HAVANA, Cuba, – In early 2019, how many people without direct connections with the higher echelons of the Cuban regime would have believed the rumors and comments about the imminent dollarization of the economy? No doubt there would have been few. No “official” document was leaked, although a source or two refused to remain silent. Journalists and editors like us must always be thankful for the “verbal incontinence” of our sources.
If one of those journalists who are happy with the “official” version of things had done his or her research, without benefit of friends to listen to and barely knocking “correctly” on some door, or dialing the “customer service” –of some officer at TRD Caribe, for example- no substantial information would he/she have obtained about the abominable “MLC-only stores” (hard currency) and, as a result of his/her conformism, would have labeled “false” any event prior to his/her research.
It is true that there is only one journalism, in spite of its many variables. However, regarding transparency and access to information, Cuba is a singular case lamentably inspired by medieval obscurantism. As a result, the independent journalist, whose work the dictatorship has criminalized, as well as stigmatized the medium for those who engage in its practice, is Irrevocably obligated to cultivate patiently his or her own sources, and protect them; to not cease to fact-check what “official sources” easily provide; and above all, to distrust first in order to be accurate and right in the end.
It’s not about being distrustful and accusing of falsehood information that differs from our own findings; It’s about adding diverse information about a subject matter and not to diminish credibility from sources that we consider our competition in many respects, especially for the sources to which only they have access.
It’s about having it very clear, always, that here power lies, it withholds information, it manipulates and controls the totality of its news media and even some media that do not belong to it but only in appearance. It enjoys “bad” surprises in times of hardships, and detests it when we spoil their fun with our own revelations and accusations. With the latter, we remind the regime’s ruling hierarchy that they do not boss around the loyal and united flock that they wish to project to the world.
Our practice as journalists and our faith should not rest exclusively on fantasizing about finding a top-secret document so intensely revealing that it would push the dictatorship against the wall. Neither can our ethical principles be reduced to waiting for a green light from an “official communiqué”.
A news outlet that is controlled by the government; a State institution’s office of people’s affairs; and a government official who repeats verbatim the discourse he has memorized, will serve as our reference, of course they will. But they can never convince us that a rumor going around in the streets of Cuba, a revelation made while under the influence of alcohol, or in a fit of anger, frustration or excessive vanity, is only a figment of the people’s imagination.
Luckily, for those of us who take no pleasure in the macabre surprises of the Cuban regime, there are sufficient reporters in the independent press who know just where, how, what and who to ask. These are journalists who do their job very well, and also, they rejoice every time they frustrate the deceitful game the liars in the government have played for half a century.
Thus, there were several reporters and analysts here and there who anticipated what would happen sooner rather than later in an economy that was being dollarized at the speed of light. In fact, the rumors became news when the Economy Minister revealed and assured viewers on television that there would be only 72 stores in the entire country selling goods in US dollars. Simultaneously, several press notes were generated clarifying the government’s plans, a government that silently, in less than one year, had established more than 300 MLC establishments.
There are additional examples of rumors that suddenly become irrefutable truths before our very eyes.
An article from The New York Times, published in mid 2019, reported how in 2017, Health Ministry officials had withheld information about the presence of the Zika virus in the island, probably so as not to affect the arrival of tourists at a time when, due to renewed relations between Cuba and the U.S., 2017 was turning into one of the best years for tourism with over four million foreign visitors.
In spite of the evidence regarding the intentional withholding of information about the Zika epidemic, no Health Ministry official will ever reveal, under his name and responsibility, that which is no longer deniable following the scandal caused by the note from The New York Times. We will never obtain from any frightened officer anything but the “official version”, the same old litany that will spare him punishment or reprimand, and definitely not any type of confirmation of the facts that will ruin him forever.
In Cuba, deep truths, complex plots, hidden intentions, and transparency are, unfortunately, the exclusive domain of the “extra official” realm; of the ability of those who are or were in the right place at the right time; of the openness or paucity among our circle of best friends; of that which transcends as a result of indiscretion or intentional carelessness. There is no doubt in our mind that no journalist, absolutely none, is exempt from being used by the powers that be as a messenger of power.
Secrecy is a habitual practice of the dictatorship, as is hiding rumors, and it’s also habitual to make rumors fly every so often in order to deny them later at the behest of he-who-decides for real, by publishing a statement of denial, or an “opportune” clarification in the Communist news daily Granma, or in a complaint note to the Foreign Ministry, or on national TV (NTV), or in a tweet.
We saw this happen during and after the tornado that destroyed thousands of homes in Havana. They did it with the issue of medical missions’ slave-labor practices, even before any source revealed any documents. And they have continued to do so, calling independent journalists liars and makers of fake news, we who do not stop reporting and making revelations. It is our duty, our commitment with our countrymen and with the good of our people.
At present, the Cuban regime is lying about salaries and prices, about the management of COVID-19, and about the precarious condition of hospitals and isolation centers. They made promises to the young artists who demonstrated before the Culture Ministry, and they broke those promises; culture officials, including the minister and deputy minister, allied themselves with the political police to beat, arrest, discredit and censor those artists. They have slandered and misconstrued the authenticity and spontaneity of the San Isidro Movement and everything else that has sprung afterward.
However, the dollarization of the economy is the best-known, resonant and most recent example of why a journalist and his or her editors, functioning under a dishonest regime like Cuba’s, should not feel satisfied with information they obtain and verify only in “official sources” or in data published by government institutions. It is not up to the official press or the Communist Party to establish at what pace we work nor to chart and accommodate our path toward truth.
If we really seek to offer useful information to the readers, to point them toward indicators and signs that will help guide them, help them be on the alert and survive amidst economic chaos, police repression and ideological stubbornness, we are often obligated to break the rules, fine-tune our ears, sharpen our vision, shed our fears, conduct ourselves defiantly and, of course, take very seriously the need to cultivate and protect our own sources, because it would be a mistake to trust in a regime that lies and withholds information.
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