September 5 , 2007

Packing up home 'easy' in needy Cuba

Packing up after having his press accreditation withdrawn, BBC correspondent Stephen Gibbs reflects on whether the Cuban authorities really need to go to the lengths they do to control information.

BBC, September 1, 2007.

Moving home, they say, is one of life's five most stressful experiences. It comes in at number three. Ranked a bit below bereavement, a bit above divorce.

But in Cuba it is different. Packing up a home in Cuba is easy.

The reason is that you do not have to go through that agonizing problem of wondering about what to do with all your junk. You can sell it, or give it away. All of it. In a matter of hours.

Cuba is a place where almost all consumer items are prohibitively expensive, or, more likely, not available. And scarcity breeds desire.

Most Cubans, and plenty of foreigners living on the island, spend the majority of their time not thinking about the country's future, or transitional governments, or the health of Fidel Castro, but on rather more mundane things. Like how to find a square meal, a fridge that works, or an electric fan.

Farewell 'presents'

I had a first-hand glimpse of all this when I returned to my home in Old Havana, just days after hearing the disappointing news that I was one of three foreign correspondents to be stripped of their press accreditation by the Cuban government. Our reporting was deemed "negative" by a nameless committee.

As I entered my apartment the phone was ringing. It was an ex-pat friend whom I had not heard from for some time. The conversation went along these lines: "I am so sorry to hear you are being thrown out," he said, "what a disgraceful attempt to intimidate the foreign press."

And then, after a brief pause, the real point of the call: "That sofa in your living room... are you selling it? And what about the microwave?"

As the news spread that I was on my way out, my Cuban neighbors congratulated me on what they saw as a promotion. Sadly, and often inaccurately, many Cubans assume that anyone who is leaving the island is going on to better things.

Then came the not-so-subtle requests for a farewell present. I soon realized that anything would do. A broken watch, a 2005 calendar, all were received with embarrassing gratitude.

Unexpected visitor

I had little time to decide which memories of my life in Cuba I would keep for myself.

One I did manage to save was a copy of the first story I had filed, just days after arriving in Havana.

I had gone to meet some members of the Hemingway family, at the elegant hilltop villa where Ernest lived until 1960. We all gathered in the garden to hear about a project to archive the author's papers.

Then something completely unexpected happened. Fidel Castro showed up.

In his military uniform, he walked, slightly awkwardly, around the side of the swimming pool where Ava Gardner had once swum naked. He apologized for interrupting, and then, with his arm around one of the female Hemingways, gave a lengthy speech. He ended it by saying how much he regretted not getting to know Ernest Hemingway better.

"When you are young, you think everyone is going to live for ever," he said.

Censored jokes

Back in my apartment, I put the copy of the story in my "keep" file, together with something else which brought back another memory.

It was a DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda.

One Saturday night, a couple of years ago, the Oscar-nominated film was put on Cuban state television.

I was at home watching it, when, a few minutes after the opening titles, I noticed that some shots had been clumsily repeated. It had been edited.

I happened to have a DVD of the original version. I put it on to compare the two.

It became obvious that the Cuban censors had gone to the trouble of cutting out a 30 second portion of the film. The banned images contained a couple of harmless jokes about Cuban cigars.

State control

One of the enduring questions that has crossed my mind whilst working in Cuba is whether the government really needs to go to the lengths it does in managing the flow of information to its people.

Cuban officials are surprisingly unapologetic on the issue. Their justification is that Cuba is in the midst of an undeclared war with a shameless US administration which is determined to undermine the Cuban revolution.

They sometimes allude to what they seem to regard as the British government's distinguished censorship of the press during World War II.

But still I wonder whether all the control is necessary. One of the side effects of 48 years with the same leader is an extraordinary degree of resignation amongst the people. It works both ways.

Those that support the revolution believe that their future is in good hands. Those that yearn for change feel that things are out of their hands.

Given that, would it really threaten the status quo if you could buy a foreign paper in the streets of Havana? Or if the foreign press in Cuba were able to act a little more freely?

I doubt it. But clearly someone right at the top feels that such an experiment is not worth the risk.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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