News and Facts about Cuba

Cuban journalists exposing injustice merit more attention

Cuban journalists exposing injustice merit more attention
Sujatha Fernandes
12:38 PM on 05/06/2013

Cuban Yoani Sánchez recently completed a multi-city
tour of the United States, speaking at major universities and even
visiting the White House. Sánchez, who became internationally celebrated
through her Generación Y , which won her a place on the Time
magazine list of 100 most influential people in 2008, Sánchez was
awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State
Department in 2011.

Yet despite being hailed overseas for her dissident activities in the
blogosphere, Sánchez has little impact inside Cuba, probably because of
the difficulties most Cubans still have in accessing the Internet.
Instead, the overzealous western media attention to a few prominent
dissidents like Sánchez tends to obscure the highly critical culture
that has developed within Cuba over the last ten to 15 years.

Much of the media coverage of Sánchez presents her as a lone critical
voice in a climate where the Cuban state does not tolerate dissent and
where—as Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos claimed in the Time
magazine piece—journalists and others cannot practice of speech.
While it is true that there is censorship in Cuba, and journalism has
always been under the supervision of the Communist Party-controlled
Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), there is a vigorous
culture of criticism and internal debate in Cuba. But often, because
many artists, journalists, and activists are not calling for the
downfall of the government, they tend to go ignored or sidelined within
western media coverage.

Digital filmmaking has been one way for young Cuban filmmakers to
develop a new skills in investigative journalism, often outside the
structures of the state film industry and government-controlled media.
Ariagna Fajardo’s 2009 independent film “Where Are We Going?” looked at
the massive exodus of farmers from the Sierra Maestra mountains due to
an absence of opportunities for them to making a living. Armando Capo
explored the resignation to daily life in his film “Inertia,” released
in 2008.

At the Young Directors festival held in Havana earlier this month,
Marcelo Martín premiered his new film, “Elena,” about the collapsing old
residential buildings in Central Havana. Martín conducted interviews
with workers and residents who show him their deteriorated homes—plagued
by leaks and contaminated with raw sewerage from broken pipes. One older
resident walked on blocks throughout his house to avoid stepping in
sewerage, and after undergoing major surgery he slept on a park bench
while recuperating.

The brigades sent to repair the homes left their work unfinished. The
filmmaker calls the vice of Popular Power to ask when the
homes will be fixed, and she lies and tells him the work will resume on
Monday. He closes the film with a snapshot: nearly half of the
stock in Central Havana is in bad shape, and two hundred and thirty
buildings in the neighborhood collapse every year.

This kind of investigative journalism–exposing official lies publicly
and presenting the realities of people’s lives–has found fertile ground
among young documentary filmmakers, but it often runs up against the
problem of financing and dissemination. Crowdsourcing abroad has been
one solution for funding. The US non-profit organization Americas Media
Initiative has been crucial in selling the films in the US and
organizing tours for the filmmakers. Films are also copied
onto flashdrives and then passed hand to hand.

Afro-Cuban activists form another key critical movement within Cuba
focusing on racial discrimination. The issue became hotly debated after
Casa de las Americas publishing house editor Roberto Zurbano was demoted
for including the institution in his byline for a recent New York Times
op-ed piece on racism in Cuba that was given a controversial title by
the editors: “For Blacks in Cuba, The Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” (Zurbano
says that his original title read: “Not Yet Finished.”)

Among the flurry of articles from the United States and Cuba about the
article and its outcomes, the newly-created Havana-based organization
Regional Afro-Descendent Articulation of Latin America (ARAC) defended
Zurbano’s critique of racism in Cuba, saying that the black population
suffers overwhelmingly from poverty and a lack of social mobility.

In response to those who objected to his talking about racism in Cuba,
Zurbano affirmed the “emerging and heterogenous spaces of people,
organizations, and alternative media that are taking on the present and
future of the country.” The media culture at large should follow
Zurbano’s example.

Sujatha Fernandes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens
College and the Graduate Center and author of Cuba Represent! Cuban
Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. She was
a guest on “Melissa Harris-Perry” on April 14. See the video from that
discussion below.

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