"Criminal Yanqui Bombardment of Baghdad," blared the red banner headline in Granma the morning after U.S. and allied aircraft began their assault on Iraq. Below the fold in the Communist Party newspaper--Havana's only daily--President Fidel Castro said blame for the war rests "fundamentally with the United States."
Radio Rebelde reported that the Pentagon had stockpiled 50,000 body bags in a "cold calculation" of its potential losses. The war, said commentator Estefania Escobar, will leave "thousands of mothers without children, women without husbands, children without fathers."
And Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Youth's weekly, ran a column under the headline "No to War, No to Imperialism," with stories on U.S. censorship and control of news coverage.
Not surprisingly, Cuba's state-run media reflected their government's position on the war against Iraq. Cuba, along with Yemen, voted against the U.N. Security Council's resolution to approve the use of force in the Gulf. Like the government, the Cuban media took pains not to adulate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein--a no-win posture even here--but repeatedly condemned its foe to the north. Granma offered its readers: "A Chronology of U.S. Military Interventions in the World to Impose Its Hegemony."
Cuban reporting on the Gulf War demonstrates not only state control of the media, but the Cuban media's view of their own role. While American reporters see themselves as adversaries of their government--even if others accuse them of uncritical parroting of the Washington line--Cuban journalists see themselves as government insiders. They are propagandists as well as loyal critics. U.S. newspapers operate under the assumption that their reporting must be "fair" to all viewpoints, while Cuban media see their job as disseminating government positions.
In an interview broadcast on Cuban television, radio editor Alberto D. Perez said the role of the Cuban media is "to propagandize and to fight against that which is wrong. . . . We have to demand that people do their jobs well, but also we have to compare Cuba to countries like ours, to Costa Rica, Honduras, the Dominican Republic. These are valid comparisons, not to the First World."
On domestic issues in particular, the Cuban media may raise sensitive topics but rarely, if ever, challenge public policy. For example, a television program on AIDS sympathetically portrayed public discrimination against AIDS patients and let them speak about their plight. But it never questioned the government's policy of isolating AIDS victims in sanitariums.
While the U.S. media compete to uncover official corruption in public, Cuban reporters feel they should go first to the government with such information and then to press. There is no tradition of investigative reporting in Cuba, they say.
"It is difficult to do investigations," Juventud Rebelde reporter Angel Tomas Gonzalez explained over coffee and a discussion of the media. "It is not normal for the press to publish (an expose) before there has been a trial. I am not anxious to do it, either. There are other ways in our society. If I have proof a minister is corrupt, I go to the party, the government, the police to denounce it."
"The way to solve a problem is not public scandal," said his colleague, Rosa Miriam Elizarde.
"As a professional citizen, I feel part of the government in a certain way," Gonzalez added. "That doesn't mean that I accept or agree with everything, but in a way I feel part of the system. To publicly denounce an official, I don't know. A bad official hurts me, too. I am not just the judge but part owner."
Cuba is a media-hungry country. More than 90% of Cuban households have television sets and scarce newspapers are passed from hand to hand. Newsstands frequently are empty. Although there has never been an independent press in revolutionary Cuba, citizens had access to a broader range of ideas and viewpoints before a paper shortage forced a dramatic cutback in publications last October.
Granma stopped its Saturday and Sunday publication and Juventud Rebelde and the union newspaper Trabajadores were forced to go weekly. The weekly magazine Bohemia was reduced in size. Scores of natural science, social science, youth and cultural publications were discontinued. Juventud Rebelde, which printed 250,000 newspapers daily and 600,000 on Sundays before the cutbacks, now puts out only 400,000 Sunday papers, which are grabbed up within an hour of hitting the stands. Editors say they could easily sell twice that if they had the newsprint.
One of the publications closed was Somos Jovenes, a magazine that had published an expose on prostitution in Cuba--a vice which officially did not exist. The journalist who wrote the story is now working in the provinces, said one press critic.
"Debate in the press has been reduced," said a university professor. "The paper shortage is a pretext for eliminating the most critical elements in the press. They try to assimilate the most critical people. There haven't been any letters to the editor (printed in newspapers) for the last two years."
Sputnik and the Moscow News, Soviet publications that used to circulate here, were banned in August, 1989, when, at the height of perestroika , or Soviet restructuring, they began to criticize Castro and to raise the possibility of cutting aid to Cuba.
Soviet Embassy spokesman Sergei Borushkin defended the move saying the journals "published several articles unjustly accusing Cuba of many things." He added, "Fidel has said repeatedly that he supports perestroika in the (Soviet Union) and the policies of Gorbachev, but that he is not going to copy them blindly. That line is clear."
A European living in Havana said the government's line--and the media's--on Eastern Europe is tougher. "They say, poor old Eastern Europe, they were tempted by the glitter and gold of Western capitalism and have paid the price. We're not going to fall into that." He recalled one Radio Rebelde commentator saying "it would appear that the world is going against history."
In private conversations, Cuban journalists are more critical than their television programs and newspapers would reflect. They say they have been "triumphalist" in the past, producing an image of Cuba as paradise. They repeated what government ministry spokesmen have said without questioning the veracity of their statements.
"Bureaucrats have a way of putting their interests in the best light. The (agriculture) ministry tells us so many acres have been planted, but the important question is not how many were planted but how many were harvested," Perez said.
But when asked if he had ever sent reporters to investigate rumors of spontaneous anti-government protests in provincial towns, including a couple that were said to have involved police shootings, Perez balked.
"No, I know it's a lie. That's not the way things are dealt with here. People are not killed by police," he said.
Juventud Rebelde now sees itself as the vanguard of a press that would like to be more aggressive, but even it takes its cues from Castro, who has urged the press to report more constructive criticism of the government. Juventud reporters sneer at Granma for being dull and gray. They say they are trying to push the boundaries of what can be written, to eliminate what they call "zones of silence." But they are restricted by their own lack of experience as well as by the government.
Arleen Rodriguez, assistant director of Juventud Rebelde, tells of sending a 50-year-old reporter out with an official who was to make sure that households were complying with a government program requiring them to cut electricity consumption by 10%. She asked the journalist to report on whether the program was working.
"She couldn't do it. She had a nervous breakdown. She was used to rewriting press releases," Rodriguez said.
The public also is unused to an aggressive press. Bohemia magazine reported last July that when its reporters attempted to gather opinions on the effectiveness of Cuba's congress, many people were afraid to answer. "To question the work of (congress) is to question, de facto, the real effectiveness of democracy in Cuba," Bohemia commented.
In one government center where Bohemia's reporters tried to interview workers, the administrators questioned their intentions and would not allow them to continue.
Asked if they could openly criticize Communist Party policy on the Gulf War or anything else, Gonzalez said, "No, not yet. Possibly in two, three or four years. All societies grow and mature." But, he added, "all journalism has its limits. They can be broader or narrower, but there is always an owner. The Communist Youth pays us."