Media Accuracy: Pragmatic Raúl, Irrational Fidel: Media Distortions on Cuba

Reflecting on Cuba’s Fidel Castro stepping down from power in February, U.S. newspapers relied on several worn-out themes and stereotypes that disparage Castro, gloss over U.S. aggression against Cuba, and idealize capitalism. News articles on Cuba often promote these themes and stereotypes through assumption, suggestion, and innuendo, blithely ignoring investigation, analysis, or evidence.

March 13, 2008

Reflecting on Cuba’s Fidel Castro stepping down from power in February, U.S. newspapers relied on several worn-out themes and stereotypes that disparage Castro, gloss over U.S. aggression against Cuba, and idealize capitalism. News articles on Cuba often promote these themes and stereotypes through assumption, suggestion, and innuendo, blithely ignoring investigation, analysis, or evidence.

Fidel in Washington D.C. shortly after the revolutionary victory. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Reports on Castro’s resignation almost universally claim that Fidel’s brother Raúl contrasts with Fidel because he is “pragmatic.” Leaving Fidel’s record undiscussed, they give the impression that Fidel was decidedly not pragmatic, but rather dogmatic and irrational. The Boston Globe noted that Raúl “has talked about bringing more accountability to government and of possibly working to improve relations with the United States,” emphasizing the “change” he has brought in his months in power, including “facilitating huge foreign investment by Canadian and European resort developers” (February 20, 2008). The Washington Post reported that Raúl “might pursue reforms to allow more political and economic latitude,” having supposedly “pushed reforms his brother had been reluctant to embrace.” The article also credited Raúl with “allowing private ownership of small food markets,” shrinking the military, converting “some generals into businessmen,” and persuading his brother “to allow more foreign investment.” Both the Post and the Globe suggested that Raúl would be open to engaging the United States (February 20, 2008).

There is a subtext here: If it is so newsworthy that Raúl now “might” do these pragmatic things, the implication is that over 48 years of Fidel’s leadership, none of these things happened. Fidel’s position and actions in all of these areas are implied by assumption. By insisting that Raúl represents “change” and emphasizing his stance in favor of government accountability, foreign investment, economic opening, private enterprise, markets, shrinking the military, and engaging with the United States, the authors imply that Fidel opposed all of these things.

In fact, Cuba under Fidel took action in all of these areas, and has been characterized far more by change than by rigidity. Since the 1959 revolution, economic policies have experimented with small farms and cooperatives, with the state promoting sugar production for export and food crops for domestic consumption; maintaining control over food distribution; and allowing private sales to the public in farmers’ markets. In the 1990s, overtures to tourism, foreign investment, self-employment, private enterprise, and markets were all implemented under Fidel’s leadership. As for negotiating with the United States, Cuba has never opposed that—it was the United States that broke relations, imposed the embargo, and has refused to negotiate. Witness the furor when Barack Obama tentatively suggested opening a dialogue with the Cuban government.

Reflecting on Fidel’s tenure as Cuba’s leader, the New York Times offered an illusion of balance:

[Castro’s] record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism. But he never broke the island’s dependence on commodities like sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable goods (February 20, 2008).

What the Times neglected to mention, however, is that Cuba’s “great social achievements” are virtually unique in the third world, while the economic problems it struggles with characterize every third world country, including (and perhaps especially) capitalist countries into which the United States has poured economic aid and investment. “Poverty” is, of course, a relative term. With free health care and education, and heavily subsidized food, housing, transportation, and child care, poverty in Cuba looks quite different from poverty elsewhere in Latin America—and from poverty in the United States, for that matter.

Meanwhile, there is one topic that simply can’t be mentioned in the news: U.S. aggression against Cuba. Since 1959, the United States has engaged in covert activities, supplied and trained paramilitary and terrorist organizations, and engaged in direct invasions, in its campaign to promote its political-economic-ideological agenda in Cuba, as well as in many of its neighbors, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Chávez and Raúl have recently made joint appearances to dispel the myth they have a distant relationship. (Photo: CC, 2.2)

But U.S. overt and covert war against Cuba is only mentioned in one context: When Fidel Castro displays his “anti-Americanism” by being so uncouth as to ignore the taboo against mentioning it. Thus in a review of My Life, Fidel’s “spoken autobiography,” The Boston Globe quoted him as saying that Cuba “has been the object of the most prolonged economic war in history, and a fierce and unceasing campaign of terrorism which has lasted more than forty-five years. . . . No country has faced any adversary so powerful, so rich.” Rather than even considering whether these words could be true (has, in fact, any other country ever faced such a long economic war and a 45-year campaign, which has frequently included terror attacks, by an adversary so powerful and rich?), the author snidely attributed such musings to “Castro’s predictable anti-Americanism” (February 23, 2008).

While the newspapers evade any mention of Fidel Castro’s actions in areas like economic and political reforms, he suddenly becomes a powerful actor when it comes to holding him responsible for provoking U.S. aggression. Regarding the 1962 missile crisis, The New York Times wrote that Fidel (single-handedly?) “brought the world to the brink of nuclear war . . . when he allowed Russia [sic] to build missile-launching sites just 90 miles off the American shores” (February 20, 2008). Apparently Kennedy (and the USSR) had nothing to do with the missile crisis, as far as the Times is concerned.

Other false assumptions are implied by anecdote. Times reporter Anthony DePalma explained that his wife, a Cuban émigré, spent decades longing to visit the island, but that “she always was afraid to bring our three children, fearing they might somehow be snatched from her.” He neglects to mention that this fear must have been based on a wild flight of imagination, since no such event has ever actually occurred. Still, a casual reader could easily come away with the idea that the Cuban government routinely snatches children from their visiting parents (February 24, 2008).

All in all, U.S. media coverage of Fidel’s retirement lives up to its dismal record of false dichotomies, omissions, and innuendo. Journalists use these techniques to remind the public that capitalism brings prosperity, communism brings poverty, the United States always does good, and anybody who claims otherwise (no matter what the evidence) is anti-American and unpragmatic. If the media actually investigated the record of U.S. aggression against Cuba, it could make a convincing argument for the very last of these points: Challenging the superpower has brought grave consequences to Cuba, so perhaps it indeed was not a “pragmatic” road to follow.

Aviva Chomsky is Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts and author of several books on labor history, Cuba and the Colombian coal industry. She will be leading a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia’s coal mining region from May 24-31. (

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