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President Obama and his advisers share with most of the mass media the same visual weakness when it comes to Cuba: they don’t see the obvious, the crucial facts and context that stare them in the face.
As Cuba begins to undergo basic changes to its economy and governmental structure, the reporting from western media follows predictably context-free and thus irrelevant standards.
For more than a half-century, most writers and radio and TV producers have had a conscious or unacknowledged stake in the failure of the Cuban revolution. To think otherwise, reporters and advisers have learned, would be a bad career move. In order to invalidate Cuba’s attempt to change the social relation of its society and spread its word to the rest of the third world the western media has consistently failed to place a context around the events that led up to the revolution. Instead, Washington and the stenographers called “the press” judge Cuba’s revolution by U.S. standards and in the U.S. context. Cuba must always perform according to what the media assume are standards of democratic perfection. This criteria for judging, beyond its vagueness, leads one to wonder about values and priorities.
For example, on May 24, typical Earthlink headlines contained the following back-to-back leads:
“NATO hits Tripoli; US says rebels can open office.”
“Alley has lost 38 inches since ‘Dancing’ debut.”
Kristie Alley ? for those “outsiders” ? has become featured as an actress with weight problems. “When Kirstie Alley performs on the “Dancing With the Stars” season finale,” the AP story begins, “she’ll do it in a much smaller dress.”
That this item gets featured as a news headline ? and would not appear in the Cuban media ? epitomizes the U.S. free press, which argues that it must serve its readers’ interests. But the media has helped create vicarious living (“I identify with Kirstie,” say thousands of overweight women), just as the media has encouraged shopping and watching sports on TV as the essence of spiritual life (along with the rising porn industry and experiencing vicarious thrills from reading about the sinful sexuality of the rich and famous). “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death,” wrote Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves To Death).
When journalists judge Cuba they inevitably apply different standards than they do to the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America where “the veneration of crap” (Postman) continues to dominate.
Cuba has threatened Washington and its servile media not by being the model for education and health (many European countries are far better), but by being disobedient and cultivating different values. The vast majority of media makers have gone to report on Cuba with a conscious or unacknowledged stake in the failure of the Cuban revolution. They place no context around the events that led up to the revolution, and barely acknowledge Uncle Sam’s large boot on Cuba’s throat for 50 years. Then, they judge it by those vague standards of democratic perfection that they don’t apply to the Dominican Republic or the other neighbors.
Cuba has begun its changes, but neither President Obama nor the mass media have acknowledged them. U.S. policy demands, of Cuba, a “civil society,” while refusing to acknowledge the wide implication of the government’s initiatives with the Catholic Church. Add up the steps taken, Cuba’s cooperation with the Church carries wide implications for religious freedom and the broadening of traditional civil society.
Few U.S. media reports listed the vast increases of religious visits to and from abroad. Havana now permits public religious processions and religious blogs. The state has made scarce resources available to refurbish churches and in the last two years permitted the building of new churches and seminaries. Cuban leaders regularly show up at religious activities and allow churches to provide services to people in prison.
The Catholic Church now has radio time and its high officials have become interlocutors on matters involving prisoners, dissidents and even in foreign policy. The number of Protestant churches opening in Cuba has dramatically increased. The State no longer promotes Atheism. But these facts remain unreported as “significant change.” Indeed, every religious institution has called for an end to the U.S. embargo and the normalization of relations. The U.S. government appears to have grown deaf to the needs of religious people of the island.
Cuba is changing. U.S. policy remains stuck in its half century obsession to remove the only government Cuba has ever had that insists on retaining independence and sovereignty.
Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico