Journalism in the Cuban Revolution
Truth cannot be silenced
By Juan Marrero, Ernesto Vera and Robert Pavón
Prior to January 1, 1959 , the Cuban press was noticeably corrupted by and servile to foreign interests. During this time, both civilian and military factions of the Batista dictatorship made the press give no coverage to their repressive policies or find excuses for hiding them. Once the Revolutionary Forces seized power, the mass media was transformed, leading to changes in ownership and to a process in which journalists who had discredited their profession were deliberately left out. This paved the way for a new standard in journalism, responsive to all of the society's interests, and for the creation of a new journalists organization, characterized by its transparency and its defense of the independence, sovereignty, and interests of the Cuban people.
At this time, only a few newspapers, radio and television stations were appropriated -mainly those of the sensationalist press such as Ataja and Tiempo de Cuba that had been used to suppress the people. For example, the editor of Tiempo de Cuba , Rolando Masferrer, had been the head of a terrorist band called Masferrer Tigers, responsible for horrendous pain and suffering among Cubans, particularly in the eastern-most provinces.
Another appropriated newspaper was Alerta , whose director, Ramón Vasconcelos, had been the Minister of Communication during the Batista dictatorship. During his term, he signed numerous decrees, censuring radio and television programs.
During the first days of the Revolution, three radio stations stopped broadcasting: two of them where Fulgencio Batista had been one of the main stockholders, Circuito Nacional Cubano and Cadena Oriental de Radio , and one, Unión Radio , that had been owned by Eusebio Mujal a true gangster whom the dictatorship had used to undermine the labor movement.
The rest of the Cuban press from very reactionary papers, like Diario de la Marina and The Habana Post , to publications with liberal tendencies; for example, Prensa Libre , El Mundo and the magazine Bohemia remained as before, as did all of the major radio and television stations such as CMQ , owned by the media tycoons Goar and Abel Mestre.
Later, when big media outlets started being nationalized, other media at the service of the revolution also began appearing or resuming activity. Publications such as Revolución , Sierra Maestra , Combate and Mella Magazine, which had been formerly banned, became legal and publications that had been closed down by Batista, for instance, Noticias de Hoy and La Calle , resumed.
The first weeks after the revolutionary victory, the mainstream press put on a progressive, popular facade while in their articles they maintained a reactionary stand that clashed with the will of the people, just as the US expected them to behave. So, while thanking Fidel Castro, they would criticize aspects of the Revolution. For example, January 31, 1959 , Prensa Libre advised: "In regards to the Agrarian Reform Law, the best thing is to go slowly"; then on February 6, in response to the lowering of the cost of housing rentals and medicine: "This is just going too far," and on March 13: "The Revolution is just moving too fast. We would rather it take its time, being careful with every step it takes and inhaling deeply between steps." When the new revolutionary government asserted its right to have relations with all countries, regardless of their political, social, or economic system, Prensa Libre wrote, "In defending what is ours, we do not necessarily have to chastise Americans whom we, as a republic, are so close to, not only geographically and historically speaking, but due to our mutual and natural inclination towards democracy..."
In other words, the media was trapped both by their pro-US ideology and by geographic fatalism. Even Diario de la Marina was pretending to support the Revolution, just as it had done 60 years before, when it switched its support from Spanish colonialism to US imperialism. They pledged support for the revolution and then scorned it. During the enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law, editorials were written approving the idea of distributing wasteland and swamp areas to the landless farmers let poor peasants turn wastelands into farmland, but maintained that large estates, traditionally used as sugar plantations and for cattle breeding, should remain untouched.
In fact, the traditional media did not openly attack the Revolution during the first weeks, but instead hid behind quotes from AP or the UPI, and behind articles from Life and Times magazine. For example, the media opposed the legal process going on against almost 400 senior officers of the Batista dictatorship who had murdered and tortured tens of thousands of Cubans. Those murderers were brought before special courts organized by the revolutionary government and received severe sentences. In opposing this process, they were going against the people's demands for justice and creating the impression that the revolution was carrying out a bloodbath.
The first battle against disinformation
During the third week of January 1959, the revolution fought its first big battle against such misinformation by organizing, what came to be known, as Operation Truth. The initiative brought more than 400 journalists from several Latin American countries to Havana , to witness the trials of some of these criminals. At the end, they spoke with Fidel Castro at Riviera Hotel.
Operation Truth resulted in the birth of the Latin-American news agency Prensa Latina , with Argentinean journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti elected as director. Prensa Latina was the first door opened in Latin America to break the information monopoly held by the big US news agencies. Shortly afterwards, Radio Habana Cuba was created with similar purposes; that is, to present the Cuban reality to the outside world.
When finally, on May 17, 1959, the Agrarian Reform was implemented -all private media openly declared themselves enemies of the Revolution. They increased their attacks as part of a campaign orchestrated by the US and by members of the local oligarchy, who formed the Cuban Press Block and the notorious Inter-American Press Society ( Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa , or SIP). Confrontations became an everyday occurrence in journalism, with supporters of the Revolution on one side and its enemies on the other.
Journalism is not business
On June 7 of that year, Fidel Castro went to a lunch organized by the Journalism School, in which the directors of the major private media refused to participate. At this meeting, he expressed in public for the first time his ideas about what freedom of the press meant to the revolution:
"By journalism we understand, not business, but simply that: journalism. Business is business, and journalism deals with ideas, it is an intellectual effort. The segment of the population that really values the freedom of the press is not that involved in making a business out of journalism, but that segment that, thanks to the freedom of the press, is able to write and work in an intelligent manner," explained the Cuban leader.
This way of thinking has prevailed for the last 45 years.
At first, there was a real confrontation of ideas, not only among newspapers and magazines, but also within radio and television, as well as in their respective institutions and associations. Owners of radio and television stations began to block speeches delivered by leaders of the revolution, alleging that they had previous commitments to their advertisers. They also gave airtime to individuals who tried to foment discord and break down the unity of the people, threatening them with the ghost of Communism and other prejudices. To confront such counterrevolutionary operations, workers in broadcasting created an association called the Independent Organization of Free Broadcasters (Frente Independiente de Emisoras Libres [FIEL]) that linked several radio stations to simultaneously broadcast revolutionary messages.
Disclaimers: original method form of fighting
Another countermeasure taken was to add disclaimers to defamatory articles against the revolution. Journalists, workers from the print press and radio announcers started the initiative, which consisted of adding a disclaimer to the end of certain material. The disclaimer read something as follows: This wire (or this editorial, article, information, caption or caricature) was published according to the will of the publisher, who is expressing their point of view in virtue of the existing freedom of the press in Cuba . However, we the journalists and print press workers (or in the case of radio, broadcasters) in this workplace also exert this right, and therefore state that we do not share the aforementioned opinion and consider it to be lacking in accuracy.
The first of these disclaimers appeared in the Información newspaper, January 15, 1960 . Later they spread to other newspapers such as the Diario de la Marina . The decision to put a disclaimer on an article was made by Freedom of the Press Committees that were set up in all of the hostile media. The owners, of course, did not accept these actions and considered them an attack on the freedom of speech. Serious conflicts arouse when some editors refused to insert the disclaimer, which workers found unacceptable.
But these disclaimers were not the only actions that upset the press barons. Other steps that were also taken included:
- The media was deprived of government subsidies and handouts, which, during the previous dictatorship, amounted to almost two million dollars.
- Newspapers were given one year to put an end to their raffle system that used monies from the National Lottery to give away houses, cars and household goods. The National Lottery was slated to disappear as part of a sanitizing process of the Revolution, which was against all forms of gambling.
- The fear of big business in front of the changing course of the country led to a significant reduction in advertising, reducing profits in the private media. These profits had already greatly decreased due to losses from the social pages -where members of the already decaying oligarchy and the bourgeoisie were featured. This was also true for the sports section, since in sports commercialism and corruption had reigned given the large sums of money generated by professional sports.
All this caused a great exodus of newspaper and magazine owners and editors who fled mainly to Miami. Some of them, in an attempt to fuel anti-Cuban propaganda, sought asylum in various embassies, as did Miguel Angel Quevedo from Bohemia magazine, even though nobody was after him. They all ended up creating, in the US or elsewhere, counterrevolutionary publications with funds coming from the SIP, the CIA and other US agencies. In most cases, they kept the same names they had used in Cuba.
When the owners jumped ship, the workers formed collectives and took over operations at the print-shops, electing new editors. In this manner, Luis Gómez Wangüermert, Mario Kuchilán and Enrique de la Osa became the editors at El Mundo , Prensa Libre and Bohemia respectively. Similar events took place at the radio and television stations.
The newspapers Diario de la Marina , Información , El País and Excelsior took another course: their facilities were merged to establish the National Publishing House, which began publishing, on a large scale, works of classical literature along with textbooks for the literacy campaign and the school system. Renowned novelist and journalist Alejo Carpentier was placed in charge of organizing this publishing effort.
Parallel to this, journalist organizations, in particular entities such as the Reporters Association, became aware of their inability to keep up with the revolution and its program of social benefits. However, these organizations did succeed "albeit by means of a protracted, long process and overcoming the constraints in their statutes and regulations" in purging their membership and expelled dozens of notoriously corrupt journalists who had worked for repressive factions of the dictatorship.
In those days, a moralist movement took place, leading to the creation of a journalism union characterized by transparency, unity and strength; a revolutionary press able to more effectively face the aggressive campaigns orchestrated by US imperialism.
In Cuba, this process put an end to journalism as business, to news as merchandise, to sensationalism, advertising, social sections and sections devoted to crime and violence, bedroom gossip and frivolities, the worship and corruption of professional sports. The press would no longer be servile to foreign interests and the practice of half-truths and lies, hidden behind phrases such as "According to well informed sources." The public would no longer be lied to and tricked by the media.
A different press system
The struggle that tool place in the press, during the first two years after the revolution, had an international impact that was a valuable experience for the creation and growth of the Cuban press.
The executives that had controlled the mass media in Cuba had not allowed freedom of the press for their journalists, even while proclaiming the practice of it. By denying journalists freedom of the press, these businessmen had hijacked the constitution; it was none other than the SIP -a group of owners from the most important Latin American publishing presses- who had supported them. When journalists fought back by adding disclaimers to news articles, the objective was to stimulate debate and action, to put into practice a real concept of freedom of the press. And when new media groups were created under the new revolutionary system of press in Cuba , the overwhelming majority of journalists and broadcasters immediately joined them.
The emergence of the revolutionary press in Cuba was a landmark in the process towards true journalism, where the driving force was the public and their right to the truth -the press as a collective organ for social rights. For the first time in Latin America , the real concept of freedom of the press was being practiced, faithful to the interests of the people and their country. This revolutionary press left behind the old illegitimate press of the colonial and neocolonial times. It was challenged to practice a type of journalism in which freedom was connected to the responsibility to report with a revolutionary ethic, as a reflection of the new society that was developing.
This challenge required more than just the will to meet it: essential was an intellectual capacity to understand truth, truth as a science, and to make it known, and the ability to communicate on the bases of identifying the message and the receiver. In other words, truth has to stand on its own, because it has been proved and is provable. To speak or write on subjects that one does not fully understand is fraught with the peril of misleading the public, even if unintentionally. Therefore, right from the beginning, the main objective of this new system of journalism was to establish professionalism and to foment unity in their ranks.
With these two objectives in mind, the Association of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) was created July 15, 1963 . Loyalty to the country and defense of the new life style demanded a resolve to better oneself, to try to reach the ideals of the Revolution. From day one, this has been the main goal of Cuban journalists and UPEC.
In 1965, the first journalism higher college was inaugurated at the Havana University , and four years later, a second one at Oriente University . Both 1965 and 1969 are remembered as landmarks in the history of journalism in Cuba, when the study of journalism at university level was made available to young students entering university, as well as to practicing journalists through night courses and lectures.
These two universities, along with education programs drafted by UPEC and the professional experience of several decades, have resulted in a substantial improvement in the professionalism of Cuban journalists. Additionally, new targets were established at the VII UPEC Conference and at annual plenary meetings, where the leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro, posed new challenges.
Another change that occurred after the Revolution was the creation of new provincial newspapers and special publications, as some of the national newspapers merged. In 1962, for example, the evening newspapers Prensa Libre , Combate and La Calle combined to form La Tarde , which then merged with Mella becoming Juventud Rebelde . The most significant of all these amalgamations was that of Revolución and Hoy , in 1965, to form Granma . In 1970, the national newspaper Trabajadores was created, then in 1974 came AIN , the National Information Agency. Recently, educational channels and provincial television centers were set up, adding new dimensions to television broadcasting, both in substance and in scope. This has also taken place in the numerous national, regional and local radio stations.
Foundation of the Latin American Federation of Journalists
The existence of a new journalism standard in Cuba, thanks to a nationalistic and revolutionary press, has helped increase awareness about the manipulative role played in Latin America by transnational news agencies and their local branches. A good example is when UPEC helped form the Latin-American Federation of Journalists (FELAP) in 1976. This federation was created unifying communication professionals who shared clear anti-imperialist principles, reflected as much in meetings as in the accords reached. Their slogan, a free press in free countries, personifies this anti-imperialist ideal.
The CIA, as the SIP before, in an attempt to counter FELAP, has helped establish other journalist organizations, such as the Federación Interamericana de Organizaciones de Periodistas Profesionales (FIOPP), the Federación Latinoamericana de Trabajadores de la Prensa (FELATRAP) and the Federación Iberoamericana de Asociaciones de Prensa (FIAP). All have disappeared from the Latin-American picture as they lacked the necessary social base and support amongst journalists. Despite the failure of these attempts, some damage has been caused to the integrity of journalism, with appreciable deterioration of Latin American journalist associations and schools. Moreover, almost 700 journalists have disappeared or been murdered since the FELAP was founded -a clear indication that journalism is the most hazardous occupation in Latin-American. These disappearances and murders represent uncomfortable reminders to the harsh neo-liberal, military dictatorships set up, and supported by the US in countries they consider their backyard. Recently, crimes committed against journalist in Iraq -brought to attention at the Fourth Gathering of War Correspondents held in Havana- demonstrated once again the fear of the US government towards journalists who report truthfully.
Defense of the ethical principles
Since the Revolution, Cuban journalism has represented genuine freedom of the press at the service of the people, both nationally and regionally. It rigidly abides by and defends the international journalist code of ethics established in 1983 under the auspices of UNESCO, known as the UNESCO Code. Unfortunately, these standards, consisting of ten basic principles, have largely been ignored since Amadou Mattar M'bou left his post as head of UNESCO in the 1980s. And the media, in US-sanctioned military dictatorships around the world, continue to manipulate the press using it to spread fear.
A clear example of the strategic importance attributed to ethics in journalism is the recent increase in alternative media in the US and in its client countries. In the US, all research points to a marked decrease in the credibility of the mainstream media and an increase in the influence of alternative media, particularly through the Internet.
Cuba is a huge source of alternative media, both regionally and internationally -a press for Cuba and for the world and all facets of the Cuban media are represented on the internet. Those who identify with Cuba's message or those looking for a different perspective are making these sites increasing popular.
The Cuban press has had its shortcomings, faults and made errors along the way, all the while in search of improvement. The Cuban press has not touted its triumphs; the intellectuals who work in the press are modest and humble in their daily work, which has won admiration and recognition among the Cuban people. This is one of our proudest achievements in reshaping journalism in Cuba. Previously, journalism was not considered a prestigious career due to the reactionary nature of the policies of the media owners, always servile to US interests.
An honorable and ethical press, independent from foreign interests, founded on the ideals of a just and beautiful Revolution, and committed to the people, is the highest principle achievable. This ideal is incomprehensible to those journalists who see themselves as a piece of merchandise and a distant reality to those who cannot write what they believe and express their real opinions.
The pride that Cuban journalists feel was best describe by Cuba's National Hero, José Martí, when he said, "No one is more royal than an honorable journalist."
Values that overcome difficulties
The Cuban Revolution resulted in the emergence of a press that reached the whole of the country with its total of more than two million copies. Radio and television reached almost the whole population. In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp, that development was halted.
One third of all Cuban exports were destined to these markets and these markets provided Cuba with fuel and paper, both important to the national press. To get an idea, Cuba imported 41,000 tons of paper from the Soviet Union, 25,000 of which were used for the printed press, not to mention machinery, ink and camera film.
On October 1, 1989, upon consultation with the media and the Association of Cuban Journalists, a number of measures were adopted to deal with the crisis. Granma would be the only newspaper to continue publishing daily. By March 1992, seventeen months after the adoption of these restrictions on the print media, the country had reduced its printing to 42% of the publications and only 22% of the volume produced in 1989. For Granma , this meant a reduction of 41.2% of its copies and for Juventud Rebelde a reduction of 87%. This should give an idea of how tense and difficult the situation facing the print media was at the beginning of what was to be called the Special Period.
In an attempt to deal with these difficulties, radio was revitalized, with an emphasis on news coverage. A significant number of the 300 print media journalists affected by the crisis went on to work in radio. Once the situation had normalized, the majority of them stayed in radio, instead of returning to the print press. Some journalists began to work in research institutes and colleges. The few journalists who did not go to work in radio or these institutes continued to receive 60% of their salaries until they found employment.
As radio was the least affected of all the media, it took on a greater responsibility in news coverage; accordingly, a number of measures were initiated that proved to be viable. In a number of provinces, radio booths were installed, from where news and commentaries were relayed to municipal, provincial and national radio stations. The national newspaper, Juventud Rebelde started to jointly transmit a news magazine on Radio Rebelde radio station, which they called " Rebelde en Rebelde ".
The military press, which had achieved significant growth, was forced to phase out its popular magazine Verde Olivo . A true institution in journalism, Verde Olivo , which counted Ernesto "Che" Guevara among its founders and contributors, has not been in print since. The military newspaper Bastión also closed, as did El Oficial magazine, of the western, eastern and central armies, and the magazines DAAFAR and La Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria , among others.
Today, the Cuban National Radio consists of 80 radio stations with 34% of its programming devoted to news, up from 23% in 1989. Nonetheless, radio and television have also had to struggle with adverse conditions. The shortage of fuel, which before the Special Period was supplied almost entirely by the Soviet Union, forced a reduction in radio and television transmissions. Television programming, for example, was reduced from 213 hours to 135 a week; while in Radio, transmissions where limited to around 100 hours a day. The fuel shortage also affected transmissions as power shortages and blackouts were frequent, and batteries were scarce.
Reactivation of the Cuban media
Between 1990 and 1995, the Cuban economy shrank by 34%, strongly affecting the press. Economic revival began in 1995 with a 2.5% increase in the GNP, followed by a 7.8 % increase in 1996. These improved conditions led to new publications such as, the Habanera magazine published by ICAP; Negocios en Cuba and Avances Médicos published by Prensa Latina; Sendas , published by the Ministry of Transportation; Correo de Cuba and OPUS Habana , among others; however, their number of copies is not sufficient to meet the demands.
Magazines such as Mujeres and Muchachas , delaing with women issues and whose circulation had been interrupted in 1990, resumed, as well as publications for children and youth, such as Pionero , Zunzún , Juventud Técnica and Somos Jóvenes , although with a regularity and a quantity that does not meet the demands either.
During the Special Period, local provincial television stations had to reduce their transmissions to one hour a day. However, they have greatly increased their productivity and currently produce various local programs, some of which are broadcast nationally.
At present, all provinces have a local television station increasing the availability of local news. A significant achievement was the installation of radio and television transmitters in the dense mountainous area of Sagua, Moa, and Baracoa, where there used to be a zone of silence. Thanks to these transmitters, this vast area now receives television and radio signals, even in zones that are not connected to the national power grid, thanks to the installation of solar panels.
In 1999, a momentous gathering took place in Havana: the VII Conference of the Association of Cuban Journalists. This conference was of utmost importance to Cuban society, faced with the prospects of a long and hostile struggle, in which ideas, public opinion and the media play a crucial role. For months after the official conference, additional meetings carried on.
This conference was characterized by the determination to correct mistakes, put an end to sloppiness, superficiality and other negative habits that can afflict journalists and other professionals. Out of these meetings came the saying, "A better journalism, a deeper Revolution", which summarizes that a dignified press, loyal to truth and to the public interest can only lead to superior journalism, the kind of journalism that Cuba needs to defend itself.
On that occasion the congress also analyzed the serious problems that globalization of information and communication brings about.
On November 30 and December 1 debates on these ideas went on with the attendance of Cuban President, Fidel Castro, who emphasized the importance of Internet.
During the debates it became apparent that it was essential for journalists to develop computer skills. Fidel Castro said then that "journalists are like statesmen, because they defend identity and culture. They have to be journalists for the world and by the world."
The debates stressed the need for Cuban journalists to use Internet, a system developed by the rich nations that Cuba had no choice but to take advantage of.
Today Cuba is actively present on the Internet. Our press is busy using that system, for a total of 128 web sites in the country. Every newspaper and magazine, as well as all radio and television stations, has a site. They also hold discussion forums and debates. Good examples of these are the forums held by Radio Rebelde , Cuba Debate , La Jiribilla and Cuba Si . Their role is help Cuba defend itself in the international media arena.
News agencies have found in web pages a remarkable and dynamic way to increase their creativity. Also the learning of the English language has been improved with the assistance of electronic journalism. The Association of Cuban Journalists has excelled in this regards.
The Cuban press has also been actively participating in the "Battle of Ideas," which comprises a group of over 100 social programs, some of them directly involving the press. The Battle of Ideas -based on Cuba's response to the sustained aggression by the United States government - had its origin five years ago during Cuba's struggle to reunite the child Elian Gonzalez with his father. Associated to that struggle, a current events discussion program, called Mesa Redonda (Round Table), came into being which has become established as a daily TV program on Cuban radio and TV. The Battle of Ideas received a boost with the establishment of two educational TV channels.
Reflecting on the role that Cuban journalists have played and continue to play in this on-going Battle of Ideas, Tubal Paez, president of the Association of Cuban Journalists, noted that the press had gained authority and prestige and had reached unprecedented levels. "If there were any doubts as to our commitment with our country and our Revolution, or doubts about our intelligence and mobilizing capacity," he said, "we can affirm that truth refuses to die."
(Paper presented by journalists Juan Marrero, Ernesto Vera and Roberto Pavón at an International History Encounter held on November 25, 2004, at the Cuban History Institute.)
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