Censorship isolates CubansPosted: January 12, 2012
The main stories on the Cuban TV newscast I was watching one evening in November were of American police beating up ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protestors, the Syrian government’s struggle against ‘terrorists’ (who in the UK are seen as campaigners for human rights), and the ‘Cuban Five’ spies (heroes in Cuba) sentenced in the USA in June 2001 to imprisonment terms from 15 years to two life terms. Protests in Egypt at the slow pace of reform since the ousting of President Mubarak, the greed of Europeans buying wood from Amazon forests, and Cuba’s tomato growing programme to try and reduce imports, were also prominent.
Cuba has parallel information streams, the formal state-controlled media and Radio Bemba*, news and gossip passed person to person. Through this channel, people get to know just how much ‘news’ is omitted from state TV and newspapers. People in Havana in 2011 knew about the extent of mosquito-spread and dangerous Dengue fever, the scarcity of equipment and medicines in hospitals, the harrassment and worse meted out to the women who form the human rights group the Damas de Blanco, and the deployment of the military (dressed as civilians) to stamp on any show of dissent, although problems such as these do not feature in the official story.
In a month, I did not see a single newspaper on sale, with the exception of a couple of pensioners in Havana who were selling the English-language version of the Communist Party paper Granma to tourists for convertible pesos. “You just need to know where to look,” said our guide. But he didn’t tell us where. There are apparently 19 newspapers, 20 TV stations and 87 radio stations, the great majority serving localities, and all state-controlled. Five of the TV channels are national, and when I was watching, there always seemed to be cartoons on at least one channel and sometimes two. The channels don’t show advertisements, of course, but do carry public service announcements, like ‘use less electricity’, ‘keep rubbish covered’, ‘beware mosquitos’. Cubans can’t turn (legally) to foreign TV stations because it is against the law to have a satellite dish.
There is nothing in Cuba akin to the British newsagent, full of daily and weekly papers and magazines. The worldwide trend to read online is not responsible for the public scarcity of newspapers, because Cuba represses internet use. The Reporters Without Borders organisation classes Cuba with Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam as enemies of the internet. Any Cuban who is caught writing anything that the regime considers defamatory can expect to go to jail. There is no independent judicial system: justice is state directed, state controlled. In Cuba I felt that censorship was more pervasive than when I was there in 2006, when there was a sense that life was improving, that opportunities could only grow. I met different people of course, and saw different happenings on the streets, and so it is in no way a scientific comparison, just a feeling.
Contacting the rest of the world via the internet is possible only for Cubans who have government approval, for example because they work for state security; for those willing to risk an illegal connection; or who can afford the 6 cuc** to 10 cuc per hour at a monitored access point, for example in hotels catering for tourists. As these rates are one, two or three weeks’ wages for most working Cubans, they are an effective deterrent.
The telephone is not a cheap option, either. Reading the directory one day, I noted the costs of calling the rest of the world: $3.71 per minute to North America; $5.07 to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean; $6.63 to South America; and $8.78 to the rest of the world, including Europe. The minimum charge is for three minutes. I winced at these colossal amounts, which set the lowest cost for a call to Europe at $26.34… or more than the typical monthly wage. It’s like charging me well over $2,500 for three minutes speaking to someone in Australia. There is a cheaper option for residential customers of the state telecoms organisation ETECSA if they sign up to a special service, ranging from $1 a minute to Venezuela to $1.50 to the world outside the Americas, and the charges can be reversed in 11 countries including the UK, but international calls on the phone remain a luxury.
If I had distributed modems to help people connect to the internet, or equipment to receive satellite TV, not only would I have landed in jail, but my hosts too. Penalties are harsh. An American, Alan Gross, is serving 15 years for distributing computer equipment and satellite phones to Jewish groups in Cuba.
With a few socialist exceptions, no foreign papers or magazines are on sale. Books have to follow the approved political philosophy. Even the books of Leonardo Padura, winner of numerous international prizes and creator of the reflective Havana detective Mario Conde, are not widely available in Cuba. You might find one priced in cuc, which few Cubans can afford. I didn’t find any, but a member of a group I travelled with stayed in a house where the owner possessed one title. Most Cuban households do not have books. Where there are books, they tend to be pre-1990 (and often much earlier).
Mobile phones are probably the most successful technology for jumping over the high walls of Cuban censorship, although they are too expensive for most people, about 100 cuc to set up a contract and 5 cuc or so every month thereafter.*** Censorship by cost reinforces the censorship imposed by law, and together they separate Cuba from most of the rest of the world.
* ‘Radio Bemba — Word of Mouth News for Cubans’, by Mary Murray, NBC News, February 15th 2007. See http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/02/15/4376286-radio-bemba-word-of-mouth-news-for-cubans
** One convertible peso or cuc is worth 24 national pesos. £1 is about 1.5 cuc.
*** ‘Cuba-Cel Phones: Good Deal But…’ by Osmel Almaguer, January 11th 2012. http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=59545