INSIDE CUBA: Against the Demons Who Kidnap Information

Without real news, a more open democratic socialism is impossible.

José Alejandro Rodriguez

Cubans ride bicycles past a mural depicting leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara. (Photo by Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images )

On October 16, Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth), the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, published an online article titled, Against the Demons who Kidnap Information,” by José Alejandro Rodríguez, a staff writer. The reproduction below was translated by Achy Obejas.

I’m going to dream one more time. I’m going to imagine that I’ve never before contemplated this to the point sheer exhaustion. I’m going to believe that this is a new concern. I’m going to convince myself that it’s still worth the effort to deal with this old concept called information – trapped as it is between silence and excessive control…. In order to practice any style, form or tenet of journalism, you have to be informed … It is the journalist’s duty and the right of the citizen – of that historic actor that has sustained the revolution and today more than ever needs to know what’s going on – to be informed. … 

Never before has information been so urgently needed so that Cuban citizens can interact and participate in society, as active subjects, and not like a pichón” [baby bird] – a word so en vogue these days – who waits to get its exact dose of information delivered from above. …

The problem – and we’ve experienced it at Juventud Rebelde–is that information can get through neither our economy’s nor our society’s excessive centralization and that hinders our democratic potential. What to say – and exactly what not to say – about the great issues of the day, is decided from on high, even as life stubbornly goes on down below in all its complexity.

It’s sad that a minister can reject a journalist’s request for more information, pretending that everything that needs to be known has already been said on Mesa Redonda” [a nightly television round table, begun during the Elián crisis and frequently hosted by Fidel Castro until his retirement, in which the government’s take on issues is presented]. Or, more precisely, all that the government wants said. The exaggerated characterization of Mesa Redonda” as the forum for supreme information is an attack on the necessary versatility and variety that distinguishes good journalism. That mesaredondization” is a major contribution to the bureaucratization of Cuban journalism – and I say this with all due respect to my colleagues who work on that program, and who are not responsible for this phenomenon.

Somebody – and I swear I can’t imagine who that somebody could be – can decide that certain social or economic things need to done, without a single bit of information being given to the citizens who have to implement those measures. For example, what is the process to request an application to receive unused land for individual farms, something that would, we are told, make our agricultural sector more dynamic? For an instant it looked like we could publish something, then it couldn’t be even mentioned. Will we ever be able to write about it? I’ve been told by the editors here that the order for silence came from above.

Likewise, our media did not reflect the rich debate promoted by Raúl two years ago, at the height of our democratic socialism. We still can’t mention this process, in which Party militants and revolutionaries freely debated the problems that plague all of us. 

The press is brought in, like sheep, to promote the new resolution about merit pay passed by the Ministry of Work and Social Security. This writer was moved by the idea of bringing an element of the Law of Socialist Distribution, which has been so lost to us for so long. The minister in charge is interviewed and there are expectations that those who work more and better will be able to earn more and live better.

But, in the end, the resolution is defeated because the bureaucrats don’t want to deal with the complicated regulations that would restructure salaries. Egalitarianism is easier – the same pay for everyone. And no one explains why pay based on performance is blocked in Cuba.

A reporter, following his superior’s direction, goes to the Ministry of Economics and Planning because there’s an avalanche of rumors in the foreign press, with its schematic and tendentious emphasis in some cases, about the closing of workers cafeterias; the reporter needs the ministry to confirm if it’s true, and to explain the basis of the decision, and if it’s not true, to rebut it. The minister delegates to the vice minister and the vice minister tells the reporter to take it up with the minister. 

This is where the back and forth begins, until the vice minister finally admits that there’s a study being conducted on the matter but a desire to keep it under wraps for now.” A week later, there’s an article in Granma [the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party], and the reporter feels defrauded. Is it mesaredondization” or granmatitis”? Maybe it’s Granma that has acquired supremacy of information? 

There are countless examples of functionaries that take on the right to decide what information can be published – after looking up to receive extreme unction for news that’s dead on arrival. Almost no one dares to release information to the media or develop relations with the press without a bow to their superiors. And many times, the chain of genuflection goes through so many levels that the news is buried forever. … 

Information is a public benefit, and we can’t substitute it with opportune and sanctioned news, with virtual information, with information-propaganda or convenient information, information held up with tweezers, or whatever it might be called. Information is information.

In any case, information – with its nuances, its shades of gray – will always make us more efficient and more revolutionary, more conscious of the historic moment; more prepared to discern the possible from the impossible, and more participatory. … Cubans need to look to the future, to know what’s going on, and to not wander like beggars in search for a stale crust of information. Cubans need to actively participate, to propose and be taken into account, to discern between good an evil in order to make the Revolution stronger.

Of course I’m not going to talk about the responsibility of journalists, some more daring, others more fatigued and conformist. As long as this policy model of restricted and controlled information persists, there will be more disenchantment and withdrawal of our professionals.

Without information, without citizen participation, it will be impossible to lay the foundation for a more open and democratic socialism. … The revolutionary journalist needs to continue the struggle. … If they close the door on you, that’s news. An alternative to being shut out is to focus the story through non-institutional sources, sources that aren’t so high up – through the people that are the major support of the revolution. And to do it with conviction and responsibility.

Juventud Rebelde has come a long way and won a great deal of prestige in this Cuban struggle against the demons who kidnap information. Are we going to retreat? That’s the principal challenge of this newspaper’s new leadership, still unnamed, but which is in fact all of us. 

Several hours after its publication, the article vanished from the site. It has never been re-published and does not appear in the newspaper’s archives. 

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Jose Alejandro Rodriguez is a staff writer at Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth), the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, in Cuba.
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