Cuba: communication, rights and sustainable development

The communication model prevailing in the country needs to be changed to be at the level of Cuban society’s current demands.That communication model becomes concretised, in the political as well as the juridical, in the concept of the right to communication, understood as the right to inform and to be informed, to speak and to be heard, indispensable in order to participate in the decisions that concern the collective.

Complaints and dissatisfactions are frequently heard in diverse scenarios about the public communication system in Cuba. At times there are heated debates about the subject based on the counterpoised press imagery, but there are also more peaceful, rigorous and integral reflections that come up especially in the academic field of communication and information and in the journalistic sector.

 

These reflections attempt to place the communication system in context and not just to find the historic origins of its peculiar features, including its strengths and weaknesses, but they also try to identify, in addition, the challenges it faces for the future and the immediate future, and the possible roads to improve it.

 

The present article aims to synthesise some of the most shared conclusions in the academic space of information and communication in Cuba – although, of course, not unanimously accepted -, about the communication system and model prevailing in the countryand the transformations which would have to be made for them to be at the level of Cuban society’s current demand.

 

Antecedents

 

The deep political, economic and social transformations unleashed by the Cuban Revolution also had an impact on the structure of the media system that, in a short time, went from being commercial media to public media.

 

Since the first years of the 1960s the editorial policy of the media was entirely subordinated to the Revolution-counterrevolution confrontation that, in the Cuban case, as it is known, has a profound nationalist nuance, since it is above all the conflict between Cuba and the United States.

 

Cuba was economically blockaded (still is), attacked by terrorist groups and threatened with direct military intervention. An immense diplomatic and media campaign was unleashed with the aim of isolating the island from the rest of the world.

 

Two essential features appear in the Cuban communication system in that context: the propaganda in defence of the Revolution as the first and essential function of the media; and the excessive secrecy as a mechanism of defence in the face of really exceptional situations.

 

Despite this, during the first half of that decade the press was the scenario of debates of extreme public interest about the socialist project and it published many critical journalistic works.

 

The merging of the dailies Hoy and Revolución, which were the media linked to the Popular Socialist Part and the 26th of July Movement, took place in the second half of the 1960s as an expression in the press of the process of unity of the Revolution’s political forces. Thus Granmaemerged as the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba. Weeks later Juventud Rebelde would be born, with the subtitle of organ of Cuban youth, under the supervision of the Union of Young Communists.

 

According to the appraisal of deceased Julio GarcíaLuís, National Prize for Journalism, “the restructuring of the daily press in 1965 did not revert immediately or afterwards into a journalism of greater quality than the one that was already being made.[1]Several factors had an incidence on this result, from the professional experience of the new journalists and editors, many of them improvised, up to a greater political control over the media.

 

But it was not until the 1970s that media mechanisms of direct control were enthroned following the Soviet model, as part of a much more general process of rapprochement to the USSR and the European socialist camp.

 

The self-regulation by conviction, sense of responsibility and professionalism by the journalists and the editors of the media were not considered sufficient guarantee for the Party structures and the interference of its auxiliary apparatus intensified in the daily leadership of the press.

 

Of course, this conspired against the professionalism and fundamentally against the carrying out of diverse and complementary functions of the media in society.Thus there was a hypotrophy of the propagandist function, with apologetic tinges of the work of the Revolution, to the detriment of the information function, of the timely and necessary criticismfor any political and socioeconomic project and of the use of the media as platforms for citizens’ democratic participation in public matters.

 

These features are essentially maintained as characteristics of the media system in Cuba, despite the time that has gone by and the transformations of the national reality and the international environment, including that concerning communication, which is openly asking for a change.

 

It is known that the process of these changes will be difficult because it must get over a vertical culture, which tends more toward control than autonomy, to the broadcasting more than participation and dialogue.

 

Dissatisfaction with the work of the media

 

The functioning of the media systemin Cuba leaves dissatisfaction among a great deal of the citizens as well as the public institutions themselves.

 

Those dissatisfactions can be confirmed amongthe citizenry in terms of the opinions they express about the media as well as proliferation and credibility of rumours. Criticisms and demands have been madeto the media and the communication professionals by institutions and in multiple spaces and moments.

 

The congresses of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC) in particular have been moments for the critical analysis of the media, especially in the last two editions.

 

Some of the problems those dissatisfactions cause are:

 

  • Scarce autonomy of the media to establish their content agendas, which leadsthe media agenda and the public agendas to be extremely out of phase.
  • Impossibility of having access to all the necessary information from public institutions, given the restrictive character and extreme secrecy with which they act in terms of communication.
  • The media are not only affected by extreme secrecy and the system of regulation of its contents, but also suffer serious financial and material deficits. For example, a critical situation with its means of transportation affects the work of reporting.
  • The personnel that works in the media, as in many other of the country’s sectors, receives insufficient wages and in many cases this obliges them to dedicate time and efforts in finding other means of incomes.

 

All the aforementioned had an impacton the slow and insufficient appropriation of the transformations that have taken place on a global scale in the communication systems characterised by the emergence of networks and diverse digital supports, which create the possibility of democratising the production and access to information and cultural production.

 

This appropriation is not only limited to attaining connectivity and access to information technology, which is notably backward in Cuba, but also the necessary restructuring of the system of editorial work and the professional cultures that derive from its assimilation.

 

Based on these dissatisfactions some changes have tried to be made to regularise the information on the performance and the agreements of the government authorities, encouraging critical journalistic works and a greater presence of voices from different social sectors in the press.The From Our Mailbag sections have been strengthened and are a means for citizens’participation and complaints. More diverse and plural opinion works are appearing. There is an incipient development of the digital press. A better organisation of its communication management is being demanded from the State agencies.

 

But these changes are insufficient. Actually, the topmost Party leadership authorities have tried for decades to expand the function of criticism in the press and to improve its news coverage. But one and another resolution ends up being assessed as not met because, in reality, in no case has an in-depth and radical reflection been made about the communication models and relations between the institutions of the political system and the media, which has implied trying to obtain new results with old methods and, as is known, that is impossible.

 

Diverse documents and presentations carried out in recent years establish the purpose of perfecting the mechanisms of citizenry participation in public matters, but as outstanding journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde has expressed in her doctoral thesis:

 

“There is no participation without communication, no matter how much both are declared strategic objectives. The Communication System’s failure can compromise the collegial exercise of political power and prevent permanent forms of social control thatfavour popular participation and that play an active role in the struggle for the defence of the nation’s cultural rights.”[2]

 

Current major challenges of the Cuban communication system

 

Cuban society finds itself in moments of revitalisation of changes and the growth of its diversity, which presents new and more complex challenges for the communication system.

 

Some of these challenges derive from the appearance of a non-state sector of the economy and the expansion of cooperatives in diverse sectors. This diversity of forms of ownership makes for the emergence of new social actors that require as much access to the media as to the control of their performances.

 

Institutional changes have also been taking place, in the government bodies and in the business sector, directed at adequately differentiating their functions, which includes a greater autonomy of the social ownership enterprises; the strengthening of the legal regulations and the law; and new forms of planning and managing the economy with economic and political procedures and not just with administrative regulations.These transformations in the model of economic management require treatments different from the institutions, from communication and extensive and in-depth information that contribute to creating knowledge that favours the understanding and the backing for these changes.

 

The media – and the citizenry through them – must also have the possibility of critically observing its impact on society and, particularly, on the daily life of persons, to warn about possible distortions in its application or the need to make timely adjustments to frankly revert them into benefits for the Cuban economy and society.

 

Other unavoidable elements that require permanent and intelligent treatment in the media are the consequences generated by the economy’s impossibility to definitively overcome the material aftereffects of the deep crisis of the 1990s and, of course, something much more complicated, its subjective effects motivated by the process of impoverishment that has been lived and the subsequent deterioration of the institutions’ credibility.

 

The effects of the crisis are not just motivated by the harsh years of acute shortage of all type of products and the decrease in real wages, but rather by the brutal falling-out of the vision of future and the life plans of persons and families.The sensation that the rules of the game have changed, that now everything is full of uncertainties after having lived a period of security and, above all, of promises that seemed attainable, deteriorate the commitment with the social project and alterthe compliance of the social norms of civility and coexistence.

 

These matters have some reflection on the media’s agenda, but more based on a moralising discourse than on the deeper analysis of cause of these behaviours, which allows for generating a collective reflection that contributes to correcting their pernicious effects.

 

Another component of the changes that have originated in Cuban society is the public emergence of cultural and spiritual expressions generated from diverse identities, of gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, skincolour or generational that, as never before,are striving for their presence and recognition in the communication space. The cultural policy and that related to religious beliefs, open and guarantors of cultural rights have contributed a great deal to the diversification in the media of the views about that growing diversity, but they are still a permanent challenge for the sensitivity, creativity and depth of journalistic work.

 

The Cuban communication system has before it, in addition, the challenges that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States entails for communication, which does not dissolve but rather transforms the historic conflicts between both countries and produces a transit of direct confrontation in the economic and political scenarios toward a confrontation, fundamentally in the symbolic and cultural order. This places the updating and perfecting of the communication policies as an unavoidable priority.

 

Moreover, there are demands that derive from the process of the change of the historic generation that made the Revolution toward a new generation of leaders that has to base itself more on the legitimacy of the institutions and the laws and the ability to generate consensus. That is tosay, a new form of governing that inevitably has to imply a different way of communicating with the citizenry.

 

To successfully face these challenges will require profound conceptual and practical changes related to the entire system of social communication and its relationship with the political system.

 

Necessary referents

 

There is theoretical development and proposals from the people’s struggles about the democratisation of communication that can help to rethink the policies and regulations on the communication system in Cuba, which exceeds the media system and includes all the actors involved in the communication processes on a social and institutional scale.

 

One of the concepts that must be a point of departure in those reflections is the right to communication.

 

The idea that it was necessary to formulate a new human right to communication was outlined for the first time byJean D’Arcy[3], within the ranks of UNESCO. This author considered that the right to communication necessarily would have to bemore extensive than the rights to opinion, expression and information, which were recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which was insufficient as a normative umbrella to guide the regulation of the phenomenon of communication in a context of accelerated development of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and of a growing concentration worldwide of the mass media in information transnational companies and the cultural industry.

 

In 1973, the Non-Aligned countries presented in UNESCO the idea of establishing a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) as a correlate in the cultural field of the proposals in favour of a New International Economic Order.

 

The NWICO proposal particularly provoked strong confrontations in the international scenarios among the countries that denounced the deep asymmetry that existed in the international flows of information and communication and the Western industrialised countries that were arguing that the aims of establishing policies and legislations that regulated those relations were an attack on the free flow of information and the freedom of expression, which violated the different international charters and agreements.

 

As part of those conflicts UNESCO created a commission of experts that would assess the international organisation of information and communication; that commission took the name of its president Sean MacBride.As a result of his work a summary report was presented that has the title of “Many Voices, One world.”

 

Its contribution to the international debate on communication was transcendental, since it describedand denounced the imbalances in the production and circulation of information and dealt with the treatment of the right to communication as a political need, although still without a specific legal form. In effect, as a way of recommendations, legal guidelines were formulated for the States to regulate the new communication and especially media relations.

 

In short, according to these recommendations, regulations were necessary to consolidate the exercise of the rights traditionally related to communication (opinion, expression and information), as well as of the other human rights related to these.But it also proposed to the States that they intervene to ensure the democratic access to information and to the media by individuals and social groups; to avoid the concentration of the ownership of the media, as well as the monopoly over the production of information; and to guarantee the possibility of free election of the individuals in the face of the wide-ranging gamut of supplied information.

 

After approving by majority the resolutions to advance the New World Information and Communication Order according to the conclusions of the MacBride report, the United States and United Kingdom notified their decision to withdraw from that organisation, arguing that the NWICO was an attack against freedom of information. They attributed to it a statist focus and accused the UNESCO authorities of favouring in the countries of the South the creation of socialist-inspired communication structures.

 

In the confluence of the 1980s and 1990s, the almost absolute predominance of the neoliberal ideology as a single discourse and imagery made many of the conquests achieved after years and decades of struggle move backwards. The proposal of a new world information and communication order was one of these postponed conquests.

 

The neoliberal policies speeded up the processes of concentration of ownership and unleashed a wave of privatisations that extremely weakened the public information and communication services and telecommunications. Those traits of the world information and communication order, which the MacBride commission had defined as inacceptable, intensified.[4]

 

Another paradigm started prevailing in the analysis of the international problems linked to information and communication. An example of this new paradigm was the UN Call to the World Information Summit (Geneva 2003-Tunisia 2005), which was organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and not UNESCO, as would have been reasonable, which led to omitting the debate in terms of rights for a focus centredon the way to regulate the commercial and technological relations that generate the use of the ICTs in the globalization of the market.

 

Compared to those tendencies, the social movements and progressive forces highlighted the relation that exists between the right to communicate and those that guarantee public participation and knowledge and the defence of all human rights.

 

Communication is conceived as a right of all, which implies access and participation in individual and collective processesof construction of knowledge; but also of the participation of citizens in the processes of decision making related to matters concerning their lives.

 

The idea of establishing communication and information policies and the corresponding legislations that guarantee the full exercise of the right to communication is retaken.

 

The efforts to democratise communication during decades have left the remains of ideas, concepts and practices that nowadays, after a long and troubled course, make up an alternative model, for the liberal imageryof the press as well as the predominant model in the socialist experiences of the 20th century. This is of great importance for Cuba, which on deciding to perfect its socialist-oriented economic and social development model must update its own communication model and the policies and legal frameworks that organise and regulate it.

 

Another unavoidable referent is related to the centrality of communication in the economic and social development plans. The information and knowledge hierarchy as factors in development has been growing. It is confirmed at present in the intensive use of information and a growing value of knowledge as differentiating and conditioning factors of development.

 

It’s not that capital is not important, but it is not enough, one has to know how to choose, process and efficiently use the high volumes of information; to generate the indispensable knowledge that guarantees the production of goods and services with the required quality in the new socio-technical conditions and assimilate the new areas of scientific and technological development that have emerged with the so-called “digital revolution” and its confluence with diverse social demands.

 

The factor that really established the difference is the possibility of having a critical mass of highly qualified persons in the management of information, in the generation of knowledge and in their innovative ability to apply them efficiently in the productive or corresponding services activity.

 

But the qualification of persons is not attained today only with excellent educational centres. These, of course, are indispensable; but if the professors, students and graduates are not connected to the world information flows, they are rapidly disqualified. The speed with which new knowledge is generated is enormous and is not only carried out in the large research centres, but rather it is built, validated and socialised through the digital networks.

 

The new technologies are invading daily life and are used by millions of persons. From personal computers to cell phones, the digital cards, the commands of televisions and other electrical appliances, just to give a few examples of daily life, require new knowledge that must be massively learned.

 

This factor indicates the need to have updated communication policies and legislations that contribute to the maximum use possible of the opportunities that emerge in the processes of socioeconomic development as well as in the perfecting of the mechanisms of citizenry participation.

 

Nowadays, the relations between politics and communication exceed the old logic of seeing social communication, especially the media, as mere instruments. Communication is today the essential core of any political project, as it is also with respect to any socioeconomic development project. Therefore, the relations between both systems can only be understood in a logic of reciprocal mediation that makes it necessary to guarantee the autonomy of both systems and not the subordination of communication to the through-and-through political.

 

The new technological and cultural circumstances also expand the traditional contents of the communication policies that must now include, coherently and integrally, the policies related to the installation and appropriation of the digital information and communication technologiesand the indispensable cultural transformations to be able to make good use of these.

 

The so-called policy of society’s computerisation has to be integrated to a public policy of communication, in such a way that the on-going global transformations and its implications for the country are seen in all their comprehensiveness.

 

For this it is necessary to place this process in a framework that goes beyond, although of course that it includes, the optic of national security and that it opens to the perspectives of understanding the digital networks and their use as basic infrastructures for development, as a matter linked to the right to communication, to the democratic and transparent functioning of the public institutions and as a process generating wellbeing and an improvement of quality of life. However, the ties between that policy and the indispensable transformations in the social communication system are still not clearly seen.

 

As is seen, nowadays the communication policies must speak of politics and ideology as well as of economy and development. The way of conceiving the communication model and system and its regulations will be important in determining the functioning of the political system and in securing the economic and social development plans.

 

Possible courses

 

The solution to the social demands to the Cuban communication system cannot come from a communication model centred on control and vertical information, which results in omissions of issues of high social interest and scarce public spaces for analysis and debate.

 

What’s most convenient seems to be achieving a communication model that favours fluid dialogue on a social, institutional and communicative scale.

 

This communication model is concretised in the political as well as in the juridical, in the concept of the right to communication, understood as the right to inform and to be informed, to speak and to be heard, indispensable to be able to participate in the decisions concerning the collective.

 

For this it would be necessary to advance in:

 

  • The transparencyof public institutions.Guaranteeing the realisation of the principle that public information is a public good. Without timely, clear and profound informationit is impossible to achieve a qualified participation of persons in political and social affairs; without public transparency of the work of government officials and agencies it is impossible for citizens’ minimal control of their work, which is indispensable in the struggle against corruption and for the development of a real culture of participation. It would be desirable to have a legislation that obliges public institutions to permanently make visible a group of data and to provide citizens the information they demand. Journalists must have these particular facilities for the necessary interlocution that specifies, expands and helps interpret this information.

 

Since a total transparency is impossible, certain information will be classified. The law would have to regulate which requisites information must meet to enter into that category, who will be the officials authorised to classify, how that official’s decisions can be contested and who will render accounts of the use of that prerogative. That is to say, the classification of secret, confidential or restricted public information cannot be left to the discretion of just any official. It would also be necessary to establish a system of sanctions for the officials who violate what is established in this juridical regulation.

 

Working from the beginning on the transparency of information entails a transcendental change in the functioning of the State institutions which, in all parts of the world, have regularly worked with more or less spaces of opacity.

 

  • A public policy of communication: That it be devoted to the former principle and that it equip the media with greater possibilities to create their agenda, not just based on the indications of the Party and government institutions, but rather with a responsible and committed reading, before the public, of the public agenda. This policy, moreover, must facilitate and back the work of the journalists and contribute so that the media – which in Cuba, by constitutional rule, are state or socially owned – can meet in an essentially self-regulated and balanced way its diverse social functions.

 

  • Legislations on communication. That they give legal power to the public policy on social communication and establish the attributions, responsibilities and limits of the different actors that intervene in the process of public communication.

 

  • Updating of the economic management model. This is one of the most complex matters to resolve and for which it is necessary to be innovative. It is a matter rather agreed by consensus in academic circles and in the journalistic sector that the system of ownership over the media must not be modified, but that it is possible to try different forms of management. Nowadaysthe media carries out many publicity functions (ads and promotional mentions, public good campaigns and publicity feature articles) which, in the majority of cases, are not charged for. To establish the payment for the publicity spaces by the cooperative enterprises and government agencies can be a decision that contributes to improving the financial sustainability of the media which, in addition, must continue receiving the possible budget contributions of the State or of the social or political institutions to which they belong.

 

  • Updating of the editorial management system of the media and their productive routines. This includes the need to review the news concepts and values with which they are operating and, in general, continue strengthening the professional culture of journalists, editors and editors-in-chief of the media so they can meet the demanded standards and today’s challenges. A contemporary editorial management requires a greater and systematic dialogue between the media and its public, which is why any progress made in the editorial management goes through the creation of the mechanisms corresponding to that vital function. The prolongation of policies that for some time have been obsolete has affected the professionalism of the Cuban media, which is why it is necessary to increase and update the professional exercise of journalism and communication in general, to make feasible the application of new policies and legislations.

 

  • On the level of institutional and local communicationit would also be necessaryto make transformations that contribute to the better use of the existing resources for development, which supposes incentivising a communication of dialogue and not centredon diffusion.

 

For this institutional local communication systems and municipal strategies that incentivise participation and dialogue must be authorised, which will have an impacton the use of the collective experience and knowledge and would increase the motivation and the sense of belonging of persons to those institutions and to the local development programmes.

 

The abovementioned supposes that each institution have a strategy that allows it to make the maximum use of the digital technologies, taking into account the indispensable security requirements, but emphasising the benefits to not remain immobilised by the risks.

 

This is a central element in the protection and expansion of the knowledge and experienceof Cuban professionals who, coming out of the university classrooms with an acceptable level of currency in their respective fields of activity, are left disconnected from the world flows of exchange and socialisation of knowledge because the institutions where they work have not created the conditions nor do they have the most intelligent policies to encourage the continuous growth of their knowledge, which todaygoes through, among other factors, the active presence in the social networks.

 

In short, there is consensus about which Cuban communication model and system must be modified, but still pending is achieving a consensus about the nature and reach of that change, which must include the communication model the country needs, the necessary policies and legislations, the media (traditional or interactive) that must start being made up or transformed, the type of journalistic work and the institutional communication and, in the local and community spaces that adequately respond, in the current circumstances, to the country’s purposes. To achieve that consensus a wide public debate is required.

 

It is not a matter prerogative of experts, but rather it must include the most varied social sectors to incorporate the broadest possible needs and aspirations and, at the same time, generate awareness and culture about the right to communication and the ways in which it is exercised, among communication professionals and the leaders of institutions as well as the citizenry. (2017)

 

[1]García Luis, Julio: Revolución, socialismo, periodismo. La prensa y los periodistas cubanos ante el siglo XXI,Havana, Pablopublishinghouse, 2013, p.74.

 

 

[2]Elizalde Zorrilla, Rosa Miriam: “Principios para una política de comunicación social desde la perspectiva de los periodistas cubanos.”Doctoral thesis, 2013, p.44.

 

[3]D’Arcy, Jean: (S/F) El derecho a comunicar, UNESCO, Serie de Estudios y Documentos de Información, Documento Nº 36, pp.1. Cited byJurado Vargas, Romel: Hechos y Derechos de la Comunicación.Debate social y políticosobre la resignificación de la libertad de expresión, Académica Española publishing house, Quito, 2012.

 

[4]MacBride, Sean:Un solo Mundo, vocesmúltiples(Many Voices, One World), Fondo de CulturaEconómica, Mexico, 1980.

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