Watching the Reporters

Watching the Reporters

After three foreign correspondents are decertified, is Cuba sending a message to the international press corps?


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.

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.”

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