not appear in Granma, the most authoritative litmus test of ‘publishability’ in Cuba. Nor did they appear on the pro-government Cubadebate website, which houses a broader spectrum of critical, pro-Revolution opinion. Nor on the personal blog of any of Pantoja’s journalistic colleagues.

Given this, it would be safe to assume that Marron’s more incendiary comments were ‘unfit for publication’. Yet bizarrely, inexplicably, Pantoja, a decorated and experienced journalist steeped in both the codified and unwritten journalistic rules of engagement in Cuba, drew—he said—the very opposite conclusion: namely, that because some of her (note: relatively innocuous) comments had been published on the UPEC website, her entire intervention was therefore ‘publishable’.

3. The fact that Pantoja didn’t seek his boss’s permission to publish the transcript on his personal blog. Pantoja told Ravsberg that as far as he knows, there are no official guidelines for journalists publishing journalistic content on their personal blogs. Given that there aren’t, which gives the censors a free hand to act arbitrarily, wouldn’t it have been prudent for Pantoja to have asked his boss for permission to publish the transcript? Had he done so and had permission been granted, Pantoja would no longer be solely responsible for any adverse consequences of publication. His boss would have shouldered some, perhaps all, of that responsibility. All Pantoja had to do was pick up the phone or walk down the corridor. But he didn’t. He must have had some compelling reason for not doing so.

That compelling reason may have been that Pantoja knew that permission would almost certainly be denied. Why would his superior, who had more to lose than Pantoja, run such a risk? If Pantoja asked for permission, and it was denied, yet he went ahead with publication despite an explicit directive not to do so from his boss, that act of insubordination would only serve to strengthen a likely case against him. Better to not ask for permission on the reasonable assumption that it would be refused.

4. The lesser, yet still significant, fact that Pantoja had doubts about publishing the transcript. Arnaldo Mirabal Hernandez noted in his interview of Pantoja that while Pantoja “had moments of doubt about the appropriateness of publishing the words of the deputy editor of Granma, he decided to click the mouse” (as I related with poetic license in Part 1). That admission of doubt, albeit passing doubt, sits uneasily with Pantoja’s telling Ravsberg he assumed Marron’s entire intervention was ‘publishable’. If he had doubts about the appropriateness, and thus the consequences, of publication; and if keeping his job and his reputation among certain colleagues was his overriding concern, then surely he would have sought permission from his boss (or from Marron herself) in order to clear up those doubts.

Evidently, then, his job and his reputation were not his overriding concerns. He succumbed to his desire to make public the whole of Marron’s intervention. As I put it in Part 2: “Almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly, subordinating his personal interests to what he considered to be a higher purpose.” If true—and the evidence suggests it is—then we need to view the Pantoja case in that light. What was the basis of that strong desire to publish Marron’s intervention, a desire strong enough to overcome his momentary doubts and any concerns about his fate as a journalist in Cuba?

That’s no secret: he explained his motivation to Ravsberg: “[F]or the world to know that in Cuba, we journalists are capable of having a serious and responsible debate at the highest level. I also published it with the aim of sparking a debate on the content of the intervention itself, to stir up the controversy and the exchange of viewpoints that are always so necessary.”

This bring me to your other specific criticism, namely that: "[G]iven the sharp polarization that has developed over the related issues of Pantoja’s fate and radical reform of the media in Cuba, it is highly irresponsible to state that Pantoja “has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict” over the press. Clearly, powerful conservative forces in Cuba are using Pantoja as a scapegoat in order to intimidate other reform-minded journalists. There is no evidence that Pantoja set out to sharpen this conflict and much evidence to the contrary. A statement like this further damages Jose Ramirez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice.”

It is never irresponsible to state a fact, and the fact is that Pantoja himself, in the citation above, says that one of his aims in publishing the transcript was to spark “a debate on the content of [Marron’s] intervention itself”—i.e. a debate on, among other things, the crisis of Cuba’s state-supported media. To “stir up the controversy and the exchange of viewpoints that is always so necessary”. In other words, to sharpen the conflict over the role and character of the press in Cuba by mobilising public opinion on the side of the pro-socialist reformers. That was Pantoja’s stated aim. You worry that “a statement like this further damages Jose Ramirez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice”. What’s important is establishing the truth of the matter. Because only the truth is revolutionary.

Your wrote: “Marce presents his suppositions—for that is what they are—without any supporting facts.” I think I’ve answered that criticism by restating and expanding on the factual basis of that judgment. I’ll now deal briefly with your other objections. 1) “Each of them directly contradicts Pantoja’s explanation of his actions and his motivations.” I’m guided by the evidence. 2) “They undermine critical elements of his defense”. That has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of the matter. 3) “Marce knew that unofficial sources were reporting that Pantoja’s appeal had been rejected”. I made a conscious effort to not allow those unconfirmed reports to influence my analysis.

In conclusion, it seems to me that you have allowed your sympathy for Pantoja, a sympathy I happen to share, to cloud your judgement. You take everything he says at face value rather than letting the evidence guide you. You admonish me for daring to point out that Pantoja, by his own admission, aimed to sharpen the public debate, and thus the conflict, over the role and character of the press in Cuba. That’s called shooting the messenger. That’s ironic, because Pantoja’s critics are also shooting the messenger—him—rather than directing their criticism and condemnation at the source of those ‘dangerous ideas’: the deputy editor of Granma.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Struggle over the Cuban press intensifies (2)

This is the sequel to my previous post. There'll be at least one more in this series. After that, I'll translate some of the most important contributions to this ongoing controversy.      

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The dismissal

It was the Uruguayan-born former BBC journalist Fernando Ravsberg who broke the news of Pantoja's dismissal. Pantoja told Ravsberg he had worked for Radio Holguin since 2000 and had been a UPEC member since then. He had taken part in the June 28 UPEC plenum as a workplace delegate via video link and had recorded the proceedings in full view of provincial UPEC officials, who did not object. Seeing that the event had been covered in a Cuban TV news bulletin, and that some (relatively innocuous) fragments of Marron's comments had been published on the UPEC website, Pantoja assumed—he claimed—that the entirety of her remarks were 'publishable'. In other words, that permission did not need to be sought and granted from Pantoja's boss at the radio station. The fact that no other Cuban journalist who had heard Marron's intervention made such a naive assumption casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja's innocence in this regard. He must have known he was risking his livelihood and his professional reputation.

Almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly, subordinating his personal interests to what he considered to be a higher purpose. He told Ravsberg that his motivations for transcribing and uploading Marron's unabridged remarks to his personal blog were "for the world to know that in Cuba, we journalists are capable of having a serious and responsible debate at the highest level. I also published it with the aim of sparking a debate on the content of the intervention itself, to stir up the controversy and the exchange of viewpoints that are always so necessary". Recall that (as noted in Part 1) veteran Cuban journalist Luis Sexto lamented earlier this year the inability of the Cuban press to "create and resolve conflicts". In light of this perceived deficiency, Pantoja's actions are laudable. He has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict—i.e. a controversy and a struggle—over the role and character of the Cuban press. In doing so, he has contributed to an eventual resolution of this conflict.

Pantoja told Ravsberg that as far as he knows, there are no official guidelines for publishing on personal blogs. If permission must be sought then whose blog is it? "In my case, management alleges that when a journalist publishes on their blog or on social media, they do it in the name of the institution they work for". That notion is highly controversial, he added. According to Pantoja, the reasons given for his dismissal are that he made the recording without proper authorisation; that he selectively transcribed only Marron's intervention; that he gave no indication he would cover the event; and that he failed to abide by Cuba's press policy that content "must be in the public interest and the critics [i.e. sources who express unfavourable opinions] must be approved beforehand by the Editor of the press publication". Here, Pantoja was reading from the explanatory letter he had received.

The stipulation that criticisms may only be published if those making them are acceptable to the editor is not conducive to the press holding up a critical mirror to society. Arguably, it amounts to editorial interference in journalistic integrity and a systematic bias against criticism. As for what constitutes the public interest, that's a matter of opinion. Pantoja thought it was in the public interest to publish Marron's intervention in its entirety. Perhaps he assumed his prestige would shield him from any adverse consequences of publication. On March 10, Pantoja was one of 26 Cuban journalists awarded UPEC's highest accolade, the Felix Elmuza Distinction for "outstanding professionals with 15 or more years of uninterrupted work", according to the UPEC website.

Jose Ramirez Pantoja
On  August 30, a fortnight after the Ravsberg interview, Pantoja was interviewed at greater length by Cuban journalist Arnaldo Mirabal Hernandez. Hernandez writes for Giron, the PCC newspaper in Matanzas province—the provincial equivalent of Granma. He interviewed Pantoja in a personal capacity and published the transcript on his personal blog, Revolucion. Pantoja recounted to Hernandez that after publishing Marron's intervention on his blog, and then on his Facebook page, he left a Facebook comment praising Marron's intervention as an example of how Cuba's revolutionary youth should speak: with courage and without mincing words. Then came "the finger-pointing and the dirty looks". Pantoja deleted the offending blog post, but it was too late: it had gone viral. His home internet connection was severed and he was dismissed. Pantoja turns 40 on September 12 but he's in no mood to celebrate, Hernandez observed.

Pantoja told Hernandez that he didn't blame Radio Holguin management for his dismissal. Initially they were conciliatory, asking him to immediately delete the post, which he did. When they cut his internet connection they said it would only be for a few days. But then the tone changed. On July 11, he was informed of his dismissal and told his internet connection would not be restored. He thinks management had received "a phone call from higher up".

The union

More hurtful than the dismissal, Pantoja told Hernandez, was the decision of UPEC's provincial Ethics Commission to suspend his UPEC membership. It pained him because he holds his colleagues who comprise the Commission in high regard. “If there's something that wounds my soul, I swear by my mother who lies in the cemetery, it's the lack of support from UPEC, the organisation I've belonged to since 2006". Especially concerning and disturbing, he said, were comments posted by UPEC vice-president Aixa Hevia on her Facebook page.

Aixa Hevia
Pantoja had appealed both his dismissal and his suspension from UPEC, exercising his right to seek to have the latter decision overturned or modified by UPEC's National Ethics Commission. That Commission is headed by Luis Sexto, the veteran journalist and columnist whose own criticisms of the Cuban press I cited in Part 1. On August 19, after Pantoja had initiated the UPEC appeal process, Hevia weighed in on the Pantoja case—on Facebook.

Hevia began by claiming that Pantoja had censored a comment that Marron had made, in passing, about Fernando Ravsberg (introduced in Part 1) during her UPEC intervention. In support of this claim, she embedded a hyperlink to a scathing denunciation of Ravsberg by Cuban blogger Iroel Sanchez (introduced in Part 1). Sanchez's source was 'a friend', whom he did not name, who had attended the UPEC plenum. The source was uncertain of Marron's exact words: "something like 'that now we know who he is'"—referring to Ravsberg. That was clearly an allusion to Ravsberg's behaviour, Hevia observed. Indeed, his agency [i.e. the BBC] cancelled his contract because of what he wrote on his blog, she added. She did not add that Ravsberg left the BBC because of the BBC's anti-Cuba bias (see Part 1).

She suggested it was inappropriate for Ravsberg to have interviewed Pantoja "in the middle of a workplace and ethical process that has not yet concluded", presumably because the publicity might prejudice the outcome. Ironically, her own public intervention via Facebook might also prejudice the outcome, given that the UPEC National Ethics Commission has been deliberating on Pantoja's appeal against his suspension from UPEC—of which Hevia is vice-president. Hevia then changed tack, raising the suspicion, without citing any evidence, that Pantoja's real motivation was to use the tale of his dismissal as a springboard to a media career in Miami, Florida, the citadel of the Cuban counter-revolution. "Colleagues have been asking themselves" if this is what he's up to, she informed her Facebook followers (her comments were then republished by Iroel Sanchez).

UPEC Congresses have been very critical affairs, Hevia stressed, but these and other UPEC fora are our spaces, those of the journalists. It's noteworthy, she said, that Pantoja, who said he recorded everything, and didn't ask for permission to publish something discussed in a professional association forum, didn't publish other, "more critical and proposal-oriented" interventions, and selected only that of the deputy editor of Granma—the PCC publication. Here, Hevia seemed to suggest that Pantoja's target might have been the Party itself. Like the suspicion that Pantoja might be planning to defect to Miami, this was a mere insinuation. It's apposite to note that the UPEC Code of Ethics states that journalists "must foster and uphold fraternal relations and mutual respect among colleagues", and "refrain from public comment that denigrates or discredits them".

Hevia rounded out her intervention with another dig at Ravsberg, dismissing his apparent concern for the fate of a fellow journalist: "The problems of the press, which we recognise, we have to resolve among ourselves, we don't need anyone to give us recipes, let's not fool ourselves, that interest in defending Pantoja is false, they're trying to prejudice us, this is an objective that's abundantly clear."

Fernando Ravsberg
On August 26, Pantoja returned fire in a blistering blog post titled, "Where are Aixa Hevia's ethics?" He let fly a volley of adjectives—"offensive, defamatory, slanderous, harmful and disrespectful"—at Hevia's Facebook intervention, which had been circulating in cyberspace. Had any other journalist cast judgement on me, Pantoja fumed, "I would have accepted it without any difficulty, at the end of the day it would have been a personal opinion. But Aixa Hevia is not just any journalist, we're talking about the first vice-president of the Cuban Journalists Union". His sole aim, he insisted, was "to spark a serious and professional debate, which without any doubt would have contributed something positive."

Responding to Hevia's claim that he had excised a criticism of Ravsberg's character ('now we know who he is') from the transcript of Marron's UPEC intervention, Pantoja explained that at 6 minutes and 44 seconds, Marron can be clearly heard to ask, 'And here we all know who Ravsberg is?' Another voice is heard to reply 'yes', then Marron says: 'and if someone doesn't know him, its because they just haven't wanted to see him' (i.e. they pretend he doesn't exist). Pantoja's explanation here, on the basis of his recording, casts Marron's passing reference to Ravsberg in a very different light: one favourable to Ravsberg.

Pantoja went on to explain that in editing the transcript, he had decided to answer Marron's question to the audience with an explanatory note: 'Fernando Ravsberg, Uruguayan journalist based in Cuba, former BBC World correspondent in Havana'. "At no point did I try to save Ravsberg from any allusion [to his character] because, first of all, I'd never said a word to him until now." Pantoja expressed his deep gratitude to Ravsberg "for the interest he has shown in my case, as well as that of a great many colleagues that in my Cuba and in various places around the world have spoken out against the injustice that in my view, and theirs, has been done to me".

[To be continued]

Monday, September 12, 2016

Struggle over the Cuban press intensifies

On August 4, I posted my translation of Cuban intellectual Esteban Morales' response to the explosive intervention by the 37-year-old Granma deputy editor, Karina Marron, at a meeting of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC) on June 28. I then translated Marron’s leaked intervention itself, followed by a blog post by Granma's young international editor, Sergio Alejandro Gomez, on 'The troubled relationship between journalism and politics in Cuba'. This served to introduce another rising star of Cuban journalism and to contextualise Marron's remarks.

Much has transpired since then. In this long-overdue post and its sequel I’ll try to summarise this whole episode to date and comment on its significance for Cuba’s socialist renewal. The course of events since the June 28 UPEC plenum has generated a wealth of translation-worthy material, a selection of which I hope to share with readers over the coming weeks. This post and that which will follow are an extended preface to the next raft of translations.

* * *

On June 28, 37-year-old Karina Marron, the deputy editor of Granma, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) daily, made some candid remarks at a closed-door meeting of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC). The Cuban media reported on the event, but airbrushed out of their coverage Marron’s more incendiary and newsworthy comments. That selectivity was a case of either actual censorship or self-censorship on the part of Cuban journalists and editors.

The story might have ended there had a Cuban journalist from Radio Holguin, Jose Ramirez Pantoja, withdrawn his index finger as he hesitated before clicking ‘Enter’ to upload his transcript of Marron’s comments onto his personal blog. That hovering finger was like the proverbial butterfly in the Amazon: it triggered a storm in Cuban cyberspace with real-world repercussions.

What did Marron say that set the cat among the pigeons? She spoke about the dire state of Cuban journalism: the difficulty of retaining young journalists repelled by Cuba’s propagandistic mass media and by pitiful salaries (a wider problem), bureaucratic controls (e.g. the recent prohibition on journalists freelancing for ‘independent’ Cuban or foreign media organisations to make ends meet) and UPEC’s own powerlessness. Congress after UPEC congress we've been saying the same things, yet nothing changes; we cannot repeat this cycle of impotence and inertia, she warned.

The PCC and the press itself had been turning a blind eye to the real problems and viewing things in isolation, she added. There may indeed be a concerted effort to bring about a rift between the PCC and the press. 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."

That devastating critique alone would have aroused well-honed instincts of self-censorship, and thus self-preservation, among Cuban journalists—to say nothing of the ire and alarm it must have aroused among the actual censors, i.e. the PCC Central Committee Ideological Department functionaries who set the limits on what can be written and said in the Cuban mass media.

Yet Marron went further, suggesting the existence of a concerted effort by young Granma journalists to change things at the paper, to keep piloting “the yacht”—a figurative allusion, it seems, to the yacht Granma in which Fidel Castro and his comrades sailed from Mexico to Cuba to launch the revolutionary war against Batista, the yacht after which the paper is named. Marron's comments were thus charged with youthful revolutionary defiance, the spirit that Esteban Morales applauded.

But Marron’s most explosive comments were not these. Elsewhere in her remarks, she violated a taboo not only of Cuban journalism but of the Cuban Communist Party itself: public criticism of Raul Castro (and before him, Fidel). Referring to Cuba’s difficult economic conjuncture, with Venezuela sending less oil, she warned: “A perfect storm is brewing”. But unlike in 1994, when Fidel’s powers of persuasion and personal intervention defused protests that broke out in Havana, “so far there hasn't been a figure in this country that faces the people to explain things to them as they're happening”.

Whether or not she intended it, this could easily be interpreted as a criticism of Raul Castro’s rather different leadership style. Unlike Fidel, Raul prefers to work quietly behind the scenes. Raul did address the economic situation in his mid-year report to the National Assembly in June (dismissing any comparisons to the early 1990s, the harshest years of Cuba's post-Soviet 'Special Period').

But Fidel's withdrawal from public life has left an informational void. Gone is that ubiquitous presence; those frequent, hours-long televised speeches Cubans were accustomed to in which Fidel informed, criticised, explained, persuaded. While many Cubans might appreciate Raul's brevity and bluntness—and his disinterest in dominating the airwaves—that void has not been filled. The role of Cuba's pro-Revolution media assumes particular importance in this context.

Marron's comments were explosive not only because of what she said, but because of who she is. As the deputy editor of Granma, Marron is next in line to take over the paper's editorship. That's a position of great responsibility and influence; and it will become even more important if her side of the struggle over the role and character of the Cuban press prevails. If the heavy hand of the PCC's Ideological Department is lifted, then Granma's editorial team will have more discretion to decide what is and isn't fit to print, and thus to shape public opinion.

Press model and socialist model

Such a devolution of powers over the press (and by extension, Cuban TV and radio) from the PCC's Ideological Department towards the editors and the journalists themselves, would be a significant power shift in Cuban society. Some fear it. Others are clamouring for it. Both the defenders of the status quo and those who challenge it understand that the stakes are high. This is no mere difference of opinion among comrades, but a protracted and largely subterranean arm-wrestle that burst into the open when Marron's remarks went viral.

The prevailing Cuban press model is ever-more crisis-ridden. That's due to several converging factors, among them Fidel's withdrawal from public life; online connectivity and the rise of the Cuban blogosphere; low salaries and the inducement of the 'independent' media; the social differentiation and class polarisation taking place as the state promotes self-employment, small and mid-sized private businesses, cooperatives and foreign investment as complements to the dominant state sector, while the press remains that of a relatively homogeneous society; and a wider crisis of the prevailing Cuban socialist model as a whole, which embodies—among other things—decades of misguided revolutionary utopianism and the malign influence of Soviet Stalinism.[1]

The crisis of the press in Cuba is bound up, then, with the crisis of the prevailing Cuban socialist model; and the revitalisation of Cuba's pro-socialist mass media is bound up with the wider struggle for Cuba's socialist renewal. In this light, the present struggle over the Cuban press is an advanced front in that wider struggle. As Javier Gomez Sanchez, a contributor to the pro-Revolution Cuban youth website La Joven Cuba (see below) put it: “This is the Gramscian moment that we Cubans have arrived at, in which there are things that are dying but not yet dead, and there are others that are being born but their birth is incomplete.
... The issue of the media has been perhaps the first of national scope that has reached the most critical stage of this process. All or nearly all of us are convinced that the media cannot continue to be run in revolutionary Cuba in the way it has been up to now. The journalists know it, the public knows it, we socialists know it, the counter-revolution knows it and the PCC knows it.
The struggle over the role and character of the Cuban press pits against each other two different conceptions of the relationship between the press and Cuba's highly concentrated political power. To Granma international editor Sergio Alejandro Gomez (see my previous post), according to the prevailing, 'dogmatic' conception, that relationship should be one of rigid subordination of journalism to political power. In the 'anti-dogmatic' conception, by contrast, that relationship would be subject to negotiation and a striving for consensus. This is the alternative vision that "needs to be empowered", he argues.

In January, veteran Cuban journalist and columnist Luis Sexto—a recipient of Cuba's most prestigious journalism award in 2009 for his lifetime contribution to the profession—lamented Cuba's "propagandistic journalism, incapable of creating and resolving conflicts" and the "dull and uncritical character of the Cuban press." If journalists "only write to defend the stance of the paper, or those behind it, [then] journalism has no purpose", Sexto added. He concluded: "the press cannot be a window through which enemy influences penetrate society, but neither can it serve our own self-deception".

If both the dogmatic and anti-dogmatic conceptions of the press contrasted by Granma's international editor are widely held in Cuban society as a whole, and tend to align with wider 'conservative' and renovationist currents of socialist thought and action, does this conceptual polarisation extend all the way to the top leadership of the PCC? Probably. But the PCC leadership's practice of thrashing out its differences behind closed doors then presenting a united front to society—which does make it harder for the Revolution's enemies to exploit differences of opinion at the top—makes it difficult to say without insider knowledge.

Perhaps there's a consensus at the highest levels on the need to empower the anti-dogmatic conception and the barriers exist at other levels of the PCC; perhaps not. What's clear is Raul Castro's orientations to the press, and thus the majority, if not the consensus, view of the PCC leadership. In his report to the 6th PCC Congress in 2011, Raul chastised the press for being, not infrequently, "boring, improvised and superficial" and called on the media to "leave behind, once and for all, the habit of triumphalism, stridency and formalism". This was withering criticism. But whether the PCC leadership agree on a devolution of powers towards the editors and journalists, and a relationship between the press and the party apparatus based on negotiation rather than subordination, is another question. Time will tell.

The debate

Within days of its publication (and hasty withdrawal) on Pantoja's personal blog, Marron's incendiary intervention went viral across Cuba's emerging cybersphere (and internationally). That virality had immediate repercussions. Within days Pantoja, 39, was sacked by his radio station. We'll come back to this dismissal later. In the Cuban cybersphere, public opinion quickly polarised, initially in response to the leaked transcript and then in response to the sacking of Pantoja.

A fierce debate erupted online. Key protagonists quickly emerged on both sides, each drawing in their wake legions of below-the-post commentators who created lengthy discussion threads. On the blog of Silvio Rodriguez (see below) one such thread has clocked up more than 250 comments. It's hard to gauge the full extent of this online controversy, but its nodes seem to be a handful of Cuban websites and blogs—spanning the pro-Revolution ideological spectrum—that each have relatively large readerships. Some of these nodes are the personal blogs of key protagonists. Others are online publications, such as the pro-government Cubadebate website.

One node is the blog of prolific Cuban blogger Iroel Sanchez. A former president of the Cuban Book Institute, Sanchez is a vociferous defender of the status quo, i.e. of Cuban socialist orthodoxy. His political line adheres closely to that of the government. Rather than seeking to push the boundaries of change in some desired direction (as does Esteban Morales for example), Sanchez tends to advocate only those changes in Cuban society that have become PCC policy. He is thus in the rearguard at best, rather than the vanguard, of 'changing everything that must be changed', as Fidel defined revolution in his May Day 2000 speech.

Another node of the online debate is the blog of Uruguayan-born former BBC journalist Fernando Ravsberg. Unlike most foreign journalists posted to Cuba, Ravsberg is intimately familiar with Cuban society. Married to a Cuban, he has lived in Cuba since the early 1990s and considers it home. His bilingual Cartas desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba), a mix of commentaries and interviews, occupy a niche for uncompromising journalism that the Cuban press has all but vacated. Consequently, his Cartas have a sizeable and avid Cuban readership.

Ravsberg left the BBC in 2014 because, according to him, the broadcaster edited out his observation that the US had just criticised Cuba for human rights violations yet didn't mention that the largest concentration of political prisoners on the Cuban archipelago is in the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Ravsberg is no Marxist revolutionary, but neither is he a counter-revolutionary (as some of his detractors label him). Rather, he is a liberal leftist who harbours no prejudice, it seems, towards non-dogmatic Marxism—judging by his occasional appeals to the Marxist authority of Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin to make his point. The real problem with Ravsberg seems to be that his brand of journalism is anathema to those schooled in the propagandistic style; and that he's not Cuban, and therefore suspect. (An admirer of Ravsberg has pointed out that Che Guevara wasn't Cuban either, but Argentinean).

Another debate node is the blog of legendary Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who makes no secret of his desire for a more transparent, pluralistic and participatory socialist model. Rodriguez is politically outspoken, but his prestige both within and outside Cuba make him almost untouchable. Were he to be demonised for his unorthodox views, when those views resonate with millions of Cubans, the demonisers would merely discredit themselves. That's prestige in the same league as that of the Cuban Five, or the late Alfredo Guevara, another outspoken critic from within the Revolution. Rodriguez's blog has hosted some of the richest veins of the online controversy, and Rodriguez himself has made numerous pithy interventions, some of which I'll share with readers.

Yet another key debate platform is the website La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba), an initiative of two Communist Youth activists from the University of Matanzas in central Cuba, Haroldo Cardenas and Roberto Peralo. LJC is pro-Revolution but critical, irreverent and unorthodox. It went offline for a few months in 2013 after the University of Matanzas closed the site's internet account, citing 'ideological problems'. It resurfaced thanks to the personal intervention, it seems, of none other than Raul Castro's designated successor, first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel. The photo of a smiling Diaz-Canel flanked by LJC activists, beneath portraits of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro, is telling. 

Miguel Diaz-Canel with La Joven Cuba activists, 2013
The online debate has spilled over into the Cuban press itself, but cryptically and tangentially. For example, the Communist Youth daily Juventud Rebelde reported on September 3 that Diaz-Canel had met with the paper's staff, who spoke of the need to "eliminate certain institutional hindrances", but the report did not elaborate. The Cuban mass media has been studiously silent on the three things that precipitated the online debate: the leaking of Marron's UPEC intervention; the content of her most newsworthy remarks; and Pantoja's dismissal.  

Cuban journalists couldn't or wouldn't report on the dismissal of an experienced, decorated fellow journalist for publishing on his own blog what the deputy editor of Granma said at a meeting of his own professional association—and theirs—at which the Cuban media were officially present, and at which Pantoja represented his work collective. It was Ravsberg who broke the news of Pantoja's dismissal by allowing Pantoja to tell his side of the story in an interview that first appeared on Ravsberg's blog, followed by an English translation

[To be continued]



[1] See my master's thesis, Statist Utopianism and the Cuban Socialist Transition. There's a brief discussion of the Cuban press on page 78.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Granma's international editor on the press

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 my previous post).

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. I'd always hoped this blog could be a collaborative project. Now it is.

*  *  *

The troubled relationship between journalism and politics in Cuba

By Sergio Alejandro Gomez

June 7, 2016

Translation: Cuba's Socialist Renewal


Sergio Alejandro Gomez
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”.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Karina Marron's UPEC intervention

As promised, here is my 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.

Karina Marron's UPEC intervention

June 28, 2016

Translation: Marce Cameron


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.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Esteban Morales on press censorship

Ever the canary in the coalmine, outspoken Cuban intellectual Esteban Morales (introduced here) alerts readers of his personal blog to a recent flashpoint in the largely subterranean struggle over the role and character of the press in Cuba. 

Incandescent with indignation, Morales declares his solidarity here with young Cuban journalists, members of Cuba's Union of Communist Youth, who are in revolt against the strictures imposed on journalists by the Cuban Communist Party's Ideological Department, which oversees—i.e. censors and micromanages—the Cuban press, radio and TV. That oversight role, and how it is exercised by Department chief Colonel Rolando Alfonso Borges, is the biggest obstacle to the urgent and long overdue revitalisation of Cuba's pro-Revolution press.

One flashpoint in the struggle against Cuba's Stalinesque media overlords, and for a radical overhaul of the conception and practice of journalism and the media in socialist-oriented Cuba, was the 6th Plenum of the Cuban Journalists Union on June 28, which Morales refers to below. According to an unauthorised recording and transcript of her intervention—presumably genuine rather than concocted, since she has not challenged the attribution nor repudiated her alleged remarks—Karina Marron, the 37 year old deputy editor of Granma, told truth to power. 

In an ironic twist, the Cuban media that answers to Alfonso Borges airbrushed her comments out of their coverage of the event, while the interventions of numerous other speakers were cited. Only the UPEC website's summary of the event includes a paragraph on Marron's comments, which lends legitimacy to the authenticity of the transcript. Initially published on a Cuban journalist's personal blog, the transcript was taken down hours later. But by then the genie was out of the bottle, and it is now widely available online. 

I hope to translate Marron's intervention, or extracts from it, for readers of my blog. I'll also translate some material on other recent flashpoints in this important struggle—and more of the backstory—for future posts. Stay tuned.         

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The present debate

By Esteban Morales

July 24, 2016

Translation: Marce Cameron


Something must be said about the present debate which has flared up, which I think is a good thing. At last, what so many have tried to do during these years is starting to bear fruit, and rather high up too. Finally, it seems the critique of our 'bad press' is getting through.

From a Cuba in which critical or conflicting voices are barely heard, we've now entered another in which nearly everything is being subjected to criticism. Only it seems the ideological apparatus of the Cuban Communist Party [PCC] is nowhere to be seen. As has been said before, where is the Party's ideological apparatus when things happen such as that which just occurred at the recent plenum of the Cuban Journalists Union [UPEC]? Have they been there, and did they listen to the torrent of truths that were told? I think they must have been, but they haven't done anything yet. Will they do something now?

Undoubtedly, one of the consequences of the 7th Party Congress has been the subtle dismantling of the Party's ideological apparatus. We don't see the kind of ideological work that is needed given the situation facing the country. Fortunately, the comrade First Secretary [of the PCC, Raul Castro] made a timely rectification at the 7th Congress itself, which [had he not done so it] would have been the biggest mistake that could have been made, when the Congress documents were put to the Congress for debate and approval without the party membership as a whole knowing what was in them, nor participating in the discussion of them. Such was the criticism received in this regard that the First Secretary announced a different approach in his speech.

Now the Congress documents are even being debated by those outside the Party's ranks. That's encouraging, in that it wasn't a 'bottled' Congress or one solely for Party functionaries. Because I still think a mistake such as the one which was about to be made would have destroyed our Party's democracy.

What just took place in the recent UPEC plenum with the Communist Youth (UJC) members of the Granma newspaper staff, is symptomatic of the fact that the people are tired of censorship and no longer accept it, wherever it may come from and whatever the consequences of putting an end to this state of affairs.

This is called revolutionary courage. There's no other word for it.

Granma deputy editor Karina Marron
Anyone might think that Granma has been the cathedral. It was, but no doubt it's becoming less of one. Its youngest staff members, through their UJC base committee, have rebelled. The communist youth took the initiative, and when this happens the future is guaranteed.

In other times we've lived through, what the Granma deputy editor [Karina Marron], a member of the UJC base committee, has done would have left the newspaper without communist cadres. Those of the UJC because they 'opened fire', and the Party members for merely having heard the broadside even though they didn't express support for it. Which would have meant the newspaper being left without Party members too, because nobody with a sense of honour would have accepted such cowardice.

Warm congratulations to the UJC members at Granma, especially the deputy editor. Now we really can be confident that it's not only the numerous criticisms of our press, those of [Raul] Garces[1] in the UPEC Congresses and those of others, who have been saying for all these years that the press we have is a toothless tiger.

It's that now the monster isn't confronting us, but inside our 'stomachs', and we must digest it. As part of a cultural war that has already begun, and which threatens to take us back to the era of the Joint Resolution and the Platt Amendment.[2]

They got tired of suffering from what has been almost a sickness of our press. An epidemic which has been talked about several times, because it afflicts all of the provinces. It's that we adopted a 'Stalinist' press model, coming from the USSR in particular; I say this because I lived there, and more than 40 years later, we keep this up. How long are we going to wage war on the truth and transparency in our press? How long are we going to restrain the revolutionary initiatives of our journalists which would allow them to feel truly responsible and committed to what they do?

It's very good that the explosion didn't come from outside, the 'puncture' came from within; I think our press has 'imploded'. I am in solidarity with everyone who has defended those ideas which I just read. And if the inept functionaries were to respond in an aggressive manner, they'd simply confirm Fidel's words at Havana University, in 2005, when our Maximum Leader said: “We ourselves could destroy the Revolution”.

I think that in all honesty, what has happened to our press to date is not the fault of the journalists, nor even the newspapers, but of the superstructural apparatus that runs them and which has to be just 'smashed to smithereens'. Because we can't just keep doing the same thing for more than forty years, with the same people, and imagine that the problems are going to fix themselves. The distortions in our press can only be rectified by removing those who distorted it.

The evident incapacity to run our press is proven beyond doubt. The top Party leadership just needs to restructure this apparatus and appoint new people, trained, capable, who should be journalists themselves—of which there are many—who want to work and feel free to defend the country. Because it wouldn't occur to anyone that an engineer could perform a kidney transplant, or that anyone who has never been a journalist, nor written an article for almost their entire life, could run the press, in some cases at the highest level. For years, all they've been seen to do is reprimand, censor, approve or disapprove, criticise, even have people expelled from the Party, for an article or a presentation they didn't like, but never to actually run a newspaper.

Several journalists congresses have been held, dozens of meetings, but no such invigorating phenomenon as that which took place recently in that last UPEC plenum has ever happened. I'd say it hasn't only been a journalist's plenum, but an example, a methodological guide to how one must act in order to sweep away everything that threatens the survival of the Cuban Revolution.

Nevertheless, it must be said that while this debate has barely begun at the level of profundity it has now reached, there are others which already do so continuously, systematically, [and have done so] for a long time, such as those of the journal Temas[3], Espacio Laical[4], Dialogar-Dialogar[5], and others, which have referred to the problem of the press, without the latter having taken its cue, which places it at an evident disadvantage. Our press cannot be aloof from what is being debated—especially when the press itself is the subject of debate—in other spaces.

The press has to debate, respond to the criticisms, confront, etc. That is, be part of a debate which, in taking place within Cuban civil society, affects the content and context of its informational and cultural work. The press cannot inform with objectivity, and to a high standard, unless it keeps abreast of the above debate, takes part in it and reflects it in its day-to-day work. Otherwise, a part of society, which is not involved in those debates, no longer informs itself about things that, in the end, do interest and affect it. In order to do its job, the press needs to have allies. It can get them from that same contact with the centres of debate, the academic and cultural sphere in general. This allows it to improve the quality of its informational work, taking advantage of the existing potentialities within the intelligentsia, academia, science and culture.

The revolutionary intelligentsia and the press should forge a strategic alliance capable of providing an intelligent, informed and specialised response, including to issues that concern political-ideological work. A press that does not interact with the intelligentsia, while being intellectual work itself; that does not participate in its activities and does not interact continually with the intelligentsia, is unable to hold up a mirror to the nation. Nor can it get feedback and nourishment from what transpires.

Intellectuals themselves must have more column inches in the press, providing content that allows it to better reflect the life of a country that is ever more cultivated, qualified and demanding. In this respect, the press must never lag behind.

The press has to be the centrifuge, always switched on, in which all of the national and international events are loaded, aimed and launched. Nobody is more compelled to be a good researcher than she who wishes to be a better journalist.

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Translator's notes:

[1] Raul Garces is a member of the UPEC executive and dean of Havana University's journalism faculty. 

[2] The US government's 1901 Platt Amendment and associated Joint Resolution formalised Cuba's status as a US neocolony.     

[3] Temas is a prestigious Cuban journal, published under the auspices of Cuba's culture ministry, that hosts lively monthly debates on varied topics. 

[4] Espacio Laical is a Cuban journal published by the Cuban Catholic Church's Felix Varela Centre in Havana.

[5] Dialogar-Dialogar is a Cuban website dedicated to furthering the political activism of the late Alfredo Guevara, a towering figure in Cuba's post-revolutionary cultural field and an outspoken intellectual of libertarian Marxist leanings. He was a member of the PCC and had the ear of Fidel Castro.