HAVANA — "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.