Popes, Prostitutes and Prisoners
Published in Peace Review 1/SI (1999), pp. 83-89
Cubans like to laugh at themselves a lot. It's part of their temperament and their culture. It may also be a way of easing tensions. So before, during, and after Pope John Paul II's visit, all of Cuba was telling "Pope jokes." But there was one joke that was more a satirical commentary on foreign press reporting on Cuba than on the Pope's visit.
The story goes that Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul were walking along Havana's famous seaside drive, the Malecón, when a gust of wind blew the Pope's mitre off his head and into the water. Fidel immediately leaped over the wall and into the water where, to everyone's amazement, he found himself walking on top of the waves. Taking this in his stride, Fidel glided over the water, picked up the mitre, climbed back out, and handed the headpiece back to the Pope. And they continued on their stroll. The next day prominent headlines in the Cuban daily newspaper Granma proclaimed, 'Fidel Performs Revolutionary Feat; Walks on Water to Retrieve Pope's Mitre!' The Vatican's L'Ossematore considered this an equally big event. But its version said, 'Pope Performs Miracle! Enables Fidel to Walk on Water!' The Miami papers, of course, had their own spin. Their headlines blared, 'Proven Beyond Doubt – Fidel Cannot Swim!'
Since 1969,1 have been a regular visitor to Cuba and have lived there since 1982 when I moved, with my family, to work as a foreign correspondent. When I asked a friend in New York to scan news about Cuba after Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the island in early 1998, she wrote back saying, "There's not much here, just the usual –Pope, prostitutes and prisoners." A sad commentary, because there is so much more.
Media coverage of Cuba in the United States, and in many other countries, usually contains at least a grain of truth. However, what grows out of that seed, how it's interpreted, or twisted, often results in reporting that bears very little resemblance to what goes on. Unfortunately the spin that most U.S. and like-minded media put on Cuba cannot be viewed as lightly as in the Pope joke.
By omission and commission, due to directives by editors, publishers and producers, or to unconscious biases on the part of the journalists themselves and sometimes just due to ignorance, what is reported about Cuba abroad is often far from accurate. It is misleading, and in the worst eases, intentionally false.
How does this happen? Warren Hinkle, former Ramparts publisher and columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, visited Cuba a number of years ago. When he discovered that some information, widely published in papers across the United States and, often in columns written by "liberal" reporters, was blatantly and provably untrue, he raised the question, "What ever happened to the old journalistic rule of checking your sources?" Answering his own question) Hinkle wrote, "Well, it goes right out the window when it comes to Cuba, where the other main axiom is: if it's negative it must be true."
In the U.S., anything negative said about Cuba, no matter how far-fetched, is printed or broadcast, usually without question. Although there are good exceptions, there are too many journalists, editors and producers who will transmit negative information without checking their sources, while anything positive or even neutral must be heavily qualified with remarks such as "Cuban government officials claim," or preceded by the word "allegedly." More often, the positive comments must be "balanced" by quoting a negative or contradictory statement by an anti-Castro Cuban exile or "a Washington source.' These statements may have no foundation in the truth, but they are accepted unquestioningly because the negative always seems more credible. Yet when the information published is anti-Castro, those same editors and publishers see no need whatsoever to seek corroborating sources or to provide "balance" by quoting someone in Cuba to refute the negative claims.
Let me give you an example. In early 1998 many foreign reporters stated that "Christmas was celebrated for the first time" in Cuba the previous December in anticipation of the Pope's visit. But Christmas as a religious holiday has been celebrated for years. Since moving there in 1982, I have attended packed midnight mass celebrations at Havana's main cathedral almost every year.
Cubans celebrate Christmas--the Christians and the far greater number of practitioners of "Santeria" who incorporate elements of Catholicism in their religious observances-primarily with a large family gathering on Christmas Eve, "La Noche Buena," followed by midnight mass and other religious services in their churches.
What was different in 1998 was simply that the government, at the request of the Pope, announced that December 25 would be a work holiday. This had absolutely nothing to do with the traditional celebration of Christmas Eve. I covered both the traditional Christmas Eve feast and the celebration of Christmas Day for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) TV. We filmed a family during their traditional dinner, then going to midnight mass. But when we went back the next day to film the filled churches on December 25, they were empty--in fact, so were the streets of Havana. What almost everyone did with their national holiday was sleep late as they had already celebrated the night before. The holiday gave them a much-welcomed chance to sleep in after their festivities and religious celebration, instead of having to get up and go to work as usual. But it didn't change their pattern of worship. Meanwhile, since few of the foreign journalists reported this simple fact, the myth of a first-time celebration of Christmas circled the world. You can turn a fact into a lie simply by distorting it beyond recognition.
Since the Cuban Revolution, the foreign press corps in Cuba has reported on a short list of de rigeur topics. They always note the long lines, the empty grocery store shelves, and a myriad of other illustrations to demonstrate that people living under socialism are not nearly as happy as people in capitalist countries. The economic crisis of the 1990's, which resulted from the loss of Cuba's socialist trading partners, has prompted the addition of a couple of new topics to the list. One of the headliners is prostitution.
Is prostitution more widespread in Cuba than in other countries? No. Do organized bands kidnap young girls to sell to whore houses? No. Are women dying of suffocation in closed containers while being shipped to other countries to work as prostitutes, as happened in the Dominican Republic? No. Do young women become drug addicts and then rely on prostitution to feed their habits? No. The most terrible aspects of forced prostitution are absent in Cuba, so why the media orgy around the reappearance of prostitution in Cuba?
There is the sad fact that, faced with grave shortages of almost all basic staples, not to mention luxuries, a number of Cuban women-often young and well educated-have chosen to milk tourists in the easiest way available to them. The numbers are far smaller than in similarly economically strapped countries. They are also much smaller than in pre-revolutionary Cuba, when hundreds of thousands of women were forced to rely on prostitution for subsistence. How ever, today's situation is very disturbing in a country that prided itself at having wiped out the underlying social and economic causes of prostitution. And it is certainly a topic for sociologists, women’s activists, and other researchers to be concerned about. But is it "news"? Does it warrant becoming a standard item in every newspaper account of Cuba?
Another of the "must" stories for foreign journalists reporting on Cuba is “human rights." However they are not referring to the basic elementary rights of food, housing, clothing, health care, education, jobs, and culture-the "social and economic rights" embodied in articles 22-26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the outstanding features of the Cuban Revolution has been its efforts to guarantee these rights, in large measure successfully, until the demise of its Eastern European trading partnerships. In fact, even today, Cubans are the envy of most of the developing world and considerable pockets of the industrialized world for the extent to which they still enjoy the benefits of their government regarding food, education, and health care as essential human rights.
But most of the U.S. media, and their imitators in other countries, do not include these social and economic rights when they discuss "human rights." Excluding these, they focus instead on individual civil and political liberties (and those according to U.S. definitions). In this way, the U.S. media can ignore the major contributions made by the Cuban Revolution to the defense of human rights, while criticizing it for not living up to U.S. standards in defending the more narrowly defined concept of "rights".
Rights are not absolute in any society. In the United States, there are classic Supreme Court decisions and statements by jurists reminding us of this. "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose" and "Freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre" are two of the more famous expressions of the accepted limitations. The Supreme Court has also ruled that the health rights of a child must supersede the religious beliefs of parents. In other words, most agree that society has the right to place limitations on individual rights when these conflict with the rights of others or the rights of society as a whole.
All governments impose such limitations-the difference is primarily which values each considers most important to protect. The U.S. government tends to favor the individual (at least in theory) and private property; it places civil and political liberties, such as those in the Bill of Rights, above all other rights. Cuba tends to favor the collectivity and to consider social and economic values-those not even considered "rights" in the United States-to be of the highest priority.
There is also a serious debate in the world as to what constitutes a "political prisoner." What some label "prisoners of conscience" others call "counter-revolutionary prisoners". The distinction is important to remember when reporting from another country. The U.S. media often state that many men and women in prison in Cuba are "those who oppose the official line." But those journalists omit an important question: what is the official line? In Cuba, the "official line" is that food, health care, housing, education, jobs, and culture are fundamental human rights to be protected at all costs. Cubans often find it puzzling that the foreign press insists on the "right" of certain individuals to attempt to take these away.
Not only Fidel Castro and members of the "government," but most Cuban citizens, say that they fought, sacrificed-and tens of thousands died-to achieve a system that would guarantee these rights. In other parts of the world, they point out, millions of people without these rights live on the streets and die of hunger and of preventable and curable diseases. Why should they let a small, individualistic, and self-serving minority try to take away the rights they struggled so hard to gain? But few of these arguments see their way into the U.S. media, where the Cuban side of the debate is seldom aired.
The U.S. press also likes to announce that "Fidel has been in office too long." Aside from the obvious fact that this is for the Cuban people to decide, the problem with this view is that it grows largely from the foreign media's complicity in giving the impression that Fidel is an "unelected" leader or dictator. No U.S. media source ever suggests that the Cuban people might consider what Fidel is doing, in favor of whom, and to whose benefit, more important than the length of time he has been governing. Thanks to this media irresponsibility, most people outside of Cuba are unaware that Fidel Castro is, in fact, re-elected periodically. They accept the conventional wisdom that there are no freedom, no democracy, and no elections in Cuba. Because this false impression is spread so widely throughout the foreign media, it is worth looking at carefully.
While the White House, Congress, and the dutiful media call for "electoral democracy" in Cuba, Cubans shake their heads and ask, "What do you mean by 'free elections'? What kind of 'democracy' do you want us to have? Like Kuwait's, where the people have no say in their government, and women aren't allowed to participate at all? Like the bloody, repressive Pinochet dictatorship the United States helped install and maintain in Chile, who killed the elected President and thousands of other Chilean citizens? Like in Miami, the world's seat of electoral fraud?" U.S. journalists seldom give Cubans the opportunity to explain why they feel their elections are freer, their system of government more democratic. Their claim is based in part on the fact that their governmental system is much more participatory, and that it doesn't cost anything to be a candidate in their system-a valid argument that deserves to be heard and debated.
But there are even more extreme examples of the way the U.S. media play with the truth. An AP/UPI wire service dispatch dated March II, 1998, quoted U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "It is very important for us all to work together to press the Castro government to allow there to be elections and a transition to democracy" (emphasis added). In this case, Albright and the wire service conveniently dropped the qualifying adjective "free," and simply told us there are no elections in Cuba. It is amazing (and as a U.S. journalist, embarrassing) that a U.S. leader would make such an inaccurate statement, that an American reporter would simply note it without question, and that no editor would catch this obvious error. It is one thing to say that Cuba's form of electoral democracy is not up to par. It is quite another thing to deny its existence entirely. Due to Pope John Paul II's imminent visit, correspondents from hundreds of newspapers, magazines, broadcast networks, and wire services from all over the world were present and reported on the January 11, 1998 elections in which 98% of Cuba's eligible voters cast ballots. No one has disputed these electoral figures. No one has charged ballot box stuffing. The only complaint the United States has voiced regarding these and previous elections is the forum in which candidates are chosen for the highest offices.
The U.S. coverage of the electoral system usually ignores the content of the electoral process. The fact is that all local, district, and provincial delegates are chosen by standard electoral models used the world over. There must be two or more candidates, whom anyone can nominate at open public meetings. People can even nominate themselves. There is universal suffrage for those who are 16 years and older, with no racial, gender, religious, or political discrimination. There is a secret ballot. And finally, the winner must get at east 51% of the vote, or else a run-off is held.
Moreover, unlike certain countries whose "democracy" the United States touts, voting in Cuba is not obligatory, although there is heavy social pressure to do so. Local block committees do a big "get out the vote" door-to-door campaign, and apparently Cubans feel they have something to vote for, because unlike in the United States-where as few as 25-30% of the electorate sometimes vote-nearly everyone in Cuba votes.
These elected delegates in turn appoint an electoral commission of individuals selected by civic, social, trade union, women's, student and political organizations. It's the electoral commission's job to carry out a massive grassroots selection process to represent the broadest cross-section of the Cuban population in a slate of candidates for the higher offices of the National Assembly. In this year's elections, the electoral commission analyzed over 60,000 proposals, discussing them with over a million voters, individually and through their civic social, political, and trade union organizations, in order to come up with the final, non-partisan slate. Cuban electors are then asked to vote to accept or reject-individually or collective slate. If the system functions correctly, those on the ballot will actually represent all sectors. Can it be said that in every election in the United States the two (rarely is it more than this) candidates for any given post truly represent the wishes of the electorate?
Danny Schechter, former ABC and CNN producer, in his book The More We Watch The Less We Know, quotes from an interview he did with James Baldwin in the 1960s, when television was still a new medium. Rather than express enthusiasm for this new form of expression, Baldwin urged a sense of caution. "You know, they're going to tell you, 'Well, cut it here, cool it there, change it someplace else.' And you're going to agree because you think, 'A half a loaf is better than none,"' Baldwin said. "But a half a loaf isn't better than none, a half a loaf is poison."
Just as half a truth is often a lie. In writing about Cuba, there are too many "half-loaves." It's about time we got a full loaf in reporting on Cuba.
Karen Lee Wald is a writer, educator and freelance journalist from California who has been reporting on Cuba since 1969. Her book Children of CAC: A Childs-Eye View of the Revolution was published by Ramparts Press in 1978 and in a Spanish version in 1986.