The death of Fidel Castro last month brought balanced analysis of the former Cuban leader.
That is, in places with a free press. In Cuba itself, the story — literally and figuratively — was distinctly different. Unless everyday Cubans could connect with elusive internet access, the news narrative was nearly totally tilted toward the government’s perspective.
This belies the hope that was sparked by the 2008 transfer of power from Fidel to Raul Castro, and the more recent rapprochement between Havana and Washington. In fact Cuba — this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — still suffers from press repression, according to recent reports from two leading media freedom organizations.
“At this remarkable juncture in Cuban history, the island would benefit enormously from a freer press,” the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a September report. “Yet Cuban journalists remain shackled. The state press is subservient to the ruling Communist Party, which has sought for years to tightly control how Cubans get their news. Independent journalists who do critical reporting have limited reach because only the state is legally entitled to run news organizations and few people have regular, affordable access to the internet.”
This statist status quo is one of Fidel Castro’s legacies, according to a Reporters Without Borders analysis issued after his passing. The report stated that “behind the revolutionary’s romantic image lay one of the world’s worst press freedom predators. The persecution of dissidents was one of the distinguishing features of his 49 years in power, and constitutes the harshest aspect of his heritage.”
The press repression shrouds Castro’s record within Cuba, said Emmanuel Colombié, Latin America director for Reporters Without Borders.
“Because of lack of objective information, they [Cubans] don’t know that Fidel Castro used to put freedom of the press defenders in jail, put human rights defenders in jail” said Colombié, speaking from Rio di Janiero. “It’s our job to bring critical information; what we fight for is diversity of information there.”
It’s a tough fight.
Cuba is 171st out of 180 countries ranked in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. And Cuba’s “Soviet-style totalitarianism” regarding the press led to 428 attacks against the media from June 2015 to August 2016, according to the group, which put Raul Castro on its “Press Freedom Predator List.”
Hopes were higher for a post-Fidel Cuba, and after President Obama re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015. So some — including President-elect Donald Trump — have suggested a reassessment may be in order.
But that’s likely to backfire, and play back into an old Castro canard that Cuba’s problems are due to U.S. policies.
“Cuba, and mainly Fidel Castro, built a legend on the fact of being a victim — opposition to what they called the imperialism of the U.S.,” said Colombié, who added: “This process of victimization was used to reinforce the control of everything on the island.”
U.S. policy should avoid giving Raul Castro that convenient excuse. The sooner the Cuban people realize it’s not Washington but Havana holding them back, the sooner the pressure for necessary reforms will build.
That realization can happen faster with even tighter ties between the U.S. and Cuba, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who, along with fellow Minnesotan and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, has led congressional efforts to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
“It is clear they don’t have the kind of freedom of the press that we have,” Klobuchar said. “I figure 50-some years of a failed policy, it’s not going to get better if we don’t open things up more,” she added, citing the need for more deals to allow advancements in telecommunications technology that would give Cubans access to accurate news.
But the key to that is further engagement, not renewed estrangement.
“The more that we have further diplomacy, more Americans visiting — it’s just going to create more and more pressure for Cuba to open its own press,” Klobuchar said.
Such an opening would not only benefit Cubans, but would be a welcome exception to an era of rising press repression worldwide.