How Western media get Cuba wrong

September 18, 2010
Cuba is constantly adapting, and there has never been a rigid ‘Cuban model’ of socialism.

Misunderstandings over Cuba run very deep — and not just among the enemies of socialism or those who have had little contact with the country.

Naturally, people are influenced by the corporate media, which wages a ferocious and relentless propaganda campaign against the little independent island.

As former Chilean president Salvador Allende, whose elected government was overthrown in a US military backed coup on September 11, 1973, told the Chilean Senate in 1960: “Day by day and minute by minute … [the corporate media monopolies] misrepresent what is happening in Cuba.”

However, we can also see elements of what Palestinian academic Edward Said called “orientalism” — a series of false assumptions about the country, conditioned by cultural prejudice.

For example, the constant moral pressures of the revolution are often misinterpreted as state “coercion”, while a well coordinated and caring health system has been derided as “paternalistic” and denying “choice” in health care. These are the results of trying to understand Cuba through a set of individualistic, liberal assumptions.

Let’s look at some recent misinterpretations.

The corporate media seized on Fidel Castro’s recent comment to US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that, “The ‘Cuban model’ now doesn’t work even for us” as an admission that Cuban socialism had failed and that Cuba would now have to take on US-style capitalism.

Julia Sweig, Goldberg’s adviser on Cuba, said she took the comment “to be an acknowledgment that … the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country”.

Goldberg excitedly interpreted the comment to mean that “Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long-demanded it adopt”.

Goldberg’s article launched thousands of other stories.

Ahem. Neither writer had much sense of Cuban phraseology.

Fidel clarified and Cuban television pointed out (by reference to an episode of The Simpsons, in which Fidel is shown as admitting the defeat of “communism”) that the Cuban leader meant Cuba was constantly adapting, and that there had never been a rigid ‘Cuban model’.

What they have held onto are principles, not models.

In response to Goldberg’s specific question about “exporting” a Cuban “model”, Fidel was repeating an old theme: “We don’t export any model.”

Among English language articles, only a few, such as Steven Wilkinson’s in the British Guardian (“Cuba: from communist to co-operative?”), noted this point.

The misinterpretation of this simple phrase is a good example of the “orientalism” regarding Cuba. The revolutionary country, constantly adapting, is portrayed by its enemies as representing a rigid model of the past. Any change or admission is seen as the fracture of a “monolith”; but what monolith?

A second example of this same process can be seen in stories on the restructuring of state enterprises in Cuba.

The BBC reported on September 14 that Cuba’s peak trade union body the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC) said: “More than a million workers would lose their jobs … [they] will be encouraged to become self-employed or join new private enterprises.”

Half a million will be laid off in the next six months. On the back of this, many right and left commentators predict Cuba’s reversion to capitalism.

The thinking here is that a major efficiency drive in Cuban state enterprises must mean a surrender to the logic of private corporations.

Never mind that hundreds of thousands were laid off from Cuba’s sugar industry almost two decades ago, when the sugar-for-oil agreement with the Soviet bloc collapsed.

During the much worse economic crisis of the 1990s, Cuba maintained its system of social guarantees while allowing foreign investment through joint ventures with the Cuban state and a small private business sector.

If the BBC and others had read further in the CTC’s September 13 statement, they would have seen that the “alternative employment” to be found for the laid-off workers is made up of “land renting and usufruct leases, cooperatives and small business”.

Big corporations don’t get a mention; where they exist in Cuba they are under joint ventures where the state owns land and buildings and hires all the labour. Nevertheless, work bonuses are being revised in a wider range of sectors.

The CTC said state employment is to be maintained in some sectors of agriculture, in construction, teaching and industrial work.

There is also an ongoing diversification of state industry into petroleum (Cuba is developing its own reserves and is set to become an oil exporter), construction (including for expanded tourism), biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, tourism and other areas.

Change is a constant in Cuba, as one might expect of a self-described “revolutionary” society. However, others portray this society as a monolithic state.

Does any of this matter to Western audiences, with their short attention spans and tendency to see the world through their own self-image?

Outside commentators have been characterising Cuban socialism according to their cultural prejudices for half a century now, and no doubt will continue to do so. Those who look closer, however, might understand a bit more.

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