Remarks at The Heritage Foundation

Tuesday, November 22, 2011
From last week's presentation at The Heritage Foundation:

"The Unwritten Story: How the Media and the Obama Administration Overlook Cuba's Wave of Repression"

by Mauricio Claver-Carone

Thank you so much for the invitation to be here today.

Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are under the direct control of the island’s totalitarian dictatorship.

The Castro regime’s 1976 Constitution prohibits private ownership of the media or any independent exercise of journalism. Moreover, it only allows for speech, so long as it “conforms to the aims of a socialist society.”

Its criminal code contains a host of arbitrary sanctions, such as “enemy propaganda” and the dissemination of “unauthorized news.”

Insult laws carry penalties of three months to one year in prison. The sentences rise to three years if members of the regime’s Council of State or National Assembly are the objects of criticism.

The 1997 Law of National Dignity provides for jail sentences of three to ten years for “anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media.” This is aimed at independent news agencies that send their material abroad.

All of this is in contravention to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Needless to say -- those who “dare” practice independent journalism in Cuba are violently repressed.

Cuba ranks amongst the top jailers of journalists in the world, alongside China and Iran. At one point in 2009, there were just 7 more imprisoned journalists in China than in Cuba. Of course, China has a population of 1.4 billion, while Cuba’s population is 11.5 million. That makes Cuba not twice or thrice as repressive as China -- but nearly 92 times as repressive.

Yet, at great personal risk, many courageous Cubans still dare practice this key profession.

Theoretically, the repression of domestic journalists would make the presence of foreign journalists more important, as they could report on Cuba’s realities with less risk. Or perhaps, it would guide their conscience and professional solidarity.

Sadly, that’s not typically the case.

So let me focus on U.S. media outlets in Cuba, which was the topic assigned to me for this presentation.

The New York Times was the last U.S. media entity to leave (or be shown the door) by the newly established Castro dictatorship in the early 1960s. Apparently, that was Castro’s payback for all of the positive reporting it got from the newspaper throughout the 1950s. If you haven’t read the book, “Herbert Matthews: The Man Who Invented Fidel” by Anthony de Palma, I highly recommend it.

It wasn’t until after collapse of the Soviet bloc and years of negotiations with Fidel Castro himself that CNN was the first U.S. outlet to establish a Castro-era Havana news bureau in 1997, followed by the Associated Press in 1998.

In 2000, after ten years of lobbying the Castro regime, the Dallas Morning News and Tribune Co. (which operated both the Chicago Tribune and Sun Sentinel) also established Havana bureaus. However, both closed down in 2004 and 2009, respectively. Ironically, they operated in Havana for less time than it took them to convince Castro to let them in.

ABC, CBS and NBC have established formal bureaus in the last decade, but they have had some reporting presence there since before. For example, NBC producer Mary Murray has been in Havana since 1994. Of course, this raises other concerns, such as “clientitis.”

The fact is that the foreign media in Cuba has only one goal -- to cover one “big story” -- the death of Fidel Castro. Everything else is a balancing act of how to "report" on current events without offending the regime and preventing expulsion, so as not to miss the "big story."

And how “big” is this story for them?

Put it this way -- Havana is the only news bureau in Latin America for CBS and NBC. ABC also has a Mexico City bureau. One would think there were other pressing issues in the region. Furthermore, Havana is not a strategic or efficient location to cover the rest of the hemisphere due to substantial logistical challenges, such as expensive linkage fees. The bottom line is that they are there to cover the “big story” and that’s it.

As Yoani Sanchez eloquently wrote in Foreign Policy recently: “The dilemma of foreign correspondents -- popularly called ‘foreign collaborators’ -- is whether to make concessions in reporting in order to stay in the country, or to narrate the reality and face expulsion. The major international media want to be here when the long-awaited ‘zero day’ arrives -- the day the Castro regime finally makes its exit from history

The Castro regime’s controls on foreign journalists are wielded through its International Press Center (IPC), which not only issues the press accreditation required to report from Cuba, but also approves the necessary paperwork for these journalist to enjoy some basic comforts, such as air conditioners and refrigerators (both helpful in the tropics), or being able to import or purchase a car.

The IPC also likes to remain a full-year behind in its process of renewing credentials for foreign journalists. It’s another “subtle” way of pressuring them on their stories -- like a report card hovering over their heads.

There are currently about 150 foreign media personnel (journalists and staff) accredited in Cuba by the IPC, mostly newspapers and television and radio stations from Europe, Latin America and Asia.

Accounts of the Castro regime’s methods to pressure foreign journalists against reporting on “non-approved” topics were highlighted in two recent books by Spanish journalists, who spent years as correspondents in Havana.

The books -- La Casa de Cristal (The Glass House) by Isabel Garcia-Zarza of Reuters and Los Funerales de Castro (Castro's Funerals) by Vicente Botin of Spanish Television (TVE) -- are a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the reality of reporting from Cuba.

"Rare is the journalist who does not soften his reports, to avoid being expelled from the country," wrote Isabel García-Zarza of the Reuters news agency.

"Self-censorship is a very common practice… No one on the island can write the truth of what happens there. Correspondents can only come close to reality," wrote Vicente Botín of Spanish television (TVE).

According to Botin, state security agents are widely believed to electronically monitor the correspondents' phones, cars and home and track their "political ideas, their preferences, their tendencies and above all their weaknesses like drugs, sex, alcohol."

Throughout the years, the Castro regime has expelled or refused to renew the accreditation of dozens of foreign correspondents -- always looking to set an “example” for other journalists. Some of the most recent include (in 2007) Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune, Cesar Gonzalez Calero of Mexico’s El Universal, Stephen Gibbs of BBC, and just last month, Mauricio Vicent of Spain’s El Pais and Juan Castro Olivera from France’s AFP news agency.

Additionally, the Castro regime has no qualms about arresting foreign journalists. In 2005, it detained, and then expelled, at least seven foreign journalists -- one Swiss, two Italians and four Poles -- who traveled to Cuba to cover a gathering of pro-democracy activists.

Now, to be fair -- foreign journalists do not always succumb to the Castro regime’s pressures. It's a balancing act for them.

For example, last year, the IPC warned correspondents to stay away from the funeral of Cuban political prisoner and hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo. None covered the ceremony. But after Guillermo Fariñas launched his own hunger strike, three foreign journalists went to his home for first-hand accounts.

Both of these events were outside Havana. Increasingly, pro-democracy leaders have dramatically scaled up their activities in the provinces. Foreign correspondents are practically all based in Havana, even further limiting coverage.

In a new phenomenon, the Castro regime has also adopted a strategy of “hit-and-run” repression. Since Raul Castro was promoted to dictator-in-chief, repression on the island has risen dramatically. However, the tactics have changed. In order to elude international scrutiny (despite a dramatic rise in repression), the regime will now beat up opposition activists, drag them to prison, beat them up some more and then release them in 2-3 days.

This has created a “cat-and-mouse” game with the foreign media: Journalists may write a story the first time, but by the time they get around to it, the activist will have been released. By the second and third time (etc.) the activist is arrested, they will simply not bother with a story altogether, anticipating the activist’s imminent release.

There’s a silver lining though.

As Yoani Sanchez concluded in the Foreign Policy article I previously cited: “Opening the world's eyes to the real Cuba, after all, no longer requires a wire service dispatch; it can be done with a cell phone.”

New media and technology have bolstered independent journalists and the entire spectrum of Cuba’s pro-democracy movement. Bloggers like Yoani Sanchez, whose posts travel the cyber-world; independent news agencies like Hablemos Press, which has filmed numerous recent protests (including one on the steps of the Capitol building) using cell phones; independent journalists like Carlos Rios Otero, who was just re-arrested last week for investigating the cause of death of Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan; tools like Twitter, which allow activists to denounce repression in real-time; and websites like Hablalo Sin Miedo (“Speak Without Fear”) and Cuba Sin Censura (“Cuba Without Censorship”), which turn cell phones into international microphones. These last two (along with Twitter) have become essential tools for activists in the provinces, which are virtually ignored by foreign journalists.

This brings me to an important issue.

On December 3rd, 2009, the Cuban authorities arrested Alan P. Gross, an American development worker from Potomac, Md., who had gone to Havana to help provide Internet technology to Jewish groups, so they could communicate amongst each other and with the outside world.

The arrest of Gross, who is in ill health, has lost over 100 lbs. and was sentenced to 15 years in prison (after a year with no charges filed), underlines the Castro regime’s determination to control information -- and punish those who would press for a free flow of information. Once again, in contravention of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes “the right to receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In conclusion, allow me to make just one factual observation regarding the Obama Administration’s policy towards Cuba, as it’s not my assigned topic per se.

There's an American hostage in Cuba and despite this, the Obama Administration conducted a new round of easing non-humanitarian sanctions in January 2011.

Since then, political arrests have more than doubled and we’re seeing the largest spike in repression in decades –- all courtesy of an emboldened regime.

And that’s not the only thing that has doubled. Since the Obama Administration first lifted restrictions on travel and remittances in April 2009, the Castro regime’s hard currency deposits in foreign banks have doubled. That’s a troubling and indisputable fact.

Once again, thank you so much.