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his press accreditation withdrawn, BBC correspondent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
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.
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
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
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.
Back in my apartment, I put the copy of
the story in my "keep" file, together
with something else which brought back another
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
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.
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
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
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