Watching the Reporters
Fidel Castro seldom mentions the foreign press, and even more rarely praises its work. But in 2005, as anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles surfaced in Miami, Fidel went on television and read out loud a story from the Chicago Tribune. He liked the story, and liked it even better when he flipped back to the byline and discovered the reporter's name.
"In reality, I give thanks to the reporter, Gary Ma--" Fidel hesitated. Then he continued with surprise in his voice. "His name is Marx! Compadre, even more respect for the reporter. His name is Gary Marx, and in reality this newspaper is an organ that at least tries to say some things."
That was then. Two months ago, Marx was called into the Cuban International Press Center (CPI) and told his five-year stint as a correspondent in Cuba had come to an end. "The bottom line was basically this," Marx told me. "[CPI director José Luis Ponce] said to me, 'This is nothing personal, this is business. Our overseas image is very important to us. We weighed your positive stories against your negative stories. There are too many negative stories. We think we can do better with someone else.'"
Just like that. Marx's expired accreditation would not be renewed, and as of that moment he could no longer write about Cuba. No specific stories were mentioned, although Marx had sensed he was in trouble for some time as it became harder and harder to get interviews with Cuban officials.
"They were very nice about it," he said. He wasn't being expelled. He could stay in Cuba until his visa expires in June, and his two children would be able to finish the school year.
Just as Marx was politely muzzled, the BBC's Stephen Gibbs and a freelancer for the Mexican newspaper El Universal, César González Calero, were also told they no longer had credentials to work as journalists in Cuba. Their stories were likewise too negative; González Calero was told his reporting was "not the most convenient for the Cuban government."
The question is, Why now? Cuba's domestic media have always been tightly controlled by the government and the Communist Party. In 2003 there was a draconian crackdown. Seventy-five dissident writers and intellectuals, some of whom were trying to create samizdat newsletters with firsthand reports from inside Cuba, were imprisoned with sentences of up to twenty-seven years.
But reporting by foreign correspondents has been encouraged in recent years. Starting in the late 1990s, for the first time in decades, four US news organizations were allowed to open bureaus in Cuba: CNN and the AP, as well as two Tribune Company newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Cuban government seemed to see coverage from inside the country as an antidote to the relentless attacks on it by the US government, especially the Bush Administration. With Fidel's illness and the prospect that Cuba is on the eve of historic change, Cuba is again a big story, and news organizations are jockeying to be in position to cover the transition from Fidel to what comes after.
Reading Gary Marx's voluminous catalogue of stories from his five years living and writing in Cuba, one is struck--as Fidel once was--that this is a tremendously thorough journalist who not only understands a lot about Cuba but has a good deal of affection for the country.
There are negative stories, to be sure--but no cheap shots or the kind of condescension that characterizes much of public comment about Cuba in US political and media circles. His stories about the plight of the imprisoned dissidents and the struggling pro-democracy movement probably irritated the government. His poignant tales of Cubans obsessed with escaping the island and medical doctors lured into defection by US government enticements painted unfavorable but hardly new images of discontent. In the bulk of his reporting, Marx analyzed with authority the evolving changes inside the government since Fidel stepped aside in favor of his brother Raul.
Some of Marx's strongest work was a series of almost a dozen reports a year ago on the lavishly financed but ham-handed US propaganda efforts to promote regime change in Cuba. He documented the midnight distribution in Havana neighborhoods of pamphlets with translations of a speech by President Bush and the elaborate effort to smuggle into Cuba DVD recordings of pro-US television programs--pointing out that DVD players are all but nonexistent on the island. Tens of millions of dollars were wasted, he wrote, based on a Government Accountability Office report, on no-bid contracts for anti-Castro groups in Miami and to buy items--Sony PlayStations, cashmere sweaters and Godiva chocolates--presumably to be smuggled into Cuba.
"Gary Marx is a very balanced reporter," said Marie Sanz, Agence France-Presse's correspondent for four years in Havana. "He went everywhere on the island. He's not an arrogant American. He is unusual in that he is full of empathy for the Cuban common man." That depth of reporting may be part of the problem. Sanz says the Cuban government may prefer neophytes--she calls them "starry-eyed reporters"--who haven't had a chance to develop the kinds of sources correspondents like Marx have accumulated over the years.