Seven signs Cuban media is moving toward openness
By Jon Elliston
AUGUST 9, 2016
THE MASS MEDIA IN CUBA for decades was exclusively run by a rigid state
monopoly, and even now, the government controls most of the news that
makes its way to citizens. But significant cracks may be opening.
As I've learned during recent trips to Cuba, which I've been visiting
regularly since the mid 1990s, a series of incremental changes is slowly
but steadily broadening the media landscape.
In March and April—before, during and after President Obama's landmark
visit to the country—I talked to journalists, media researchers, and
Cubans from various walks of life, scoured the newspapers, channel
surfed national television stations, and road-tested new Wi-Fi access
points. I was struck by how much even small changes can seem impactful
after so many years of stuck-in-place media.
While it's too soon to tell if a true sea change is in the works, here
are seven relatively recent shifts in the Cuban mediasphere. Many of
them would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago and bear
watching in the future.
1) Media criticism is mounting from within
Last year, a journalism student at the University of Havana discussed
the quality of state-run news outlets with a small group of American
visitors including myself.
"Our reality is not reflected in our mass media," she said. "Older
people are more accepting of it than the young, who want more problems
to be addressed in a realistic way."
Her remarks struck me as surprisingly frank and ran counter to what I'd
heard in some prior trips from Cuban journalists and journalism
students, who'd been mostly boosterish of the country's new services.
I learned later that she was hardly speaking in isolation. In fact, no
less than Cuban President Raul Castro had voiced a similar criticism, at
a 2011 Communist Party Congress. Cuban news programs were too-often
"boring, improvised and superficial," he said, adding that "this habit
of triumphalism, stridency and formalism [in the media] needs to be left
In 2013, Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz Canal, who is viewed by many
as a likely successor to Castro when the president steps down in 2018,
chimed in that Cuba's news media are too propagandistic. "We can't lay
the blame entirely on journalists or entirely on the media," he told a
meeting of the state-run Union of Cuban Journalists. "We must lay on the
blame on the [Communist] Party, in the first place, and we have to begin
to criticize ourselves."
Raul Garces, dean of the University of Havana's school of communication
and vice president of the Union of Cuban Journalists, offered an even
more direct criticism at the same gathering. "We have often substituted
reasoned argument with propaganda," he said, declaring that Cuban
journalism was at a crossroads: "Either we fix the problem once and for
all, or the credibility and persuasive power of the Cuban media will
In this climate, an increasing amount of Cuban journalism turns
attention to the country's problems, including missteps by government
bureaucracies, if not particular officials.
And in something of a watershed moment, during President Obama's visit
to Havana this March, Cuban news programs and newspapers broadcast and
published full renditions of his speeches and interviews while in Cuba.
Obama's remarks included these admonitions, which rarely if ever surface
in Cuban state media: "I believe citizens should be free to speak their
mind without fear to organize, and to criticize their government, and to
protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include
arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. … And yes, I
believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and
2) Internet access is finally on the uptick
In his Havana address, Obama also pointedly said that "the internet
should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the
wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history."
On that, at least officially, Cuba's government can agree.
As Cuba and the US announced their historic normalization of relations
in December 2014, the Communist Party's (and Cuba's only daily)
newspaper, Granma, published a lengthy editorial on the county's need to
expand online access.
"Cuba has been, and is, intent upon being connected to the world,
despite propaganda to the contrary," the newspaper asserted. Months
later, the government unveiled a plan to connect "all Cubans" to the
Internet by 2020.
That would prove a remarkable feat, given that Cuba is one of the
least-connected countries in the hemisphere. That said, its connections
are on a steady rise, according to the World Bank and the International
Telecommunications Union. Those two bodies estimate that about 30
percent of Cubans now have at least semi-regular access to the online
world, nearly double the percentage of five years ago.
Most Cubans with internet access find it at their workplaces in
government offices. But a growing number are accessing the web outside
of work, at hundreds of recently opened "cyber cafes" and public Wi-Fi
Such independent access comes at a price: The Wi-Fi costs the equivalent
of $2 per hour, a formidable sum for Cubans working for the state, with
wages averaging about $25 per month.
"I'm fortunate, in that I have some access at work," a young Havana
librarian told me in April. "But there's no way I could often afford the
Wi-Fi options, even if I had the right device to do so."
Still, Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana and other cities are increasingly
populated by thousands of Cubans, many of whom have some extra cash from
either family abroad or the growing number of independent businesses, a
testament to one of Cuba's major and ever-expanding economic reforms.
The supply isn't meeting the demand, though: In my conversations with
Cuban Wi-Fi users, they spoke of connections that are less than ideal,
however promising. The access card passwords are long, the bandwidth
limitations drag down upload speeds, and certain sites and apps cut in
and out of reach.
Complicating matters is that much of Cuba's internet service comes via
an undersea fiber optic cable from Venezuela, a country with an
increasingly uncertain future that has been forced of late to diminish
its economic support of the island nation.
If that online lifeline is diminished, don't expect Cuba's leadership to
necessarily rush into telecommunications agreements with US companies
eager to provide connections. Cuban leaders still often repeat their
concerns about cybersecurity and "technological sovereignty," citing
schemes by the Agency for International Development and other US
official agencies to breed dissention in Cuba via the Web.
At the same time, there's a sense the internet genie is seeping out of
the bottle in Cuba. The Wi-Fi is so in-demand that long lines plague
offices of the state agency that sells the access cards. A black market
in the cards has rapidly developed, with street salesmen now hawking
them for the equivalent of $3, a 50-percent markup.
3) Social media, especially Facebook, loom increasingly large
The Wi-Fi spots have opened a substantial, if small, new window to the
web. And perhaps it's no surprise that many Cubans, especially the
mostly young ones who flock to the street corners and parks that offer
access, are relying on social media to connect. That much seems clear
when you peek over the shoulders of those using these quite-public
connection zones. And emerging academic research seems to confirm the
primacy of social connections in Cuban internet use.
Michaelanne Dye, a Ph.D student at the Georgia Institute of Technology
in Atlanta, co-authored a recent study of Cuba's early adopters of the
internet and social media. In her research, she found that among the
active online users, Facebook reigns supreme.
"For us, the internet is Facebook, Facebook, Facebook," one Cuban who's
active online told the researchers. Others backed that up, saying that
Facebook, with its intuitive functionality and easy means to share
pictures and posts, and engage in chats with friends and relatives, was
a natural and in some ways only choice for Cubans seeking cyber connections.
The anecdotes gathered by Dye and her colleagues were backed up by a
recent survey conducted by Ding, the Irish telecommunications firm,
which suggested that 95 percent of Cubans using social media are focused
foremost on Facebook.
Data about Facebook's penetration of most countries is readily
available, but it's sparse when it comes to Cuba: Neither the company
nor outside sources has revealed any hard numbers on Cubans' use of the
service, and my recent email query to Facebook's press office for this
info went unanswered.
It does appear that the Cuban government has allowed access to Facebook
to rise unimpeded, with rare exceptions. An IT worker at the University
of Havana told me that because Facebook is so popular, some departments
are forbidden from using it during peak hours, lest they sop up too much
of the country's limited bandwidth.
4) Non-state journalism is on the rise, at least in fits and starts
Cuba has precious little print media, especially given the country's
high literacy rates. And while the vast majority of newspapers and
magazines continue to be run by the state, there are exceptions, and a
growing number of mostly online outlets are in the hands of private
groups and individuals.
Two journals published by the Catholic Church, Espacio Laical and
Palabra Nueva , which critique Cuba's government, at least in general
terms, have gained a toehold. It's a notable aberration in country where
the law dictates state ownership of mass media.
More remarkable still is OnCuba, a magazine published with staff in both
Miami and Havana that is headed by a Cuban American, has a Cuban Web
editor, and is credentialed to operate on the island.
While the glossy and fairly high-end print version is available almost
exclusively in South Florida and on a monthly schedule, the online
version of OnCuba publishes increasingly professional and evocative
content daily. Recent commentaries have decried self-censorship in the
Cuban media and the grueling challenges of everyday Cuban life.
Beyond those examples is a burgeoning number of independent news and
opinion blogs, scores of which are run by either small groups or
individual Cubans. Some are produced and published entirely on the
island, while many others email their content to publishers in the US or
Spain, among other countries, to be uploaded there.
Dye, the Georgia Institute of Technology-based researcher, suggested a
Cold War metaphor about the phenomenon that is Cuba's insipient and
still meager private media evolution.
"It's not like the Berlin Wall coming down, all at once with a new
reality and a new system," she told me recently. "It's more like they
are poking holes through a wall, little by little, and adapting based on
what comes through it."
5) TV still reigns among news consumers and is branching out
According to a 2015 poll in Cuba by Miami-based public opinion firm
Bendixen and Amandi, 80 percent of Cubans turn first to TV for their
daily news, with a mere five percent relying on newspapers.
TV's prominence was visible when I first visited Cuba 20 years ago,
though the programming was at times both popular and pitiful, and seemed
settled-for as much as sought-after. Only two national channels were
available—one mostly dedicated to news and education, another bent more
towards sports and entertainment.
Every weekend, though, every home in Havana seemed to be tuned into the
Saturday night movie, invariably a Hollywood production featuring some
blend of sex, violence, action, and intrigue.
Because there was no copyright agreement between Cuba and the US (which
remains true today), Cuba has had no compunctions with pirating some of
the most popular American shows and movies for domestic consumption. (I
was stunned during my April visit when the latest Star Wars movie, The
Force Awakens, was on Cuban TVs while it was still only available in the
United States in theaters.)
Since my early visits, the number of Cuban TV channels, all of which are
delivered for free, has risen to five nationally, along with a sixth
local-focused station in each of Cuba's 11 provinces. And Cubans are
accessing significantly more TV shows from countries around the world.
In fact, one of the national channels, Multivision, carries only shows
from around the globe, including the United States. Another,
Venezuela-based Telesur, carries news and other programming from five
leftist Latin American countries, at least for now (political shifts in
those countries could ultimately scuttle or downsize the network). The
station is hardly shy about its overall political bent, but its
production values and range of topics noticeably eclipse those of Cuban
6) A "weekly package" of bootleg digital media is spreading widely
On a recent visit, a Cuban friend chided me for being behind on a season
or two of House of Cards, the Netflix political drama. She was totally
up to date, thanks to the paquete seminal, or "weekly package," a
cornucopia of pirated media that circulates the island on hard drives
and thumb drives at bottom-dollar prices.
While its origins remain shrouded in some mystery, and in fact there is
more than one version of this underground media-sharing sensation, the
contours of the paquete's distribution are becoming increasingly clear.
According to recent reporting by Vox and other sources, most of the
content is gathered in Miami via cable and Internet feeds and in Havana
via clandestine satellite receivers and internet-equipped government
offices. Large and complex distribution networks take it from there,
with no sign as yet of government interference.
Remarkably, for as little as $2 a week, the paquete provides as much
media as many American cable customers purchase for more than $100 a month.
What exactly is contained on the various paquetes? We have a clearer
picture thanks to new research by Dennisse Calle , a recent Harvard
sociology grad who interviewed 45 Cuban paquete consumers last year and
surveyed months worth of the weekly packages.
She found that 35 percent of the content is TV shows, while 29 percent
is music, with movies, classified advertisements, software, and other
miscellany filling out the balance. Perhaps her most surprising finding
was that 57 percent of the TV shows included in paquetes were from the US.
It would appear that little in the way of hard news is circulating via
the paquete. But it's hard to imagine a devoted viewer of House of Cards
not absorbing some perspectives about political power and abuses thereof.
7) A push for official transparency is stirring
As the Cubans media scene slowly opens, proposals for a radical shift
that could change the whole game are increasingly in play. In recent
years, discussion about the need for a freedom of information law has
quickened among Cuban journalists and at least a few government officials.
Even President Castro has addressed the matter, saying at the April
Communist Party Congress that the country's "secretism" needs to end,
though he didn't elaborate.
Alfonso Herrera, a young Havana-based delegate at the congress, pushed
the point. He called for the government to both quickly expand computer
and internet access and "strengthen the right to information as a
condition for the full exercise of criticism and participation of the
people," according to Granma's report.
"The mere fact that [freedom of information] is under discussion is big
news in the Cuban context," Cuban lawyer Raudiel Pena recently wrote in
a June 12 OnCuba opinion piece.
He framed his argument around the government's broad goals, but called
for a new official openness: "As part of the process of building
socialism, the design of a full and coherent information environment is
necessary," he wrote. "It must be established as a democratizing element
of our society."
The fate of his proposal is unknown at this point, but a chorus of such
calls for openness is building. On June 13, a writer for Joven Cuba
(Young Cuba), an independent blog run by college students, scolded the
state in sharp terms for including too few voices in crafting its
potential upcoming media laws.
And on July 14, one of Cuba's most innovative and locally focused
independent news sites, Periodismo del Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism),
published an editorial that bluntly confronted the state's media strictures.
"As those who chose alternative paths from the state's, we are also the
result of the history of Cuba," the publication asserted. "It was in
this country and not another where we learned to think freely, to defend
our ideas and to assume the consequences of our actions."
This story is a product of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a
nonprofit news organization based at American University.
Jon Elliston is an Asheville, North Carolina-based reporter and editor
who has studied the media and mass communication in Cuba for the past 20
years. He currently works as open-government reporter for Carolina
Public Press, a nonprofit investigative news service, and as senior
editor of WNC magazine, which covers Western North Carolina.
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