The Thousand Faces of “Journalism” / Miriam Celaya
Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 29 March 2017 – An opinion piece
published in recent days by El Nuevo Herald gives me a disturbing
feeling of déjà vu. It is not the subject – overflowing with a number of
articles by different authors – but its focal point, which presents as
adequate a number of superficial and highly subjective assessments to
validate conclusions that in no way reflect the reality it alleges to
With other hues and nuances, it has the same effect in me as the
experience of participating as a guest at a meeting of journalists,
politicians and academics – primarily Americans – held October, 2014 at
Columbia University, just two months before the announcement of the
restoration of relations between the governments of Cuba and the United
States, where the wish to support rapprochement and to substantiate the
need to eliminate the embargo was essentially based on colossal lies.
For example, I heard how the “Raúl changes” that were taking place in
Cuba favored the Cuban people and a process of openness, and I learned
of the incredible hardships that Cubans had to endure as a result of the
direct (and exclusive) responsibility of the embargo, of the fabulous
access to education and health services (which were, in addition to
being easily accessible, wonderful) enjoyed by Cubans, and even the zeal
of the authorities to protect the environment.
To illustrate this last point, an American academic presented the
extraordinary conservation state of the Jardines de la Reina
archipelago and its adjacent waters, including the coralline formations,
as an achievement of the Revolutionary Government. She just forgot to
point out that this natural paradise has never been within reach of the
common Cuban, but is a private preserve of the ruling caste and wealthy
tourists, a fact that explains its favorable degree of conservation.
The Cuba that many American speakers described on that occasion was so
foreign to a Cuban resident on the Island, as I was, that I wondered at
times if we were all really speaking about the same country.
In my view, the question was as contradictory as it was dangerous.
Contradictory, because there is certainly sufficient foundation, based
on realities, to consider the (conditional) suspension of the embargo or
to show partiality for dialogue between governments after half a century
of sterile confrontations, without the need to resort to such gross
falsehoods, especially – and I say this without xenophobic animosity or
without a smack of nationalism – when they are brandished by foreigners
who don’t even have a ludicrous idea of the reality the Cuban common
population lives under or what its aspirations are. Dangerous, because
the enormous power of the press to move public opinion for or against a
proposal is well known, and to misrepresent or distort a reality unknown
to that public, can have dire consequences.
But it seems that such an irresponsible attitude threatens to become a
common practice, at least in the case of Cuba. This is what happens when
overly enthusiastic professionals confuse two concepts as different as
“information” and “opinion” in the same theoretical body.
It is also the case of the article referred to above, that its essence
is the answer to a question that is asked and answered by the author,
using the faint topic of the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s
historic visit to Cuba and some conjectures about the continuity of the
relations between both governments with the new occupant of the White House.
“What repercussions have the normalization of relations between the
United States and Cuba had on the Cuban people?” the writer of the
article asks, and she immediately answers herself by assuming several
suppositions, not totally exempt from logic, but regrettably inaccurate.
“Greater openness to Cuba has undoubtedly meant greater interaction with
the Cuban people through the exchange of information from the thousands
of Americans who now visit the island”, she says. And this is partially
true, but this “exchange of information” about a society as complex and
mimetic, and as long closed off as Cuba’s, is full of mirages and
subjectivities, so it ends up being a biased and exotic vision of a
reality that no casual foreign visitor can manage to grasp.
A diffuse assertion of the article is one that reassures: “Tourism
represents the main economic source for the country, and at the same
time it leverages other sectors related to textiles, construction and
transportation.” Let’s see: It may be that tourism has gained an
economic preponderance for Cuba, but that it has boosted the textile,
construction and transportation sectors is, at the most, a mere
objective, fundamentally dependent on foreign capital investment, which
has just not materialized.
In fact, the notable increase in tourist accommodations and restaurants,
bars and cafes in the private sector is the result not of the tourist
boom itself but of the inadequacy of the hotel and gastronomic
infrastructure of the State. If the author of the article has had
privileged access to sources and information that support such
statements, she does not make it clear.
But if the colleague at El Nuevo Herald came away with a relevant
discovery during her trip to Havana –job related? for pleasure? – it is
that many young people “believe in the socialist model.” Which leads us
directly to the question, where did these young people learn what a
“socialist model” is? Because, in fact, the only thing that Cubans born
during the last decade of the last century have experienced in Cuba is
the consolidation of a State capitalism, led by the same regime with
kleptomaniacal tendencies that hijacked the power and the Nation almost
60 years ago.
About the young people she says that “many are self-employed and
generate enough resources to live well.” There are currently more than
500 thousand people In Cuba with their own businesses, about 5% of the
population, according to ECLAC” [U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin
America and the Caribbean]. This is another slip, almost childish. The
source that originally reports the figure of half a million
self-employed workers belongs to the very official National Office of
Statistics and Information (ONEI), a Cuban Government institution, and
not to ECLAC. This number has remained unchanged for at least the last
two years, as if the enormous migration abroad and the numerous returns
of licenses on the part of the entrepreneurs who fail in their efforts
or who are stifled by the system’s own circumstances, among other
factors, did not make a dent.
But even assuming as true the immutable number of “self-employed” that
the authorities refer to, on what does the writer base her assumptions
that the self-employed generate sufficient recourses to live well? Could
it be that she ignores that that half a million Cubans includes
individuals who fill cigarette lighters, sharpen scissors, recycle trash
(“the garbage divers”), are owners of shit-hole kiosks, repair household
appliances, are roving shaved-ice, peanut, trinket and other knickknack
vendors, and work at dozens of low-income occupations that barely
produce enough to support themselves and their families? Doesn’t the
journalist know about the additional losses most of them suffer from
harassment by inspectors and the police, the arbitrary tax burdens and
the legal defenselessness? What, in the end, are the standards of
prosperity and well-being that allow her to assert that these Cubans
I would not doubt the good intentions of the author of this unfortunate
article, except that empathy should not be confused with journalism. The
veracity of the sampling and the seriousness of the data used is an
essential feature of journalistic ethics, even for an opinion column, as
in this case. We were never told what data or samples were used as a
basis for the article, the number of interviewees, their occupations,
ages, social backgrounds and other details that would have lent at least
some value to her work.
And to top it off, the trite issue of Cuba’s supposedly high educational
levels could not be left out. She says: “While it is true that education
in Cuba is one of the best in the continent, the level of education is
not proportional to income, much less a good quality of life.”
Obviously, she couldn’t be bothered going into the subject of education
in Cuba in depth, and she is not aware of our strong pedagogical
tradition of the past, destroyed by decades of demagoguery and
indoctrination. She also does not seem to know the poor quality of
teaching, the corruption that prevails in the teaching centers and the
deterioration of pedagogy. We are not aware of what comparative patterns
allow her to repeat the mantra of the official discourse with its myth
about the superior education of Cubans, but her references might
presumably have been Haiti, the Amazonian forest communities or villages
in the Patagonian solitudes. If so, I’ll accept that Cubans have some
advantage, at least in terms of education levels.
There are still other controversial points in the text, but the most
relevant ones are sufficient to calculate the confusion the narration of
a reality that is clearly unknown can cause to an unaware reader. It is
obvious that the writer was not up to the task, or is simply not aware
of the responsibility that comes from a simplistic observation. And she
still pretends to have discovered not one, but two different Cubas.
Perhaps there are even many more Cubas, but, my dear colleague: you were
definitely never in any of them.
Translated by Norma Whiting
Source: The Thousand Faces of “Journalism” / Miriam Celaya – Translating