Revolutionary Cuba's critical journalism

By Marce Cameron

This year’s winner of Cuba’s National Award for Journalism is veteran journalist Luis Sexto. Little known outside Cuba, Sexto is a professor of journalism at the Faculty of Social Communication at the University of Havana. He is also a poet, social critic and commentator and writes a weekly column for Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the newspaper of Cuba’s Union of Young Communists. The award, the most presigious of its kind in Cuba, was bestowed in March by a panel of 15 judges on behalf of Cuba’s journalists union.

Sexto is, of course, a revolutionary journalist. In a well-known speech to Cuba’s intellectuals in June 1961, Fidel Castro, then prime minister in Cuba’s revolutionary working-people government, defined the policy of the revolution, a collective project of social liberation, towards intellectuals and artists. Castro spoke of three kinds of intellectuals: those who were with the revolution, those opposed to the revolution and those who, while not opposed to the revolution, did not have a revolutionary attitude to life. Being a revolutionary, said Castro, is “an attitude toward present reality”, and there are people who while they might not like it, “are resigned to that reality.”

“It is possible that the men and women who have a truly revolutionary attitude toward reality do not constitute the majority sector of the population”, Castro said. “Revolutionaries are the vanguard of the people, but the revolutionaries must aspire to having all the people march along with them. The Revolution cannot reject having all honest men and women march along with it, whether writers or artists, or not.” So the revolutionaries “must act in such a way that the entire sector of artists and intellectuals who are not genuinely revolutionary find a place to work and to create within the Revolution, and so that their creative spirit will have an opportunity and freedom for expression within the Revolution, even though they are not revolutionary writers or artists.

“This means that within the Revolution, everything goes; against the Revolution, nothing. Nothing against the Revolution, because the Revolution has its rights also, and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist, and no one can stand against the right of the Revolution to be and to exist. No one can rightfully claim a right against the Revolution, since it takes in the interests of the people and signifies the interests of the entire nation.” In the decades since, Castro’s words have been variously interpreted, and often misinterpreted, both within and outside Cuba.

Right to exist

Outside Cuba, leftist critics of the Cuban Revolution tend to forget Castro’s point that the first right of any working people’s revolution is the right to exist and to exist the Cuban Revolution must defy US imperialism, the most formidable empire in history. For half a century, revolutionary Cuba has been subjected not only to a cruel US economic blockade, but to US-backed terrorist attacks and a psychological war aimed at weakening Cubans’ will to resist the restoration of a US-dominated capitalist regime.

Illegal TV broadcasts beamed into Cuba from the US are usually jammed by Cuban technicians, but counter-revolutionary radio stations that shift frequency to avoid jamming, urge Cuban citizens to rise up against “the communist dictatorship”. The US government pours millions of dollars into creating the appearance of an opposition movement in Cuba by handing out cash and gifts to anyone willing to pose as “persecuted independent journalist”, all in the name of a “free Cuba”. But these US-funded mercenaries are neither independent nor journalists. They are simply traitors.

Within Cuba, the socialist revolution has freed the communications media from the tyranny of capitalist control and placed these media at the service of the revolution. Cuba’s television, radio, press and publishing houses are the common property of the working people, rather than the private property of media magnates as they are in the US and Australia. There is no commercial advertising, only public service announcements. Two of the four national TV networks are devoted entirely to educational content, such as the popular Universidad para Todos (University for All) program and quality foreign documentaries.

The mass organisations of workers, women, students, farmers and other organised sectors of the working people each have their own publications, as do special interest groups from solar energy enthusiasts to bonsai cultivators. The best of Cuban and world literature is accessible to all Cubans at affordable prices, in the spirit of Castro’s dictum that “the Revolution is a child of culture and ideas”. From cinema to sports, the Cuban Revolution projects its cultural effervescence onto the world stage.

From about 1970 to the mid-1980s, Cuba underwent a creeping “Sovietisation” that made itself felt in all spheres of national life, blunting the creative originality of the 1960s. During this period, now referred to as the “grey years” in Cuba, official censorship did stunt Cuba’s artistic and intellectual expression. While Cuba continued to develop its own highly original, anti-bureaucratic and anti-dogmatic Marxism in stark contrast to the Stalinist caricature in the Soviet Union, at the same time Soviet ideas and methods were gradually assimilated. A generation of revolutionary cadres was miseducated in the dogmas of Soviet “Marxism”, and there was official hostility towards gays and others deemed “deviant”. Two decades after the collapse of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”, Cuba is still grappling with the malign legacy of this period.

Set in 1979, the well-known Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate, 1994) portrays the uneasy friendship between a young Communist militant and a gay Cuban man. The film’s message is that homophobic prejudice and oppression, along with a more generalised intolerance of the time, was a tragic error of the revolution. Yet far from being censored, Fresa y Chocolate was a product of Cuba’s state film industry. More than any other, Cuba’s is a socialist revolution that has proved capable of recognising and correcting its own errors.

In 1986, the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba launched a wide-ranging campaign of “rectification of errors and negative tendencies”. The uncritical assimilation of Soviet ideas and methods was severely criticised and Cuban President Fidel Castro called for a return to the anti-bureaucratic ideas of Che Guevara, who had served as Cuba’s minister of industries in the early years of the revolutionary government. Che had promoted volunteer work brigades, among other measures, to combat bureaucracy and to cultivate a communist attitude to work. Volunteer work brigades were mobilised on a large scale to build homes, childcare centres and other social works which had been neglected. The state administration and the Communist Party’s organisational structure were trimmed with thousands of paid functionaries being reassigned to productive work. Workers were encouraged to expose negligent or corrupt officials. “Rectification” began the difficult task of delinking Cuba’s socialist revolution from the doomed “Soviet model”.

Self-censorship

Today, it is not official censorship that stunts Cuba’s creative expression, but material scarcity caused by its status as a Third World country, a status that is aggravated by the US economic blockade and which Washington seeks to have other countries abide by. On August 24, for example, it was reported that the ANZ bank group, one of Australia four big banks, paid a US$5.7 million fine to the US government for having engaged in $78 million in financial transactions with Cuba. While the dealings were not in breach of either Australian law or UN resolutions, since the ANZ has a US banking license, it is exposed to penalties levelled by the US government for violating the US economic blockade against Cuba, which is estimated to have cost the Cuban economy $223 billion.

Cuba’s socialist democracy has thus had to develop under permanent siege. Granma, one of only two national daily newspapers, typically runs to only a dozen pages because of the lack of newsprint. Yet there is another kind of censorship that still flourishes in revolutionary Cuba, and that has proven more difficult to eradicate than official censorship — the self-censorship of revolutionaries who feel that criticism, even criticism from within the Revolution, only helps enemies of the Revolution.

That Luis Sexto won his country’s highest national journalism prize is encouraging. Sexto’s writing is subtle, lucid, candid and provocative. He combines human warmth with a gritty realism that embraces Cuba’s contradictory reality. This is just the kind of journalism needed now to engage the younger generations, who are most prone to disaffection, in the national debate promoted by President Raul Castro on the future of Cuban socialism.

As Jorge Garrido commented on Cubanow.net, the Havana-based digital magazine of Cuban art and culture, “Cuba’s National Award for Journalism not only rewards a person and their lifetime work, as enshrined in its statutes. It is also backing up, choosing a tendency, a school, a stance in journalism and in Cuba’s current society.” It was decided, “following an arduous, very constructive and profound discussion, that it was necessary and just to reward a form of journalism ... [that is] analytical, critical, judgmental journalism, which displays values, awareness, concerns. It opens up the way and sheds light on things. And it is also responsible, courageous journalism.”

According to Garrido, “There are very honest people who think that criticism should not be used in socialism, let alone under the hostile blockade. It is tantamount to arming the enemy, they claim. But that means that we should only talk about victories, success, achievement, overachievement and prowess on an island blockaded by a powerful opponent. And that underlining mistakes and shortcomings in public is only characteristic of those who object to socialism in Cuba. That concept has been the shield of so many flaws and the favorite argument of the incompetent. That is a colossal mistake. Every society needs to practice the art of criticism in order to develop, air its problems, goad events into motion, discover its ... flaws.”

Here is a small sample of Sexto’s writing, taken from an opinion piece titled “Between polarisation and paralysis and first published in Juventud Rebelde on June 23, 2008: “One the problems we inherited from 20th century socialism is its inability to combine collective and individual interests. The theory appeared in the manuals. However, practice refuted its apparent certainty. This ‘real and failed socialism’ tried to simplify things, but escaping from selfish riches resulted in collective poverty. When in poverty we try to feed and clothe ourselves, these activities become simpler, faster and cheaper; but also more distressing and frustrating.

“I agree with the idea of raising poverty as a bastion of virtue. I am talking about poverty as the art of humbleness, an antidote to luxury, a vaccine against arrogance and corruption; a project of solidarity. These spiritual and ethical values are part of a program of personal improvement, which generally helps to improve society, but which should be devoid of the poverty of shortages, of lack of vision, or of dependence on gifts.

“The lessons provided by history are still very fresh. Who will doubt that men and women cannot live without hopes? This is a theological virtue, an attribute of religious consciousness. It is also a human virtue, natural, social, present in this world today and at all times. All individuals are subjected to hope. Therefore, all social regimes have to offer hope as a means of sustenance. In capitalist societies, a minority obtains it, while many wake up hoping that it is going to be their lucky day, the day they take the leap from poverty to well-being. This attitude marks, and to some degree limits, the subjectivity that is sometimes needed to change things. Of course, it is a false and cruel hope ...

“It is not hard to see that uncontrolled inequality, turned into unlimited ambition and greed, ‘polarises’ society; divides it. But equality, turned into egalitarianism, ‘paralyses’ it. In a society where individuals receive benefits independent of their capacity and efforts, there’s a lack of that ‘good sense and balance of rights’ which [Cuban independence hero] Jose Marti said had been forgotten by European socialists of the 19th century.

“It seems fair to say that propaganda cannot turn will into action, mistakes into sound moves, shortages into abundance, a conceptual apparatus tainted by influence and interference into justice. Improving on capitalism involves a campaign that can only be won with clear proof that goes beyond slogans to become unchangeable facts in a society that sees and treats men and women as groups and individuals, and that values both material goods and conscience. We need both material comfort and spiritual well-being derived from culture and ethics. We already know all of this.”