As I mentioned in my first post about my recent trip to Cuba, I want to share a few thoughts from speakers that stood out to me. I also want to answer your questions and curiosities in an upcoming post, and I’ve received quite a few already! I want to mention again that I definitely don’t think my two 10-day trips to our island neighbor make me an expert in any way…I’m simply someone who has glimpsed real life in Cuba firsthand, and I want to carry these stories, perspectives, and reflections forward with me and share them honestly with others.
One of the things we usually hear in the American narrative about Cuba is that they don’t have what we consider to be basic human rights–freedom of speech, religion, information, etc. Honestly, it seems that many Americans might not stop to think about Cuba, but if they do, they may imagine it to be a tropical version of North Korea. Whenever I mentioned that last bit to Cubans that I spoke with, they were shocked. As in–jaw-dropped, eyebrows-raised kind of response. Clearly, the reality on the other side of those 90 miles of turquoise waters is different than we imagine it to be.
On this return trip to Cuba, I really wanted to press into some of those questions and play devil’s advocate to both sides…Do you really have freedom of religion, or do people of faith have to meet in hiding for fear of being imprisoned? What about freedom of speech? I read about dissenters like Yoani Sanchez being beaten or jailed or otherwise repressed, but for the most part, Cubans have spoken openly with me about their perspectives and opinions.
I asked several speakers variations of these questions throughout the week, and I knew that meeting with a journalist would be a great time to dig into the topic of freedom of speech. Alfredo Prieto had a straightforward, no-nonsense style that our group really appreciated. He made it clear as he began to talk with us about Cuba-US relations that he was sharing his personal point of view, and he was unapologetic and sincere.
“In the US, what we hear about Cuba is that views that are opposed to the government can’t be expressed. Do you think that freedom of speech exists here?”
Alfredo shared that the Cuban media itself is not diverse because both the news and the newspaper are run by the Communist Party. From what I understand, you can’t just go out and start a local newspaper like you could in the US. Today, they also receive Venezuelan news (Telesur) because they have been able to work with Venezuela to set up telecommunications infrastructure. However, another friend shared with us that even these outside news pieces that are broadcast are still essentially edited or censored by the government. (I’m not sure of the details and facts surrounding that, but what I understand from my friend is that they don’t get all of this outside news station.)
My takeaway from our conversations during the week is that although there isn’t complete freedom of the press, there is a good amount of freedom of expression. Alfredo told us that while diversity doesn’t exist in the media, it can be found in 2 places–the streets and in the published works of academic scholars.
Cubans are very opinionated, he told us–you won’t find this in the press but in everyday people and culture. (We were told by another speaker that where you have 4 Cubans, you’ll find 5 perspectives.) On the street corners, in the line for the bodega (the “market” where ration food is picked up), at the dominoes table–in everyday life, Cubans can be found discussing and expressing opinions about everything, including the government.
Throughout our week, we also heard about the call that the government (now run by Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother) made to the people of Cuba several years ago to ask them their opinions about the Cuban government. What do you like? What don’t you like? What is not working? Millions of people had the opportunity to express their opinions to the government, and the government listened (though we heard varying opinions about whether anything was actually being done to make change–sounds familiar 😉 ).
In addition, Alfredo and other scholars like him look at what is happening in the streets and make an academic processing of it, and he feels that freedom exists in this arena as well.
I didn’t get the impression that he was defending any repression that exists, but rather he shared with us what the reality is for everyday Cubans. These thoughts that I’m sharing here aren’t meant to be an all-encompassing analysis of freedom of speech in Cuba, but I hope they give you a little glimpse into the complexity that exists. It’s not all-or-nothing, and just because we hear about human rights abuses, it does not mean that there is no freedom.
For more on the complexities of this topic:
- Famous (and controversial among Cubans) dissenter Yoani Sanchez has written a lot–here’s one short article in the Huffington Post written in 2013. Freedom of Speech Continues to be Outlawed in Cuba for Cubans… Not for Others
- Cuban Journalist Arrested for Second Time in a Month
- A few places where Alfredo Prieto’s writing and editing can be found online:
I’ve got lots more to share…Coming soon: a charla (“chat”) with a female pastor in a rural town, and thoughts on “la lucha” (the struggle) from various friends I met. I’d love to know what you’re curious about in regards to Cuba–leave a note in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!