By: Sjamme van de Voort
PhD student and freelance risk analyst focussing on Cuba
After weeks of doing interviews all around Cuba during the summer of 2014, I took a day off to explore Baracoa, a city in eastern Cuba. Beyond the eastern peaks of the Sierra Maestra, Baracoa is isolated, and deliveries had not reached the supermarket, which meant a hunt for groceries all around town. During this quest, I met a man on a street corner. After a little chat, he insisted on taking me to his house. We strolled along the beautiful houses of this colonial city and climbed a hill where his house stood between palm trees outside the city limits. I entered what was his combined kitchen, living room and bedroom, housing him, his mother, and his mentally disabled sister. Big holes in the roof revealed a clear view of the blue sky. Behind the hill, more houses were in the same condition. It was a shocking contrast between the houses in the historic part of the town, where bed and breakfasts hosted tourists, and these houses covered haphazardly with plastic.
My new friend insisted that I turn my camera on, and explained how his house had come to look like this. Hurricane Sandy had hit Baracoa hard in 2013, and had taken large parts of his house with it. The government in Havana had sent supplies, to be distributed by the local branches of government, the so-called ‘Committees for the Defence of the Revolution’ (CDR). The tourist part of the city was supplied with material, but areas out of sight were neglected, and material sold to the highest bidder. One neglected household faced onto a road into the city, and solved the problem by writing a complaint in big letters on their outside wall. Material for their house was quickly provided by the CDR. My camera had become my new friend’s only way of communicating his conditions to the outer world, and more importantly, to the authorities that were meant to keep his local government in check.
My camera and the writing on the wall were poor substitutes for a free press. The government controls the official newspapers, radio and TV stations, and it is important to understand that the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is not a political party – that would imply the existence of other political parties – but rather an organ that monopolizes all aspects of Cuban political, social and economic life through its ‘mass organisations’, and of course the official media.
My experience in Baracoa is not unique. “Technically, all Cubans are criminals”. This (bad) joke was told at a conference, in which the many layers of the Cuban black market were discussed. When the USSR collapsed, the Cuban economy fell completely apart, and Cubans did what they could to survive the shortages. This lead to a new lexicon of Cuban idioms that avoid direct reference to crime, and instead place the act in a realm of necessity and an entrepreneurial solution to everyday struggle: “Where did you get meat for that stew?” – “I invented it.” (Read: “I stole it from the hotel where I work”). “How did you get access to a car to go to work?” – “I resolved it.” (Read: “I traded something for the permission to drive it.”) These seemingly innocent, almost resilient acts of survivalism, embody a core problem of corruption; in certain situations it seems like there is no other way and it is hard to see, or empathise with, a victim of the crime. The problem only becomes apparent when this attitude becomes normalised and institutionalised.
Media law in Cuba is complicated. Article 53 of the constitution states that citizens enjoy freedom of press and speech in accordance to the socialist goals of Cuban society. On first impression, this sounds good, but the problematic term here is ‘the socialist goals of Cuban society’; article 3 states that socialism in Cuba is ‘irrevocable’, and article 62 states that acts against the socialist goals of society are punishable under the penal code. As article 53 furthermore states that all mass media are state property, and since article 5 stipulates that the PCC is the leading force of the state, this means that all mass media constitutionally belong to the PCC. The ‘freedom of speech’ guaranteed by article 53 is thus only a freedom within the realm of official media, under the threat of being persecuted under article 92 of the penal code, which punishes violations of the ‘integrity of the Cuban state’ (of which the Cuban media constitutionally form part) with 10-20 years of prison, or even the death penalty.
Although these extreme penalties are rarely applied, the threat of punishment for perceived criticism of the government prevents journalists from pointing out flaws in the system. The main newspaper, Granma, is therefore reduced to a mixture of historical anecdotes, speeches by Cuban politicians and international news, filtered through the lens of government foreign policy.
A disruption to this system came with the growth of independent media on independent blogs, news sites and other services that started flourishing from 2007, and are distributed through limited access to the internet, the Cuban national intranet, and finally through the network of USB drives with bootleg copies of anything an internet user can download from the world wide web.
Unfortunately, Cubans only have limited and monitored access to the Internet, which means that there is a disconnect between the population and independent media. President Raúl Castro has announced that he will step down in 2018, and there are talks about constitutional change. Since the problem in Cuba is not primarily the violation of the law, but rather the legal framework that promotes censorship and obscures transparency, Anti-Corruption International, along with other international civil society organizations, should join the Cuban journalists in a call for a change in media law that allows the exposure of corruption in Cuba.
1. There has been a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in Cuba since 2003, and article 29.2 of the penal code can only be applied to men over 20.