Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the United States has inflicted various forms of punishment upon the island nation in order to affect regime change. Policies have included a devastating economic embargo, attempts at international isolation, military invasion and a little-known history of terrorism, which has claimed thousands of Cuban civilian lives.
One of the longest-standing expressions of this antagonism derives from an institution usually perceived to be independent of the state in modern liberal democracies – the press. In fact, the mass media has enthusiastically justified Washington’s determination to end the Revolution and re-establish American control. Mainstream media’s role has been to the fore in painting Cuba in a negative light and developing a critical narrative, which does not stand up to honest scrutiny.
Misinformation has been responsible for the preponderance of negative myths around Fidel Castro’s Revolution. But when myth displaces history, facts become immaterial to rational discussion. This is the means by which the worst charges against Cuban society come to be believed, while attempts at authentic examination are denied.
Cuba’s Response to COVID-19
Criticizing Cuba’s many shortcomings throughout the decades has been an easy endeavour for corporate media. Yet the press has studiously ignored positive aspects of the Revolution. This was seen recently in negative coverage of Havana’s decision to send medical teams to some of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19. Indeed, Cuba was the only nation to provide medical assistance to Italy at the height of the crisis there.
A team of Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Italy to help in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, as the death toll from the virus in the country surpassed that of China https://t.co/XvXL35q8Ax pic.twitter.com/0v6izllYXB
— Reuters (@Reuters) March 23, 2020
In attempting to convince its readers that sending medical staff abroad to help fight the pandemic should be equated with ‘human trafficking’, the Miami Herald ran a one-sided piece on February 28th. It was written by Cuban-American Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former Republican member of Congress well known for her unyielding anti-Revolutionary stance.[i]
The article made an unsubstantiated claim that Cuban doctors had been forced to participate under threat of punishment, with the government arbitrarily confiscating the majority of their salaries. What the piece failed to reveal was that the doctors had volunteered out of a sense of personal duty, receiving far more than their domestic wages under the programme, and used the proceeds to support the government’s efforts to sustain the country’s universal health care system. This came from a desire to give something back to the system that trained them.
To provide that counterpoint would offer rationality and balance, something the U.S. press does not generally permit in supporting Washington’s objectives in Cuba. This is why the media rarely mentions the damage done by the U.S. embargo when reporting on Cuba’s substantial economic difficulties.
While this episode during the COVID-19 crisis is but the latest instance of media bias, it is not an isolated case. One of the most egregious occurred after a number of national journalists were paid by the U.S. government to publish misinformation regarding the Cuban Five – intelligence agents sent to Florida in the 1990s to infiltrate violent anti-Revolutionary organizations with a history of employing terrorist methods.[ii]
The Five were sentenced to lengthy jail terms based in large part on intentionally misleading reporting of journalists. It was a remarkable case of a ‘free press’ blatantly submitting to the directives of their government’s foreign policy dictates.
Other examples include that of American contractor Alan Gross, convicted of bringing illegal military grade communication equipment into the island nation. His case engendered considerable national media coverage, mostly propagating the distortion that he was simply carrying standard telephonic equipment.
Even before the Revolution, mainstream media was fully behind Washington’s designs on the island nation, helping to generate the fiction that the Maine battleship was intentionally blown up in Havana harbour in 1898. This generated the public support for U.S. entry into Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain that culminated in decades of American hegemony.
Washington’s hostility to the Revolution has been wholeheartedly supported by corporate media. This should come as no surprise as, with few exceptions, historically the mainstream U.S. press has endorsed or vilified the government’s designated allies or enemies. This is regardless of a media outlet’s ideological bent on domestic issues. So whether it’s the left-leaning New York Times or the conservative Washington Post, when it comes to Cuba reporting has been overwhelmingly anti-Revolutionary.
This stance against Cuba is really what a ‘free press’ is designed for; a generally reliable information outlet is utilized to generate support for the government’s foreign policy goals, most often based on capitalist considerations. Indeed, corporate media’s primary consideration, now more than ever, is to be a profitable business. That means a basic tenet of journalistic integrity — fairness – is thrown to the wayside to appease shareholder wealth and advertiser expectations. Thus, the media’s economic imperatives harmonise with the U.S. government’s strategic goals.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media – no less of a capitalist institution than the stock market – cannot tolerate Cuba’s socialist values and efforts at egalitarianism being presented as any sort of positive model for other developing nations to follow.
The one-sided perspective, based on the control of information, is particularly effective as most Americans still find it extremely complicated to visit the country due to restriction on travel. As the average person is unable to see for themselves what is good, bad and indifferent about Cuba, media is the only conduit for the message about a country long designated anti-American.
The foot soldiers in corporate media’s propaganda war have been the journalists. While most are not intentionally biased, any mainstream media reporter – experts in foreign affairs or otherwise – writing about Cuba usually approaches the subject with predetermined values based on rigid capitalist understandings of democracy.
Most journalists instinctively cover Cuba from that perspective, regurgitating ingrained biases and misinformation about the Revolution.
Cuba does not conform to Western neo-liberal standards, so by default the mainstream press looks for negative indicators, compared to the supposedly superior capitalist system. The result is that journalism unsympathetic to capitalist values is not published. Instead reporters are selected who perceive Cuba’s system to be inferior, and approach the subject with a set of preconceived prejudices. This lack of any real understanding of a revolutionary society or Cuba’s history only exacerbates those established ideas.
Mainstream media, now increasingly under the thumb of billionaires, is generally in complete accord with the political and economic views of ruling classes and their foreign policy objectives. The parameters of discussion in the media come under state control through a conjunction in the financial aims of owners and national policy goals.
Under unspoken U.S. rules of proprietorship, the media’s voluntary compliance in disseminating government propaganda is more effective than state-controlled news organisations found under overt dictatorships. There is a perception that privately operated media equates to independence and is a democratic barrier to state authoritarianism. In fact, when mainstream media ownership is under the control of the billionaire class, you don’t need government pressure to ensure compliance, it comes willingly.
Whether supporting American allies – no matter how distasteful — or denigrating those perceived to be anti-American – no matter how undeserving – the mass media can be counted on to adhere to the official agenda of the state. Thus, among the countries that are rarely criticizes in the media are human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. On the other hand, the propaganda machine has reached epic proportions in its depiction of Venezuela. Cuba, of course, has never left the anti-American ledger.
The difference in how media covers pro- and anti-American nations has been described by Alternet writer Adam Johnson as the ‘North Korea Law of Journalism’, which states that journalistic standards ‘are inversely proportional to a country’s enemy status.’[v]
The North Korea Law of Journalism states: "editorial standards are inversely proportional to a countys enemy status" pic.twitter.com/u0alUnXeQ9
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) September 10, 2016
As a result, the more antagonistic the U.S. is to a particular country, the more lackadaisical a journalist can be in truthfully depicting events there. That approach has long characterized coverage of Cuba.
Further Recent Examples
Another recent example of the adverse reporting on Cuba’s efforts to fight COVID-19 arrived in a CNN report written by Patrick Oppmann in late March, with the headline: ‘Coronavirus-hit countries are asking Cuba for medical help. Why is the US opposed?’[vi] Yet the article offered no specific reason why the U.S. government should object.
The wording of the headline implies that the U.S. government has a valid reason for complaining about Cuba sending medical teams around the world. The consumer already has assimilated the false narrative that there is legitimacy in objecting to Cuba’s internationalism. This is before a single word of the article has been read.
The article reports that the U.S. State Department wants countries to refuse any help from Cuban medical brigades, even though they admit that health care systems around the world have been strained to the point of collapse. A spokesperson for the Trump administration then went so far as to call the medical staff ‘slave doctors.’
CNN’s report continued with the standard false narrative about Cuba, laying the blame for the economic shortcomings on: ‘The hyper centralization of the Cuban government, which has been so disastrous for the island’s economy.’
Naturally, there was no discussion of the unrelenting harm that the American embargo imposes. Corporate media reveals its biases as much by what it reports, as by what it ignores. The reporter either had no conception of how Cuba’s economy works or the reforms it has undergone over the past five years to decrease centralization, or simply chose to ignore those facts. Truth and Cuba rarely intersect in corporate media.
International media can be just as biased. A report in The Guardian on May 6th recalled the kind of misinformation disseminated in the early days of the Revolution, rehashing false narratives about medics being exploited by an authoritarian regime seeking political influence. Paul Hare, the British ambassador to Cuba from 2001 to 2004 was quoted as referring to Cuba’s ‘doctor diplomacy’ that began soon after 1959 because Fidel Castro, ‘was very strategic [and]saw a surplus of doctors and he saw it as a way of garnering diplomatic support.’[vii]
This statement from the former ambassador exposes either a shocking lack of knowledge about Cuba or intentional dishonesty. In 1959, Cuba had approximately 6,000 doctors, half of whom fled the country soon after Castro’s triumph. There was no surplus of doctors in the early years of the Revolution. It was only through steady government investment over decades that Cuba’s health care system became universal, despite the economic limitations imposed by the U.S. embargo.
Indeed it wasn’t until 1976 that the pre-Revolutionary ratio of doctors to citizens was restored, but by 2005 Cuba had the highest proportion of doctors to citizens in the world.[viii] Only after fulfilling its commitments to health care nationally did the shift towards medical internationalism occur.
Washington’s latest attack on Cuba’s medical efforts internationally came in June, when Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio introduced the Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Bill. The proposed legislation, according to the Miami Herald, requires the State Department to publish the list of countries that hire Cuban medical missions and for that list to used when deciding countries’ rankings on the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.[ix] The Bill is the latest attempt to discredit the missions and deprive the Cuban government of much needed resources.
Media bias against Cuba did not start with the Revolution. One of the earliest examples originated over one-hundred-and-twenty years ago during the Spanish-American War – referred to in Cuba as the Second War of Independence.
The national media of the day was in full-throated harmony with Washington’s long-standing desire to establish control over the island. The conflict started in 1895 when Cuban rebels rose up to fight for independence against Spain. On the verge of victory in 1898, the Americans came in to help seal the deal and then supposedly to leave – or that’s what the Cubans thought. The pretext for U.S. involvement resulting in sixty years of American hegemony was the blowing up of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbour.
America’s two most influential newspapers whipped up public support for military intervention. At the time of the explosion both William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, were the leading proponents of the yellow press in fierce competition over national issues. But when it came to foreign affairs, the two papers were often on the same page, cheerleading the country flexing its developing imperial muscles.
The New York Journal offered the enormous sum of $50,000 for the capture of those responsible for the Maine explosion, noting: ‘The physical facts, even in advance of the investigation, indicate that the Maine was blown up by a (Spanish) submarine mine.’[x]
That there was no proof for this contention hardly mattered. The only reasonable response, the editorial board concluded, was for the U.S. to enter the war, defeat the Spanish and liberate Cuba. The final objective, to place the island under U.S. dominion, was left unstated.
Once the war ended the Americans imposed military rule from 1898 to 1902, setting the conditions for U.S. social and economic control over the island for the next fifty years. To justify U.S. control, the press reported that Cubans were simply incapable of managing their own affairs.
As New York Times’ correspondent Stanhope Sams wrote disdainfully of the locals: ‘There is no Cuba. There are no Cuban people. There are not freemen here to whom we could deliver this marvellous island. We have fought for a spectral republic … If we are to save Cuba, we must hold it. If we leave it to the Cubans, we give it over to a reign of terror.’[xi]
From Fidel Castro to Elián Gonzalez
When Fidel Castro ended, once and for all, those false narratives, the mainstream press enthusiastically went to work in support of Washington’s goal of vilifying the Revolution. Now the Cubans were depicted as evil, two-faced, illegitimate and a bunch of unappreciative bandits for being forever ungrateful for U.S. benevolence. And worst of all: they went on to become Communists.
While the media criticized those who supported the Revolution as unwitting fools, the most violent attacks came against Fidel. An editorial cartoon in the Charleston News and Courier on January 1st, 1960, played on the supposed immaturity and temperament of the Latin male. Thus, Fidel was depicted as a spoiled child in a playpen, with the caption reading, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’.
The mainstream media would ensure that the public appreciated just how ungrateful, childish and vindictive these Cubans, who had the temerity to throw the Americans out and end colonial rule, really were.
While the following decades institutionalised the media’s propaganda war against Cuba, one little boy’s tragedy revealed just how far the press was prepared to go in distorting reality.
Elián Gonzalez created an international sensation in 1999 by surviving the dangerous crossing of the Florida Straits on a raft, an attempt to reach the U.S. that cost the lives of his mother and others aboard. Shortly after Elián was taken in by his relatives in Miami, the press created a series of narratives that merged into a characteristic anti-Cuba bias.
This included a report that Elián wouldn’t last six months if he returned to the horrors of Cuba; that his father Juan Miguel really didn’t want to have his son back; and that his mother died in a desperate bid to gain freedom on America’s shore. Yet none of those charges stand up to scrutiny.
One story in the Miami Herald promoted the distortion that Elián would face, ‘a tragic life of deprivation if he returns to Cuba.’ The source relied on was a bystander who is supposed to have said: ‘If he goes back, he will starve to death…. It would be a crime to send him back.’[xii]
When Elián’s father, Juan Miguel González, was interviewed, the media expressed skepticism as to whether he wanted his son returned. This led The New York Times to speculate irresponsibly as to whether Juan Miguel was simply, ‘a puppet of the Castro government,’ who ‘not only would allow his son to stay but would seek asylum himself,’ if he ‘had the freedom to speak his mind.’[xiii] The assumption is, of course, that Cubans who want to remain in Cuba have been brainwashed by the regime.
In 2009 the media turned its attention to the issue of American contractor Alan Gross, arrested after bringing in high tech, illegal communication equipment known as BGAN, designed to set up untraceable satellite communication networks.
This equipment is prohibited internationally unless under the control of a government. Gross was funded by USAID, one of many government agencies dedicated to the overthrow of the Revolution. Predictably, the case generated a host of misrepresentation in the corporate media.
The overwhelming majority of articles claimed Gross was simply carrying low-level communication equipment, similar to a mobile cell phone.
Consistently misrepresenting what he was doing in Cuba, the press constructed the issue as a helpless American only trying to bring, ‘free speech to an oppressed people under the nose of a government that did not want that to happen’, as one report on CBS News put it.[xiv]
The Washington Post spewed the same fallacy with an additional twist a few days after his arrest: ‘The Cuban government has arrested an American citizen working on contract for the US Agency for International Development who was distributing cell phones and laptop computers to Cuban activists.’[xv]
The Cuban Five
Undoubtedly, however, as alluded to earlier, the worst example of media bias occurred when corporate media ensured a completely unjust court decision was delivered against five men who were trying to prevent acts of terrorism.
The case of the Cuban Five revolved around intelligence agents sent to Florida to infiltrate violent anti-revolutionary Cuban-American organizations with a history of terrorism against their former homeland.
The arrest and trial of the Five in 1998 was characterized by an unending stream of misinformation, ensuring the Five would have no chance of a fair trial. This resulted in incredibly long sentences for all five, including two life terms, plus fifteen years for Gerardo Hernandez.
This travesty of justice was made possible by a number of journalists on the Miami Herald who were paid by the United States government to write negative stories against the Five, thereby abrogating any semblance of journalistic integrity. It was state run propaganda pure and simple, with the willing connivance of the so-called free press. Corporate media stooped to disseminating the view that the Five were dangerous spies, determined to steal government secrets and attack the United States.
During the trial various reports written to condemn the Five incorporated elements of fantasy. Wilfredo Cancio Isla wrote a remarkable article in El Nuevo Herald on June 4th, 2001, the day the jury began its deliberations, implausibly claiming that: ‘Cuba used hallucinogens to train its spies.’ The article claimed an anonymous Cuban spy deserter had revealed that Cuba gave its agents LSD and other drugs before sending them on missions abroad.
Isla was paid more than $20,000 US to write those stories. Other journalists accused of being paid by the government included El Nuevo Herald reporter Pablo Alfonso, who wrote sixteen negative articles during the trial. Those fictional reports apparently netted him $58,600.[xvi]
A seemingly important split within corporate media’s coverage of Cuba took place in 2014, when President Obama announced a move towards normalizing relations with Cuba. While mainstream media adopted differing views on the value of the process, the underlying allegiance to U.S. foreign policy remained intact.
From the liberal side, the New York Times ran a series of mostly positive articles and editorials, focusing in on the benefits normalization would bring to American business interests, while at the same time helping to convince the locals of the advantages of capitalism. While the Times remained broadly supportive, the conservative Washington Post coverage was predominantly reactionary – with editorials consistently promoting the view that Cuba should not be presented with any gains from the normalization process until they completely renounced the Revolution.
The New York Times support and Washington Post opposition appeared to demonstrate a clearer demarcation in media coverage of Cuba. In fact, the division was over how to realise long-standing state objectives. The objective had not changed.
The Times saw the opening as a new avenue for regime change, in accordance with Washington’s updated perspective. The Post called for the maintenance of the old strategies. Both sides were speaking for the achievement of the same end: the end of the Revolution and re-imposition of American interests. Neither questioned the legality of those policies, the effectiveness of the regime, or the harm caused to the Cuban population by the embargo; just how best to go about achieving regime change.
That has been mainstream media’s prime narrative since the Revolution succeeded. Obama’s updated motive was to offer Cuba a carrot instead of the stick, in the hope that an influx of U.S. tourists, capitalism and culture would finally convince the locals to abandon the dark side of socialism and overthrow their own government.
Symptomatic of the reporting was an editorial in USA Today, apparently endorsing the opening, but bringing together all the biases and ingrained rationalizations for American hostility towards Cuba:
For nearly 60 years, Cuba’s government has done two things exceptionally well: repress its own people and make a mockery of U.S. efforts to compel change through economic sanctions … Without question, U.S. economic sanctions have been an exercise in frustration. They have not prompted a popular uprising or compelled the Cuban regime to open up. If anything, they have been counterproductive, allowing the Castro regime to blame its woeful economic performance on vindictive U.S. policies, rather than on its failed communist ideology.[xvii]
The article admitted the blockade had been a failure as it hadn’t forced the Cuban people into rebellion. So now maybe a new approach – normalization — is needed to compel these stubborn Cubans to get rid of their socialist oppressors? All because a foreign power demands they do.
While the normalization process created greater economic opportunities for the average Cuban, it all ground to a halt when current President Donald Trump took office in 2016.
Since then Trump has rolled back Obama’s initiatives. Surprisingly, much of the media has been upset about the return to a policy of hostility, probably because they regard Obama’s policy as being a better way of forcing regime change.
Thus a majority in the establishment press adopted a broadly negative perspective on Trump’s approach, including the New Yorker, CNN and USA Today, positioning the rollback as harmful to U.S. tourists and business, with little attention placed on the adverse economic impact it would have on the Cuban population. The media’s continued support for the opening remained grounded in the expectation that Obama’s policy would finally bring about regime change, and that Trump was jeopardizing that new strategy by returning to the old approach.
Over the past year Trump’s aggression against Cuba has included permitting Cuban-Americans to sue foreign entities for using so-called ‘confiscated’ properties, as well as restricting flights from the U.S. to Cuba and trying to curtail remittances. The administration also accused Havana of not cooperating with American anti-terrorist efforts.
Trump’s hostility is largely based on Republican Congressman Marco Rubio’s influence. He has convinced the President that his chances of winning Florida in this year’s election will increase if he return to an aggression stance. This forms the backdrop to criticism of Cuba’s current efforts against COVID-19.
Negative coverage of Cuba’s internationalism during the pandemic comes as no surprise. Washington’s policy of regime change will continue to be supported by a compliant corporate media to ensure anti-Revolutionary bias is undiminished, regardless of any crisis the rest of the world is coping with.
[i] Ileana Ros Lehtinen, ‘Cuba exploits its doctors abroad. It’s human trafficking, not ‘charity’’ Miami Herald, February 28th, 2020, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/Ileana-Ros-Lehtinen/article240740726.html
[ii] Keith Bolender, Voices From other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba, Pluto Press, London, 2010, pg 219.
[iii] Peter Phillips, ‘How mainstream media evolved into corporate media: A Project Censored History, Project Censored, February 7, 2019.
[iv] Karen Lee Wold, ‘POPES, PROSTITUTES, and PRISONERS’, Canadian Network Cuba, Peace Review, 11:1 (1999), 83-89, https://www.canadiannetworkoncuba.ca/Documents/KWald-PPP.shtml
[v] Adam H. Johnson, Twitter, September 10th, 2016, https://twitter.com/adamjohnsonnyc/status/774592061131649026?lang=en
[vi] Patrick Oppmann, ‘Coronavirus-hit countries are asking Cuba for medical help. Why is the US opposed?’, CNN, March 26th, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/26/world/cuba-coronavirus-medical-help-intl/index.html
[vii] Tom Phillips and Angela Giufridda ‘‘Doctor diplomacy’: Cuba seeks to make its mark in Europe amid Covid-19 crisis’, May 6th, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/06/doctor-diplomacy-cuba-seeks-to-make-its-mark-in-europe-amid-covid-19-crisis
[ix] Nora Gamez Torres, ‘Scott’s new bill targets countries that hire Cuban doctors through official ‘missions’’, Miami Herald, June 17th, 2020. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nationworld/world/americas/cuba/article243604002.html?link_id=4&can_id=e6cae2bb447cd7abdbe6ce712332042c&source=email-senator-scott-targets-cuban-medical-missions-trump-policy-changes-frighten-cubans-details-on-cubas-reopening&email_referrer=email_837170&email_subject=senator-scott-targets-cuban-medical-missions-trump-policy-changes-frighten-cubans-details-on-cubas-reopening#storylink=cpy
[x] Charles H Brown, The Correspondents War: Journalists in the Spanish American War (New York Charles Scribner’s Son 1967), p. 124
[xi] Luis Perez Jr, The War of 1898, The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography, North Carolina Press, 2000, p.8
[xii] Lisa Tozzi, Castro wants the kid back, FAIR, March 1, 2000, https://fair.org/extra/castro-wants-the-kid-back/
[xiv] Scott Pelley, The last prisoner of the Cold War, CBS 60 minutes November 29th, 2015, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/last-prisoner-cuba-alan-gross-60-minutes/
[xv] Keith Bolender, Cuba Under Siege, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 118
[xvi] Wilfredo Cancio Isla, ‘Reporters for hire’, April 19, 2001. www.reportersforhire.org
[xvii] Editorial Board, ‘Obama’s Historic Trip to Cuba: Our View’, USA Today, March 20th, 2016, www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/03/20/cuba-president-obama-fidel-castro-raul-castro-editorials-debates/81938512/