Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line
by Tom Gjelten
All Things Considered, May 28, 2008 · In Cuba, the daily newspapers are all owned and run by the government or the Communist Party. For years, speeches by Fidel Castro were splashed across Page 1, and barely a critical word was published. But Fidel's brother Raul, who has taken over as president, is now allowing more debate in the Cuban press, and one party-affiliated newspaper is rising to the challenge.
Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) was founded in 1965 as the newspaper of the Communist Youth movement in Cuba. Throughout its existence, the publication mostly has featured whatever dreary "news" party leaders wanted published.
But in recent months, Juventud Rebelde reporters have been encouraged to think like journalists and investigate what's not working in their country.
The newspaper recently ran a critical three-part series on Cuban agriculture. Reporter Dora Perez and a colleague spent weeks talking to farmers and farm workers across the country. They wanted to find out why Cuba, with all its rich farmland, has to import so much food.
"[We heard] nothing but complaints," Perez says. "Our report was very critical. We're bad in agriculture, and we have to say so."
Three months later, Perez followed up with another investigative series, this one on education in Cuba. She found out that many Cuban parents were so unhappy with the quality of their kids' schooling that they were hiring private tutors — something once unthinkable here.
An Unprecedented Approach
For years, Fidel Castro told Cubans that their problems were the result of the U.S. trade embargo, the loss of Soviet aid or globalization: There was always an excuse. But Herminio Camacho, deputy editor of Juventud Rebelde, says it's time for Cuba to acknowledge its own failings.
"These articles aim at raising people's awareness," Camacho says. "People need to know that things don't have to be like this here. We're bringing up problems that can't be blamed on our shortages, or on outside forces, or the embargo, or the world situation."
For a Cuban communist newspaper, this editorial approach is unprecedented. Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, is impressed by what he has seen in Juventud Rebelde over the past two years — even though the scope is limited and the paper is still under government control.
"You now have Cuban journalists actually going out and documenting facts and contradicting official versions of the facts," Peters says.
In one notable example, Juventud Rebelde reporters determined that Cuban authorities were grossly underreporting the number of unemployed youth, especially in the countryside. In one province, they found it was 18 times higher than what the government claimed.
Habits Hard to Break as Journalists Seek Independence
Such stories are still the exception in Juventud Rebelde, not the norm. More common are the stories that simply quote government functionaries uncritically. Editor Camacho says he and his reporters are still finding their way.
"We've made progress, but we have a ways to go, because our reporters have been conditioned to think in a certain way," he says. "They have inertia in their thinking. This kind of journalism we're trying to do is hard for us. Throughout our whole lives, we've done it in a different way."
In an effort to break old journalistic habits, Camacho and his fellow editors have eliminated the beat structure at Juventud Rebelde. Reporters now are generalists, not specialists.
"Journalists who take charge of one particular issue can lose their broader vision," Camacho explains. "They develop a close relationship with whoever they're covering, because they see them day after day. It makes it harder to be critical. In order to do this kind of journalism, we had to change that structure."
Stopping Short of Challenging Communist Tenets
What's notable is that Camacho is thinking like a newspaper editor in a democratic society and not as a propaganda boss, which is the role editors in communist countries have more typically played.
His paper stops well short of challenging the ideology of Cuban communism. But for a party organ even to raise sensitive questions could have unforeseeable consequences in a tightly controlled totalitarian state. Some of the paper's recent reporting touches on key elements of the socialist system, such as the state-owned companies that now control every aspect of economic life in Cuba.
"Their reporters went out and documented that a lot of the state enterprises just do not work," notes Peters of the Lexington Institute. "[They found] that there's no functioning supply system and that the enterprises actually exploit and cheat Cuban consumers. It was unbelievable."
Peters, who has been reading the Cuban press for years, says such reporting never appeared during the time Fidel Castro ruled Cuba.
"If Fidel Castro talked about these state enterprises, they were paragons of socialist virtue," Peters says. "It was, 'This is what we live for.' He would always contrast [Cuban] state enterprises with the exploitations that occur in capitalist societies."
Fidel Castro Expresses Displeasure
Indeed, Fidel Castro apparently doesn't much like the pro-reform ideas aired recently in Juventud Rebelde and a few other media. In a newspaper column published last month under the title "Do Not Make Concessions to Enemy Ideology," Castro lashed out at critics of Cuban socialism. "People must be very careful with everything they say," he warned.
Castro, whose mental and physical condition remains a mystery, said he was responding to a comment in one of Cuba's media outlets. He didn't say which one, and Juventud Rebelde editor Camacho says he got immediately nervous it was his paper.
"I'll admit it," Camacho says, "the first reaction I had was to worry. This was Fidel pointing his finger at someone. He's not president of the country anymore, but we still see him as the leader of the revolution."
In discussing Castro's commentary, Camacho was noticeably uncomfortable, speaking slowly and stopping several times to choose his words carefully. For nearly 50 years, Fidel Castro has been all-powerful in Cuba, able on his own authority to squash careers or send people to prison for the rest of their lives.
"For us, a criticism from Fidel is …" Camacho begins, but he does not finish the sentence. "It's more than just the fear. Among other things, we feel in some way like we must be violating his wishes."
Following Castro's critical column, Camacho says he and his fellow editors resolved to be more "responsible." A fully reported article on the shortcomings of the economic reform program was not published.
Despite Skeptics, Paper Forges Ahead with New Direction
Some writers who have broken their ties with the government are skeptical that Juventud Rebelde can be much of a force for change. Independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, who writes an opposition blog in Cuba, says he is impressed by some of the reporters working at the paper. But he does not see them as allies in the fight for democracy and free expression in Cuba.
"Any professionally aware journalist could write something that coincides with what I'm saying, but they wouldn't be doing so intentionally," he explains. Escobar is working deliberately for political change in Cuba. The Juventud Rebelde reporters are just trying to be journalists.
Shortly after Perez wrote her series on education in Cuba, she got a congratulatory e-mail from Adelaida Fernandez, a prominent Cuban writer. Fernandez had delivered a highly critical speech on Cuban education at a convention of Cuban writers and artists, and in her opening words she cited the Juventud Rebelde stories by Perez.
"I was very proud," Perez says. "One of the best things about being a journalist is when you know that what you write actually reaches people and moves them." It was hardly a radical thought, but coming from a reporter at a Communist Party newspaper in Havana, it was noteworthy.