Spring break takes people to a variety of destinations. My 2016 destination was set as of October the previous year. I had managed to apply and enroll into a field study and seminar about business in the Cuban economy. Although the focus was business, my mind kept returning to the role of telecommunications and journalism in this closed-off country.
Before I left, many people told me going to Cuba would be like stepping back in time. From my predeparture readings to my previous conversations, I knew the country would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. Visiting Cuba is, in many ways, like stepping back in time. The classic cars that everyone seems to casually mention really do exist. Most of them don’t run as smoothly as you’d think, and the reason they still work is often a feat of resourcefulness.
My own personal background is riddled with an appreciation for the media and a steadfast need for free speech. I value the role of journalism and feel that it serves a purpose as a government watchdog, a lesson I learned in Chris Wells’ Journalism 201 lecture. I never continued on with more journalism classes, but my respect remains.
As a result, when I ventured into the embargoed nation, the press immediately piqued my interest. I gathered newspapers as often as possible, spending every day carrying the state-owned publication La Granma, with me wherever I went as my most prized possession.
The content was subpar, not quite lacking, but not quite adding. The front page news was obviously the visit from President Barack Obama, which unfolded in real time during my visit. The content just focused on the main objectives that President Raúl Castro felt were needed to achieve normalization. To put it more plainly, the leader of Cuba was calling for the end of the embargo, or the blockade as they call it.
The factual elements of the newspaper weren’t misleading nor were they propaganda-like. There was nothing particularly shocking or controversial mentioned within La Granma. The content beckoned me with a question: Is a newspaper truly serving its purpose if it’s not holding the government accountable?
Throughout the field study, my mind kept wandering. What was the role of the press in Cuba? My free-speech loving nature was disappointed in the lack of discussion in the news.
Before I left, I read an article about free speech in Cuba where the author argued there was no censorship, but instead that there was totalitarian unanimity. The author José Azel, a senior scholar specializing in Cuban studies at the University of Miami, argued at the beginning of his lengthy opinion piece in The PanAm Post that unanimity is worse than censorship.
After being in Cuba, I find myself agreeing with Azel. Although it seems like there’s censorship in Cuba, unanimity better captures the situation; it is the best way to describe the loss of free speech.
There are no dissenting opinions allowed, or so it seems. The surface acceptance seems to be a common theme throughout Havana. There is no culture of questioning and curiosity, and those who do are usually jailed.
During the presidential visit, the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), one of the biggest political protest groups known for their marches of civil disobedience, were arrested while trying to demonstrate their dissenting opinions of the government. The women viewed the arrest as a repeated case of oppression and suppression.
Their story is just one of many Cuban dissidents, but those are only the people who feel that enough injustices have occurred. There are still so many who are afraid to speak, to ask, to question. Millions of people don’t know that they can question the Cuban government, and this in itself is a prime example of the government’s ability to foster a climate of unanimity.
With normalization, hopefully the Cuban people will be able to receive more information than surface level La Granma content. They will be able to receive outside news from the Weekly Packet, a flash drive of information from the world outside Cuba, without penalty. The information contains everything from American elections to episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.”
The Cuban people are not ignorant. They are just limited and have been educated in a system that teaches people to learn, but not to ask. Lectures, not discussion. That is how a culture of unanimity is created.
Jen is a sophomore majoring in Spanish and political science. What do you think the line between censorship and unanimity is? Let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.