Did Obama change Cuba?

When President Obama made his historic visit to Cuba last month, the US media followed. At a joint press conference on March 21 with Cuban president Raúl Castro, Obama called on CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked the Cuban leader if he would be willing to release political prisoners. A flustered Castro sputtered and demanded a list of those imprisoned. Obama directed a knowing wink at the assembled journalists.

Obama’s implication was that by maneuvering to force Castro to respond live in front of the Cuban people and the world, he had bolstered the power of the press. Indeed, one of the key goals of Obama’s Havana trip was to create more space for critical expression in a country that until recently was one of world’s most censored. Among the 13 dissidents Obama invited to meet with him at the US Embassy in Havana on March 22 were several independent journalists. He insisted that his joint news conference with Castro be broadcast live.

While it’s too early to assess the overall impact of Obama’s visit, it seems the right moment to ask a more basic question: Has anything changed for journalists on the island in the month since Obama departed?

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Miriam Leiva, an independent  journalists and blogger who met with Obama, sees the presidential visit as accelerating trends already under way. “The Cuban government is losing credibility day after day,” Leiva noted by phone from Miami, where she was visiting relatives. “President Castro made many promises and has not been able to fulfill those promises.”

Leiva has been a leading voice of independent journalism in Cuba since 2003, when her husband, economist turned journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was arrested as part of a sweeping crackdown known as the Black Spring. Espinosa Chepe was released after two years due to poor health (he died of a liver ailment in 2013). But many of those detained along with him were not freed until 2010, in a deal brokered by the Spanish government and the Cuban Catholic Church.

By far the favored strategy employed by the Cuban government against dissident journalists has been organized stigmatization and isolation. Independent journalists have been confronted by screaming mobs, denounced in the state media, and relentlessly tracked by state security.

That is why Leiva is so heartened by the fact that  her neighbors now greet her in the street and even occasionally read her stories, which are distributed by email. “People are now more open, they feel less fear,” she says. “We ourselves have gained spaces.”        

Indeed, Cuba’s media landscape is no longer static. While the stale state media predominates, there are over 3,000 blogs. Some espouse dissidence and resistance; others express support for the government and the Communist Party while highlighting shortcomings by local officials. “I wanted something small that wouldn’t be seen as a threat by the state media,” said blogger Elaine Díaz Rodríguez in a recent CPJ report. Díaz was the first Cuban journalists to receive a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University.

For Yoani Sánchez–another leader in the independent media–Obama’s visit had tremendous symbolic value. When Obama arrived in Havana in the middle of a rainstorm, he carried his own umbrella. Cuban functionaries had aides hold theirs. Obama is youthful; Cuba’s leadership is decrepit. Obama is black; Cuba’s leadership is white (despite the fact that Cuba is a majority black country); Obama shows off his family; Cuban leaders hide theirs.

Speaking this weekend at the International Symposium of Online Journalism, an annual media confab in Austin, Sánchez said the primary impetus for change in Cuba has been technology. Only 5 percent of the Cuban population has access to the internet (according to Sánchez; other sources say it’s higher). Cubans must use creative means to access information, including emailed PDFs and flash drives, which are easy to hide and distribute. More recently, Cubans have been flocking to a handful of expensive WiFi hotspots set up around Havana.

“We thought the Cuban people would take to the streets to topple the government, but instead they have done so to get online,” Sánchez quipped.

Sánchez, who started out posting an irreverent personal blog, is now essentially a publisher. She employs a regular staff that puts out a online newspaper, 14YMedio, that provides comprehensive coverage of daily events. “I’m worried less about who will be our next president, and more about who will our next citizens,” Sánchez explained. “As citizens become empowered, they need more information to make decisions. We want to be the newspaper of the Cuban transition.”

While the changing environment for news and information in Cuba is exciting, it is important to keep in mind that is still for the most part taking place within limits set by the Cuban Communist Party, which while no longer monolithic, is still firmly in control. Its reasons for opening Cuba are complex, but they are largely dictated by pragmatic concerns and a desire for self-preservation.

Even as it ceded the limelight briefly to Obama during his trip, the government made a point of consistently affirming the limits of dissent. Dissidents were roughed up and detained prior to and following Obama’s visit; the state media, which operates in accordance with Communist Party dictates, published identical headlines; Fidel Castro lashed out at Obama as soon as he departed the island; the Communist Party Congress, which ends today and will set the stage for transition from nearly six decades of rule by the Castro brothers, has been a particularly opaque affair, even by Cuban standards. Raúl Castro emphatically rejected new reforms during his opening speech, which only state media were invited to cover.

In visiting Havana, the gambit for Obama was that his mere presence could accelerate the opening in Cuba; the gambit for Raúl Castro was that he could gain international credibility and legitimacy without making political concessions. With his press conference wink, Obama implied that he had gotten the upper hand, but that is far from clear. While the press conference showed that Raúl Castro doesn’t like answering tough questions, there is no real evidence that he will be forced to do so again anytime soon.

After all, as 14YMedio photojournalist Luz Escobar pointed out, no independent Cuban reporters were present. “Cuba continues to be hostile for journalists” she says. “What gives me hope is the changing attitudes of the Cuban people.”

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Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.