Watching the Reporters
In a closed society like Cuba, a correspondent's longevity can translate into the ability to penetrate otherwise inaccessible realms of society. That's going to be indispensable when the coverage of the so-called "transition" begins in earnest. "It takes years to win people's trust, to get them to open up," Marx said. "In terms of a public dialogue about the future, there is none. The private dialogue is what I tried to get at in my stories, and the only way to do that is by living here and getting to know people and winning their trust."
Marx and his wife, Cecilia Vaisman--a radio journalist specializing in documentaries on Latin America--have made Cuba a home for themselves and their two children, ages 8 and 10. "My kids grew up in Cuba," he said. "It is an incredible country and I have come to love the place--the people, the culture. They are very open in some ways. Obviously, in other ways it is an incredibly closed society; there is a tremendous amount of fear here. I have very, very mixed feelings."
Marx emphasized that he remains on cordial terms with Cuban officials, as have the other two correspondents. Reporter González Calero is expected to continue living in Cuba despite the ban on his reporting, and in late April the BBC negotiated for its correspondent, Gibbs, to continue working through June.
It is hard, then, to fathom the rationale for the Cuban actions. It likely has more to do with creating leverage over other foreign correspondents than with the reporters' "negative" coverage.
"I'm not sure what their motives were," Marx said. "I think they basically felt the hit they took in the short term is probably worth the benefit of sending a shot across the bow to all the remaining correspondents in Cuba: 'If you want to be here for the big day when Fidel goes and witness whatever transition takes place, you better be careful.'"
In the meantime, reporters are on a tight leash. Credentials, when they are granted, are short-term--for as little as thirty days--and the press office is constantly reviewing reporters' stories. Most foreign correspondents I know will try to resist that kind of pressure, however, and stop short of self-censorship. They will write the story as they see it and--as Marx has done--take the consequences. But the pressure undeniably has an effect.
Absent from the Cuban calculus seems to be any sense that a more open atmosphere for public conversation about Cuba's future--either inside or outside the island--might help lay the groundwork for whatever comes next. There are many intellectuals in Cuba, one of the most highly educated countries in Latin America; but government actions in recent years have sent a signal that debate among them is dangerous.
Nor does the government seem overly concerned about its eroding support among intellectuals elsewhere in Latin America, where Fidel and Cuba have long enjoyed adulatory status. The turning point for many was that 2003 roundup of dissidents, among them Raul Rivero, a journalist with indisputable bona fides as Prensa Latina's former correspondent in Moscow.
Rivero was released for health reasons and now lives and writes in Spain. But according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are still twenty-four "independent journalists" behind bars. That total gives Cuba the dubious distinction of being "one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world, second only to China," CPJ director Joel Simon wrote in a letter to Raul Castro appealing for their release. An earlier letter from CPJ, to Fidel Castro, was co-signed by 107 prominent journalists and intellectuals from nineteen Latin American countries.
Those arrests and the Cuban government's latest actions might seem counterproductive, making it more difficult to mount a credible defense of Cuba in world public opinion and in its long-running battle with the United States. But some who know the country well, like Marie Sanz, have a grudging respect for the realpolitik of the Cuban government.
"The Cubans should never be underestimated in this propaganda war," she said. "They know what the foreign press wants and how it works. They play hardball."