This paper analyzes the freedom of information in Cuba that is an acute concern of both domestic and international affairs of its citizens with the outside world. For decades the domains and means of communication of the Cuban population were thoroughly controlled by the government, and this factor remains topical presently, with little ease in restrictions imposed earlier. Regardless of pioneering the field in terms of being among the first implementers of radio and television broadcasting services, the officials advanced this sector only for the sake of stricter control over its people’s lives. While nowadays the policies are promoted as less restrictive, the political pressure is still paradoxical since there is no freedom of information in Cuba indeed. Nevertheless, citizens find the ways to be free in this respect even in the context of overwhelming restrictions.
Although the Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution recognizes the freedom of speech and press, it prohibits private ownership of any media sources making the former statement just an absurd claim. According to the 2013 report by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2013), “Cuba ranked 171 out of 179 in the Reporters without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index.” In this light, contemporary Cuban freedom of information is an arguable issue. Moreover, this phenomenon has long history within the country’s borders. Therefore, the paper presents an overview of the extent of free information exchange in Cuba in relation to the current state of the problem.
Since the times of the Cuban revolution of 1953-1959, the livelihood of the whole country was strictly and overly focused on state politics. While promoting voluntarismo, i.e., voluntary work for the sake of living and evolving in the scope of the Cuban Revolution, thorough state ownership of all production means, including media resources, was the primary characteristic of the policies in the late 1960-1970s (Kapcia, 2008). This strategy was applied to mobilize the locals in order to serve the goals and objectives of the revolution. According to general perceptions, the Republic of Cuba has been conceptualized as “a janitor player in superpower politics” involving the USA, on one side, and the USSR on the other side of the Cold War opposition (Staten, 2005, p. 114).
Nonetheless, Staten (2005) has proved the fact that Cuban authorities blindly followed the orders of the Soviet Union leaders was a misbelief. Undoubtedly, the government of a discussed country gained sufficient financial incentives form the Soviet Union in order to enhance the state economy, upgrade military and technologies in the 1970s. However, Castro’s policies aimed to pursue a distinct localized goal that was a promotion of Cuban internationalism, especially by sourcing Communist revolts in the Americas, rather than simply adhere to the international policies implemented by the USSR. In any case, development of media and domestic communication as such was overwhelmingly politicized during the indicated period.
In the light of the above mentioned conditions, the USSR sponsored the launch of radio and television broadcasting stations in Cuba, which were the first in the Western part of the world (Staten, 2005; Kapcia, 2008). Instead of focusing on enhanced information delivery to the population, the allies aimed at developing barriers to the US-based broadcasting opportunities. In addition, the government invested in development of the telephone communications across the country as a way to advance healthcare and education among other aspects of infrastructure. By the end of 1980s 56% of telephone lines were centered in the capital city, while the rest redistributed across the provinces (Staten, 2005; Kapcia, 2008). At the same time, state control over all communications was a primary target of the officials as a quest for filling in the gap, in contrast to the developed nations, in order to eliminate any possibilities of sabotage, protests or counterrevolution.
It follows that the Cuban region was substantially enhanced in terms of communications in the analyzed period. However, advancement in the field is an evident ethical dilemma. Namely, the primary role of different communications is to advance people’s lives. In contrast, the Cuban situation undermined the essence of these transformations. In other words, the only purpose of this evolution in communications infrastructure was the establishment and maintenance of the all-embracing governmental control over political, economic and social life in the country.
Although different agencies and researchers have emphasized a recent slight decrease in governmental censorship and control over the media space, the problem is extremely topical and acute in the country even nowadays. While the digital era brought limitless opportunities due to the invention of the Internet elsewhere, the situation in Cuba remained substantially preserved. In particular, the report by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2013) revealed that the government opened about 118 internet cafes during the year. However, apart from the possibilities to use the Cuba-centered intranet and both limited and controlled access to the World Wide Web, using the service is barely affordable for the locals. While a monthly local salary is approximately $20, the intranet connection amounts for about $1.50 per hour from the state-controlled cafes along with $7 per hour cost for the Internet access from a hotel (Freedom House, 2012). At the same time, the connection is slow and of poor quality.
On a similar note, currently Cuba is characterized as a complete state monopoly within the media domain. To be more precise, the state owns “406 print and 317 digital media, 88 radio stations, 4 national TV channels, including 2 devoted to educational programming, 16 regional TV stations and an international TV channel” (Amnesty International, 2010, p. 5). Any ownership that is beyond the state control is considered illegal. Regardless of the fact that the Soviet times have passed long ago and communism is perceived as an outdated ideology, the state officials are still overwhelmingly concerned with the possibilities of “enemy propaganda” and “unauthorized news” dissemination (Freedom House, 2012). For instance, modern Western music, foreign and independent TV and radio programs are the subjects to legal prohibition in light of the political culture that emphasizes: “Within the Revolution everything is permitted, outside the Revolution, nothing” (Freedom House, 2012; Amnesty International, 2010; Kapcia, 2008). As a result, the developed system of governmental restriction and control over the information flows is only improved on the grounds of the contemporary technological evolution.
Apart from the development of the state-owned communications infrastructure within Cuba, the Communist government has supported its endeavors by means of adoption of the relevant legislation. In this way, Cubans have been trapped within the system of thorough governmental censorship and restrictions that undermine and violate the principal human rights on the freedom of expression guaranteed on the worldwide level.
In this respect, Cubans are mostly presented with the media-centered content that is allowed by the governmental agencies. Through an array of state channels, citizens are exposed to the information which the government releases to the public and which grants “furthering the objective of socialist society” (Amnesty International, 2010, p. 5). For instance, such framed content is released to the broad audience by the state news agencies, including Prensa Latina and Agencia Cubana de Noticias. At the same time, it is necessary to admit that there are independent local news agencies. Nonetheless, they cannot obtain any legal status to reach their target population due to the prohibition of the private ownership of the media resources. Unless the agency is registered under the underpinning of the Communist Party, its reporters and journalists willing to express their thoughts and ideas freely may be and oftentimes are persecuted by the law enforcement organizations. Therefore, both internal and external information flows are restricted on the basis of the Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence that may award a dissident with a 20-year imprisonment term, and the 1997 Law of National Dignity capable to incarcerate an individual from around 3 up to 10 years of detention (Freedom House, 2012; Amnesty International, 2010).
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Although the contemporary Cuban policies in the field reveal a certain ease in restrictions, these factors are rather paradoxical as well as the system itself. For example, the government allowed to criticize itself. Such criticisms were recently reported by the representatives of the Catholic Church, yet the officials did not react to the critique (The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2013). In addition, people in general were permitted to express their concerns and dissatisfaction more freely, especially in the light of economic hardships. However, the analysts have clarified that the Cuban regime follows the above strategy on purpose as a way to demonstrate the veiled democratization and freedom of information. In fact, any criticisms are tolerated by the officials only within the specific contexts, including “government-organized public assemblies or within the government-controlled organizations” (Amnesty International, 2010, p. 5). Moreover, the restrictions sometimes relate even to the governmental agencies, whose performance is completely traced and controlled by the state. Thus, such a circumstance clearly evidences the above assumption. To illustrate, the Amnesty International (2010, p. 5) has referred to a vivid example in the 2009 issue of Juventude Rebelde’s editorial that asserted that “information is a public good and cannot be substituted by permitted expedient information”. The issue was removed from the shops nationwide in 3 hours after its release.
As previously noted, any information connection with the outside world or dissemination of the actual state of affairs in the country is controlled by the government. Moreover, based on the Cuban legislation, the locals have no right to distribute or possess publications from foreign media, notwithstanding the fact that certain popular international papers can be found in hotels which international tourists prefer to stay at (Freedom House, 2012).
Nevertheless, Cubans have found the ways to exchange their ideas and experiences with the world. For instance, Pertierra (2012) have provided evidence on the existence of mobile media networks in Cuba. Although an ordinary Internet user might relevantly think of mobile devices as a primary instrument in this case, such a phenomenon in Cuban history is a little different. To be more precise, the development of mobile networks as a means of global versus Cuba-centered communication and information exchange refers to people who were allowed to travel abroad on the grounds of work-related issues. State-owned cell phone operators provided communication services within the country, while computers were permitted to be home-owned for work purposes to a few individuals. This also refers to actual Internet connection. Since technological advancement was mostly linked to improvement of work performance and productivity, a limited number of state employees was allowed to go abroad and buy presents for their relatives. As a result, Cubans who travelled overseas tended to purchase hard drive devices capable to store as many bites of information as possible. Sometimes, travelers could even store a few hundred series of soap operas, immense number of music files and other free-world information, and this domain has become a prosperous shadowed economy that contravened the official information isolation of the country (Pertierra, 2012). Domestic distribution of this data was based on either computers bought both legally and illegally or other media players such as DVDs. This channel also was of a reverse effect since Cubans living in the island forwarded their messages and reported about the statewide situation using the same means. In any case, locals found a feasible way to learn about the life outside of Cuba.
Apart from that, the information was derived from the Diaspora, exile and migrant generations originated in Cuba, who had managed to escape from the region, but remained connected with their relatives and friends in the island. Previously, this channel was substantially sourced by the information from text messages and the aforementioned mobile networks (Pertierra, 2012). Currently, it operates on the basis of independent local blogging community whose fewer representatives frequently refer to foreign embassies for free Internet access, notwithstanding constant harassment and persecution (Freedom House, 2012).
The consequences of information and media censorship policies in Cuba are the problems of global significance rather than local. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has reported about “arbitrary arrests, short-term detentions, beatings, smear campaigns, and surveillance”, which target not only Cuban, but also international free-thinking minds (Freedom House, 2012). To illustrate, in 2003 the regime arrested 29 journalists among 75 activists in the context of Black Spring phenomenon, while in 2012 50 acts of repressions were documented with respect to the staff of the independent news agency, Hablemos Press (Freedom House, 2012). Simultaneously, foreign journalists were harassed. Examples include irrelevant accusations of counterrevolutionary activities of Spanish journalists Carlos Hernando and Mauricio Vincent in 2012 (Freedom Press, 2012).
Apart from professional journalists and dissident oppositionists, the government threatens with a 5-year incarceration to any person that illegally connects to the international network, while the punishment for “writing ‘counterrevolutionary’ articles for foreign websites is 20 years” (Freedom House, 2012). This is true regardless of the fact that freedom of expression is generally recognized as an innate right of every individual in the world and is among the core human rights. On a similar note, the fact that even the Cuban Constitution proclaims this right adds another unethical controversy to the issue. Namely, the factual evidence demonstrates that there is no such type of freedom within the island’s borders. Moreover, whereas freedom of the press is one more universal right also promoted by the government, it is thoroughly eliminated in reality. Therefore, Cuban information censorship clearly poses a threat to freedom of expression within the global context.
Summarizing the discussion, one should emphasize that the issue of freedom of information is extremely complex and topical in Cuba. From the historical perspective, the process of elimination of free disclosure of thoughts and ideas as well as information exchange within the country and across its borders has lasted for decades and continues so far. While the current state leadership ascertains that the restrictions in the sector are less limited, this approach is just a way to deceive the residents and global community as a whole. In fact, persecution and harassment of dissident and independent thinkers is widely practiced even under the democratized curtain. The fact that both locals and foreigners suffer in this case makes the situation highly unethical and acute.