What if the American Media Covered Cuba Like a Normal Place?

On Wednesday, April 18, The Washington Post declared “Castro rule in Cuba ends.” “Raúl Castro Prepares to Resign as Cuba’s President, Closing a Dynasty” said The New York Times, and “With End Of Castro Era In Sight, Cuba Prepares To Pass Power To New Generation” declared NPR.

That afternoon I was walking, a few fingers of rum into my day as usual, through Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. In front of the iconic Hotel Habana Libre, I noticed two foreigners with press badges and a fancy video camera. I moved close enough to make it weird and see that their badges identified them as British. They were discussing where to film b-roll of a giant Cuban flag.

Havana carried on oblivious. There was a queue at Coppelia ice cream on the corner, and one for the French film festival at the Yara theater on the other. Cubans are world champs at waiting in line.

Cubans actively ignoring the news media perfectly summed up the transition of the presidency from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel. On the island, if you didn’t watch state television, there was no indication anything happened. While the passing of the Cuban presidency wasn’t dramatic in Cuba, it provided US media with a golden opportunity to spin Cold War-era oldies but goodies that have been around longer than the oldest Che Guevara keychains. I believe the press corps was playing a drinking game where everyone had to write “apparatchik” and “iron grip” into stories about Cuba.

In 2015, when my family decided to move to Cuba for my wife’s PhD research, Raúl was already planning to step down. We were in Havana the week before the US embassy re-opened during the “thaw” with the Obama Administration. The optimism was palpable. We thought it would be exciting to live here in the historic moment when Raúl retired. Said historic moment could not have been more anticlimactic. Washing dishes is more dramatic.

Remember ye olde adage, “media most reveals its bias, not in its quotes, but in what it presents under cover of journalistic objectivity as true without the hassle of context or evidence.” If that’s not a ye olde adage, it should be. Or a more articulate version of the sentiment. The coverage revealed more about the US than Cuba or, something truly subversive, what Cubans wish for themselves.

The New York Times invoked the voice of objectivity about Raúl Castro’s son Alejandro Castro Espín, whose book The Price of Power: Transnational Security, Counterterrorism and Global Crisis in the Third Milleniumoffers a not-very-subtle clue of his opinion of Cuba’s big neighbor to the north.” Never mind that Castro Espín’s opinion is completely correct, as the victims of the School of the Americas might confirm if American taxpayers hadn’t paid to train their killers. Imagine if our press covered America the way they cover Cuba:

The United States, a nation defined by its legacy of genocide and slavery, has allowed a mentally-unstable rapist billionaire to seize power through manipulation of the electoral process and collusion with a foreign power. The government encouraged a climate crisis that threatens the future of human civilization. Despite polls showing growing disillusionment with capitalism and expert warnings that soaring inequality destabilizes democracy, politicians feel obligated to pay lip service to illusory American virtues for fear of being branded unpatriotic.

And repeat nonstop for 60 years.

While I won’t argue for uncontested single-party elections, the assumptions in the media coverage affirmed American economic ideology. Coverage of Cuba’s leadership transition emphasized an economic crisis:

“They expect Raúl’s successor to launch reforms to spur the economy, which is growing at its slowest pace in two decades, according to World Bank figures.”Bloomberg

“It will now be up to Díaz-Canel to balance two realities: the need to respond to Cubans’ growing frustration over economic stagnation, and the reluctance of the Communist Party to embrace faster reforms.”The Washington Post 

“Raúl Castro is stepping down as president in an effort to guarantee that new leaders can maintain the government’s grip on power in the face of economic stagnation, an aging population and increasing disenchantment among younger generations.”AP

“…an economically distressed country that is perennially in crisis.” –The New York Times

If you seek neoliberal consensus in action, you have found it. As a thought experiment, is it possible even to imagine American media covering successes in a socialist country? Are Americans employed by capitalist media companies capable of admitting that socialism works in the slightest?

The articles talk of “crisis,” “frustration,” and “disillusionment” and ponder whether Cubans dare hope that their problems will be addressed by Díaz-Canel. This framing implies that Cuba’s problems could be solved by its government if the government was only willing to adopt necessary and logical changes. But the government apparently isn’t willing because they’re communists and one thing we know about revolutionaries is that they hate change. American media treat as interchangeable Cuba’s government policy, communist ideology, and communist constitution, which would mean that to achieve the necessary “reforms,” the government would have to jettison communism.

And what are these “reforms” exactly? The articles are murky, speaking of “opening” and “markets,” as if every reader understands what the terms entail. They omit any analysis of sources of Cuba’s problems other than the government. They also decline to locate Cuba in the history of Latin America, which suggests that history is not relevant to Cuba’s current plight. Most readers perusing these articles would reasonably conclude that privatization and expanding capitalist markets are the cure to what ails Cuba.

The answer to these questions is a resounding, “maybe, it depends.” Economics is always a question of values and priorities. As Cubans tell me regularly, there is no perfect system. Other Latin American countries have tried in spades the privatization and market-driven growth that Bloomberg and the New York Times wish on Cuba, and have more rich people to show for it. On the other hand, they also have more infant mortality, violence, and illiteracy. Pick your poison.

It’s hard to know about the record of privatization in Latin America and deem it good for either workers or consumers. Time and again, neoliberal reformers, typically under pressure from the US, implemented privatization and austerity, and the result was the loss of jobs, increase in prices, decrease in services, inequality, and stagnation. For more on this, see Mexico City’s power system, Bolivia’s water supply, Argentina’s entire economy, Brazil’s power company, and so on.

Cuban popular dissatisfaction does not necessarily indicate a public consensus that the culprit is socialism. Just like when Americans complain about their crummy jobs, no one assumes we mean to blame the Electoral College or the free market. Undoubtedly, Cubans are broke, and no one is madder about it than Cubans.

What Cubans want are salaries high enough to afford stuff Americans consider basic like milk and deodorant. Not even aristocratic Tom’s of Maine, just Old Spice. You know, like most people. Government salaries are $20-$30 a month, which people can’t survive on without a side hustle, remittances, or a relative in tourism. I’m no economist but one reason Cuban state salaries are so low may be that Cuba doesn’t have enough money.

Global finance has a long history of denying investment capital to uppity states that won’t submit to the market. NPR, AP, The New York Times, and The Washington Post managed to get through reports on economic stagnation in Cuba without mentioning the US blockade. Some things are simply not available on the island because it’s too costly to ship them further to sell to consumers without money. This is why my last flight back to Cuba from Mexico was filled with Cubans bringing flat-screen televisions, fans, vacuums, clothes, and tires.

Moreover, Cuba’s fiscal problems may not stem from being communists so much as from being yet another poor Latin American country. AP reported economic growth in Cuba at 1.6% last year, although they doubted official accounts. By comparison, according to the bastards at the World Bank, an economic growth rate of 1.6% would put Cuba on par with Barbados, Uruguay, Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica, Chile, and the crisis-prone flailing economies of Canada and the USA. Meanwhile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, and Belize had negative growth.

Obviously, economic stagnation and recession in these diverse countries is the fault of Fidel Castro.

American coverage repeats the refrain that Cubans are “fleeing the island” in large numbers because of “disillusionment.” The implication to an innocent reader is that this too results from failures of Cuban government. While comparative emigration data are hard to find, at first blush it’s not clear that Cubans leave in notably larger rates than any other of President Trump’s “shithole countries” allegedly sending caravans of bad hombres across the Rio Grande. They’re definitely not fleeing “breathtaking homicidal violence” found elsewhere in Latin America.

AP, Washington Post, and Bloomberg agree that Cuba implemented “much-needed reforms” in a “two steps forward, one step back” fashion by allowing certain private businesses. The New York Times wrote “too many old-guard associates put up obstacles when they saw the widening inequalities that accompanied economic reforms.” The foolishness of these communists to be concerned about inequality! Bloomberg complained, “For every reform, they seem to add a new tax or regulation,” without mentioning that’s how markets work. Cuba has allowed an expansion of private enterprise, but much of it orients towards tourists because, as in the old joke about the bank robber, that’s where the money is. Governments pay for stuff by taxing private profits.

Besides tourism, the other big Cuban strategy to fund socialism is to export medical and biotech innovation. Developing countries tend to pursue economic growth through extraction, export of natural resources and low-wage manufacturing. It remains to be seen if increasing revenue with biotech instead of deforestation succeeds, but it’s plausible. Cuba simultaneously exports tobacco and lung cancer treatments, so no one can claim they don’t understand capitalism.

What’s unusual about Cuba is not the problems it has, but that it manages to maintain the level of safety, education, health, and culture despite those problems.

There’s plenty of room to be critical of the Cuban government. The Cuban people certainly are, like everyone is of their own government. Even if a more balanced debate revealed that all of Cuba’s stagnation is caused by the blockade and Caribbean poverty, if nothing else Cuba’s government could do a better job transparently explaining its decisions. It doesn’t help build public confidence that there’s a national narrative of socialism’s greatness that’s inconsistent with people’s experience, not so unlike making America “great” again.

While the Yankee oppressor media can’t imagine it, our system is not the best, and others may want different things. Cubans are not clamoring for unfettered capitalism. They want to preserve and improve free healthcare and education, but earn enough money to live a decent life. If this story were reported, I wonder if more Americans would realize how much we and Cubans want similar things, if Americans might come to believe that we and Cubans both deserve great free healthcare and education, and if American Cold Warriors clinging on long past their sell-by date would feel threatened by it.

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