Seven signs Cuban media is moving toward openness

August 9, 2016
A Cuban family watches TV at home. Credit: Getty Images

The mass media in Cuba for decades was exclusively run by a rigid state monopoly, and even now, the government controls most of the news that makes its way to citizens. But significant cracks may be opening.

As I’ve learned during recent trips to Cuba, which I’ve been visiting regularly since the mid 1990s, a series of incremental changes is slowly but steadily broadening the media landscape.

In March and April–before, during and after President Obama’s landmark visit to the country–I talked to journalists, media researchers, and Cubans from various walks of life, scoured the newspapers, channel surfed national television stations, and road-tested new Wi-Fi access points. I was struck by how much even small changes can seem impactful after so many years of stuck-in-place media.

While it’s too soon to tell if a true sea change is in the works, here are seven relatively recent shifts in the Cuban mediasphere. Many of them would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago and bear watching in the future.


1) Media criticism is mounting from within

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Last year, a journalism student at the University of Havana discussed the quality of state-run news outlets with a small group of American visitors including myself.

“Our reality is not reflected in our mass media,” she said. “Older people are more accepting of it than the young, who want more problems to be addressed in a realistic way.”

Her remarks struck me as surprisingly frank and ran counter to what I’d heard in some prior trips from Cuban journalists and journalism students, who’d been mostly boosterish of the country’s new services.

I learned later that she was hardly speaking in isolation. In fact, no less than Cuban President Raul Castro had voiced a similar criticism, at a 2011 Communist Party Congress. Cuban news programs were too-often “boring, improvised and superficial,” he said, adding that “this habit of triumphalism, stridency and formalism [in the media] needs to be left behind.”

In 2013, Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz Canal, who is viewed by many as a likely successor to Castro when the president steps down in 2018, chimed in that Cuba’s news media are too propagandistic. “We can’t lay the blame entirely on journalists or entirely on the media,” he told a meeting of the state-run Union of Cuban Journalists. “We must lay on the blame on the [Communist] Party, in the first place, and we have to begin to criticize ourselves.”

Raul Garces, dean of the University of Havana’s school of communication and vice president of the Union of Cuban Journalists, offered an even more direct criticism at the same gathering. “We have often substituted reasoned argument with propaganda,” he said, declaring that Cuban journalism was at a crossroads: “Either we fix the problem once and for all, or the credibility and persuasive power of the Cuban media will simply collapse.”

In this climate, an increasing amount of Cuban journalism turns attention to the country’s problems, including missteps by government bureaucracies, if not particular officials.

And in something of a watershed moment, during President Obama’s visit to Havana this March, Cuban news programs and newspapers broadcast and published full renditions of his speeches and interviews while in Cuba.

Obama’s remarks included these admonitions, which rarely if ever surface in Cuban state media: “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. … And yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”


Cubans using wifi hotspot by JE2.jpg

Young Cubans using one of Havana’s recently created public Wi-Fi zones, where the equivalent of $2 buys an hour of internet access. The zones have opened a window to the web for thousands of Cubans who lacked other access before. Photo by: Jon Elliston

2) Internet access is finally on the uptick

In his Havana address, Obama also pointedly said that “the internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.”

On that, at least officially, Cuba’s government can agree.

As Cuba and the US announced their historic normalization of relations in December 2014, the Communist Party’s (and Cuba’s only daily) newspaper, Granma, published a lengthy editorial on the county’s need to expand online access.

“Cuba has been, and is, intent upon being connected to the world, despite propaganda to the contrary,” the newspaper asserted. Months later, the government unveiled a plan to connect “all Cubans” to the Internet by 2020.

That would prove a remarkable feat, given that Cuba is one of the least-connected countries in the hemisphere. That said, its connections are on a steady rise, according to the World Bank and the International Telecommunications Union. Those two bodies estimate that about 30 percent of Cubans now have at least semi-regular access to the online world, nearly double the percentage of five years ago.

Most Cubans with internet access find it at their workplaces in government offices. But a growing number are accessing the web outside of work, at hundreds of recently opened “cyber cafes” and public Wi-Fi spots.

Such independent access comes at a price: The Wi-Fi costs the equivalent of $2 per hour, a formidable sum for Cubans working for the state, with wages averaging about $25 per month.

“I’m fortunate, in that I have some access at work,” a young Havana librarian told me in April. “But there’s no way I could often afford the Wi-Fi options, even if I had the right device to do so.”

Still, Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana and other cities are increasingly populated by thousands of Cubans, many of whom have some extra cash from either family abroad or the growing number of independent businesses, a testament to one of Cuba’s major and ever-expanding economic reforms.

The supply isn’t meeting the demand, though: In my conversations with Cuban Wi-Fi users, they spoke of connections that are less than ideal, however promising. The access card passwords are long, the bandwidth limitations drag down upload speeds, and certain sites and apps cut in and out of reach.

Complicating matters is that much of Cuba’s internet service comes via an undersea fiber optic cable from Venezuela, a country with an increasingly uncertain future that has been forced of late to diminish its economic support of the island nation.

If that online lifeline is diminished, don’t expect Cuba’s leadership to necessarily rush into telecommunications agreements with US companies eager to provide connections. Cuban leaders still often repeat their concerns about cybersecurity and “technological sovereignty,” citing schemes by the Agency for International Development and other US official agencies to breed dissention in Cuba via the Web.

At the same time, there’s a sense the internet genie is seeping out of the bottle in Cuba. The Wi-Fi is so in-demand that long lines plague offices of the state agency that sells the access cards. A black market in the cards has rapidly developed, with street salesmen now hawking them for the equivalent of $3, a 50-percent markup.


3) Social media, especially Facebook, loom increasingly large

The Wi-Fi spots have opened a substantial, if small, new window to the web. And perhaps it’s no surprise that many Cubans, especially the mostly young ones who flock to the street corners and parks that offer access, are relying on social media to connect. That much seems clear when you peek over the shoulders of those using these quite-public connection zones. And emerging academic research seems to confirm the primacy of social connections in Cuban internet use.

Michaelanne Dye, a Ph.D student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, co-authored a recent study of Cuba’s early adopters of the internet and social media. In her research, she found that among the active online users, Facebook reigns supreme.

“For us, the internet is Facebook, Facebook, Facebook,” one Cuban who’s active online told the researchers. Others backed that up, saying that Facebook, with its intuitive functionality and easy means to share pictures and posts, and engage in chats with friends and relatives, was a natural and in some ways only choice for Cubans seeking cyber connections.

The anecdotes gathered by Dye and her colleagues were backed up by a recent survey conducted by Ding, the Irish telecommunications firm, which suggested that 95 percent of Cubans using social media are focused foremost on Facebook.

Data about Facebook’s penetration of most countries is readily available, but it’s sparse when it comes to Cuba: Neither the company nor outside sources has revealed any hard numbers on Cubans’ use of the service, and my recent email query to Facebook’s press office for this info went unanswered.

It does appear that the Cuban government has allowed access to Facebook to rise unimpeded, with rare exceptions. An IT worker at the University of Havana told me that because Facebook is so popular, some departments are forbidden from using it during peak hours, lest they sop up too much of the country’s limited bandwidth.


4) Non-state journalism is on the rise, at least in fits and starts

Cuba has precious little print media, especially given the country’s high literacy rates. And while the vast majority of newspapers and magazines continue to be run by the state, there are exceptions, and a growing number of mostly online outlets are in the hands of private groups and individuals.

Two journals published by the Catholic Church, Espacio Laical and Palabra Nueva , which critique Cuba’s government, at least in general terms, have gained a toehold. It’s a notable aberration in country where the law dictates state ownership of mass media.

More remarkable still is OnCuba, a magazine published with staff in both Miami and Havana that is headed by a Cuban American, has a Cuban Web editor, and is credentialed to operate on the island.

While the glossy and fairly high-end print version is available almost exclusively in South Florida and on a monthly schedule, the online version of OnCuba publishes increasingly professional and evocative content daily. Recent commentaries have decried self-censorship in the Cuban media and the grueling challenges of everyday Cuban life.

Beyond those examples is a burgeoning number of independent news and opinion blogs, scores of which are run by either small groups or individual Cubans. Some are produced and published entirely on the island, while many others email their content to publishers in the US or Spain, among other countries, to be uploaded there.

Dye, the Georgia Institute of Technology-based researcher, suggested a Cold War metaphor about the phenomenon that is Cuba’s insipient and still meager private media evolution.

“It’s not like the Berlin Wall coming down, all at once with a new reality and a new system,” she told me recently. “It’s more like they are poking holes through a wall, little by little, and adapting based on what comes through it.”


5) TV still reigns among news consumers and is branching out

According to a 2015 poll in Cuba by Miami-based public opinion firm Bendixen and Amandi, 80 percent of Cubans turn first to TV for their daily news, with a mere five percent relying on newspapers.

TV’s prominence was visible when I first visited Cuba 20 years ago, though the programming was at times both popular and pitiful, and seemed settled-for as much as sought-after. Only two national channels were available–one mostly dedicated to news and education, another bent more towards sports and entertainment.

Every weekend, though, every home in Havana seemed to be tuned into the Saturday night movie, invariably a Hollywood production featuring some blend of sex, violence, action, and intrigue.

Because there was no copyright agreement between Cuba and the US (which remains true today), Cuba has had no compunctions with pirating some of the most popular American shows and movies for domestic consumption. (I was stunned during my April visit when the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, was on Cuban TVs while it was still only available in the United States in theaters.)

Since my early visits, the number of Cuban TV channels, all of which are delivered for free, has risen to five nationally, along with a sixth local-focused station in each of Cuba’s 11 provinces. And Cubans are accessing significantly more TV shows from countries around the world.

In fact, one of the national channels, Multivision, carries only shows from around the globe, including the United States. Another, Venezuela-based Telesur, carries news and other programming from five leftist Latin American countries, at least for now (political shifts in those countries could ultimately scuttle or downsize the network). The station is hardly shy about its overall political bent, but its production values and range of topics noticeably eclipse those of Cuban news programs.


6) A “weekly package” of bootleg digital media is spreading widely

On a recent visit, a Cuban friend chided me for being behind on a season or two of House of Cards, the Netflix political drama. She was totally up to date, thanks to the paquete seminal, or “weekly package,” a cornucopia of pirated media that circulates the island on hard drives and thumb drives at bottom-dollar prices.

While its origins remain shrouded in some mystery, and in fact there is more than one version of this underground media-sharing sensation, the contours of the paquete’s distribution are becoming increasingly clear.

According to recent reporting by Vox and other sources, most of the content is gathered in Miami via cable and Internet feeds and in Havana via clandestine satellite receivers and internet-equipped government offices. Large and complex distribution networks take it from there, with no sign as yet of government interference.

Remarkably, for as little as $2 a week, the paquete provides as much media as many American cable customers purchase for more than $100 a month.

What exactly is contained on the various paquetes? We have a clearer picture thanks to new research by Dennisse Calle , a recent Harvard sociology grad who interviewed 45 Cuban paquete consumers last year and surveyed months worth of the weekly packages.

She found that 35 percent of the content is TV shows, while 29 percent is music, with movies, classified advertisements, software, and other miscellany filling out the balance. Perhaps her most surprising finding was that 57 percent of the TV shows included in paquetes were from the US.

It would appear that little in the way of hard news is circulating via the paquete. But it’s hard to imagine a devoted viewer of House of Cards not absorbing some perspectives about political power and abuses thereof.


7) A push for official transparency is stirring

As the Cubans media scene slowly opens, proposals for a radical shift that could change the whole game are increasingly in play. In recent years, discussion about the need for a freedom of information law has quickened among Cuban journalists and at least a few government officials.

Even President Castro has addressed the matter, saying at the April Communist Party Congress that the country’s “secretism” needs to end, though he didn’t elaborate.

Alfonso Herrera, a young Havana-based delegate at the congress, pushed the point. He called for the government to both quickly expand computer and internet access and “strengthen the right to information as a condition for the full exercise of criticism and participation of the people,” according to Granma’s report.

“The mere fact that [freedom of information] is under discussion is big news in the Cuban context,” Cuban lawyer Raudiel Pena recently wrote in a June 12 OnCuba opinion piece.

He framed his argument around the government’s broad goals, but called for a new official openness: “As part of the process of building socialism, the design of a full and coherent information environment is necessary,” he wrote. “It must be established as a democratizing element of our society.”

The fate of his proposal is unknown at this point, but a chorus of such calls for openness is building. On June 13, a writer for Joven Cuba (Young Cuba), an independent blog run by college students, scolded the state in sharp terms for including too few voices in crafting its potential upcoming media laws.

And on July 14, one of Cuba’s most innovative and locally focused independent news sites, Periodismo del Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), published an editorial that bluntly confronted the state’s media strictures.

“As those who chose alternative paths from the state’s, we are also the result of the history of Cuba,” the publication asserted. “It was in this country and not another where we learned to think freely, to defend our ideas and to assume the consequences of our actions.”

This story is a product of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit news organization based at American University.

Jon Elliston is an Asheville, North Carolina-based reporter and editor who has studied the media and mass communication in Cuba for the past 20 years. He currently works as open-government reporter for Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit investigative news service, and as senior editor of WNC magazine, which covers Western North Carolina.