Notes on finding things out about Cuba


‘Raul is dead’

This is about Cuba, but about access to accurate information more generally.

There are many claims made about Cuban society, history and politics, and Fidel Castro in particular, that are bizarre and untrue, but they are intended to perpetuate a negative image, not only of Castro and Cuba, but also of any challenge to capitalism. There are also many such claims that offer a negative image of Castro and Cuba because they are true.

It is always important to distinguish myth from reality, but particularly important, I feel, in relation to Cuba, precisely because the US sought to make an example out of it, to teach peoples around the world what would happen if they mounted resistance to capitalism. Part of this entailed circulating myths about it.

Contrary to the notion that we have landed rather abruptly in a ‘post-truth’ society, the dominant picture offered up of Cuba in Western societies has always been a deliberate distortion. Of course, in order to make the distortion convincing it is necessary to provide elements of truth.

Let’s recognise that this distortion has been a means of propagating indifference to the miseries inflicted on the Cuban people by US imperialism, and of justifying the miseries inflicted. What is more, this distortion has always ignored the remarkable efforts of the Cuban people in seeking to overcome these miseries, and preferred to present them as mere pawns in the game of a malevolent Castro.

Let’s recognise, moreover, that a key purpose of the miseries inflicted was to undermine support for Castro and the Cuban Revolution both inside and outside Cuba.

None of this should be taken as seeking to diminish any of the shortcomings or excesses of the Cuban Revolution, which are real and considerable. But it is important not to repeat myth as fact. The trouble is that separating myth from fact, not least in this particular case, requires work, attention, inquiry and discussion.

Let me give one example. A while ago, a British writer made the claim on Twitter, repeating a claim on the US website The Daily Beast, that George Orwell was banned in Cuba. To me this claim did not ring true. And so I asked a Cuban journalist -one who had recently published articles criticising government policy- to confirm. He said it was false.

When I brought this claim to the attention of the writer in question he said, in high-handed dismissal, that the journalist was unreliable because there was no freedom of expression in Cuba. So, I went and gathered substantial evidence that the claim was false. Now it was also the case that there had been so-called ‘independent libraries’, apparently funded by the US Interests Section in Havana, which had been the subject of investigation by the Cuban authorities. And so it had been claimed that ‘Orwell was banned in Cuba’ because Animal Farm and 1984 were supposedly among the titles being circulated by these ‘libraries’. Well, the point is that all this requires time and effort to unpick and get to the truth, and in the end I was not able to complete in good time what I set out to do. As such, I ‘lost’ the argument.

Let’s take the particular example of ‘freedom of expression’ in Cuba. It is all very well to say that there is insufficient freedom of expression in Cuba. In fact, it is true. But it will not do to claim, on the one hand, that you are in favour of freedom of expression, but on the other, you propagate myths with indifference to the facts or the potential effects of what you are propagating.

Let’s take another example, that of LGBT rights. It is unquestionably true that LGBT people were imprisoned and oppressed following the Cuban Revolution. But it is also true that Castro acknowledged his responsibility in this regard and that substantial progress has been made. Once again, it takes time and effort to get to the truth, not least because there are many who are all too happy to perpetuate the idea that there has been no progress and that the country is irredeemable in this regard (until, of course, it converts to neoliberalism), but also because there is a language barrier and information can be difficult to access. This morning, I spent a couple of hours reading different reports on the treatment of people with HIV, and interviews with Mariela Castro of the National Centre for Sexual Education. The picture to me seems a positive contrast to many of the claims being made. But I am not interested in producing rosy pictures to confirm my own desires, so I need to look at it further. And I might write something about it, or, I might not, given other commitments.

In sum, if people are actually interested in knowing the reality of the situation, as opposed to convenient high-handed dismissals depending on the source, if they actually care about what happens in Cuba and its consequences for the rest of the world, they ought to make some sort of concerted effort to find out, rather than seek out some snappy summation to cement whatever view they hold most convenient.

PS: Readers are likely to recall examples from their own encounters with news media, of major political figures from Western governments speaking about how this or that crime attributed to Muslims did not correspond to the ‘true Islam’, or the ‘real Islam’. They may wish to gather examples, in all the coverage concerning Fidel Castro and Cuba, of similar figures speaking about how Cuba does not correspond to ‘true socialism’. I imagine they will find none, since the image of Cuba, the one media outlets produce, is, as far as they are concerned, a faithful representation of ‘true socialism’, and, as far as they are concerned, any such question regarding what socialism constitutes can now be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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