The neo-liberal media coverage of Cuba’s opening

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
When covering Cuba, context matters. I guess that can be said of any reporting, but context is usually the first casualty in sexy stories. And the “rapprochement” between the United States and Cuba is nothing if not sexy.
On July 4, the BBC reported on the 35 new Wi-Fi hotspots in the island and, despite the minor issues of very low speed, it was a success story: there is internet connection in certain areas for people with handheld devices; it the costs “only” 2 CUC per hour; and that is less than half of what it used to be: 4.50 CUC per hour. CUC is the convertible currency, valued higher than the dollar, according to Castroeconomics. The average Cuban monthly salary is, approximately, 23 CUC. Progress that they call it.

The bloggers of Voces Cubanas. 
Many Cubans are unable to access their own blogs. 
Credit: New York Review of Books.

The triumphant BBC correspondent even managed to connect, opened the BBC homepage and read today’s headlines. The civilized world is rolling in on the sunbathed Caribbean paradise. I was expecting the journalist to, then, attempt to open Yoani Sánchez’s blog or any of the sites the Cuban government blocks, just to show how the times of political suppression of information are now long gone. Right? But, nope. I guess it was not the story he wanted to tell. And, truly, it is not the one I care to discuss here either.
My point of contention with this and most of the coverage of Cuba’s newly found spot on the free market economy and the celebrity pages of magazines the world over takes for granted the lack of political freedom and the violent suppression and repression of all individual liberties – except the liberty to spend your money enriching the regime that oppresses you. My contention, then, is that the coverage of Cuba’s supposed opening is essentially neo-liberal. It is as neo-liberal as the U.S. president who is putting his hopes in the free market to change the anti-democratic essence of Cuba; the same way the free market has not changed the structural conditions that maintain a non-always metaphorical noose around the neck of impoverished black majorities…and a very great deal of whites in the U.S.
Obama, in his quest for legacy-making achievements at any cost, looks at Cuba and assumes good old neo-liberal capitalism would take care of the 54 year old regime, democracy be dammed! He has examples of that, say, in China and Russia, those two current beacons of freedom and democracy, where the communist oppressors became the rich tycoons – albeit the many differences between those nations and systems – but I digress. I’m all for changing a worthless foreign policy that has kept the status quo for 50 plus years. I just think there are principles we purport to respect, except when they inconvenience us too much. 
To illustrate the neo-liberal bent of the coverage and the politics, let’s focus on the access to the internet. Has anyone ever heard of the digital divide? Where are the usual questions reporters are taught to ask? Questions such as: How many Cubans have internet-capable handheld devices? How much does one such device cost in the island? Where can they buy them? How many Cubans can pay 2 CUC per hour for internet and how often? And if one wants to be incisive, how many black Cubans have access to this? For what would they use the internet? How much does this represent of their average monthly income? And other such boring queries.
But, neo-liberals don’t care about that because the free market takes care of everything and if you can’t afford it, well, it sucks to be you. I can already hear the voices saying: “that’s the case everywhere. If you don’t have the money you can’t have the stuff, and that’s that.”
And here is where context matters. Those market driven answers – cruel as they might be anywhere – are utterly unacceptable in reference to Cuba because that regime took everything from some in order to, supposedly, distribute it more equitably. Over the years, each time some managed to accumulate a little bit of how ever meager wealth without being in the inner circles or receiving their blessings, they were stripped of everything and even thrown in jail. I, sadly, know personally more than one who was in this predicament. Resort to the laws? What laws?
Access to the internet is, perhaps, a perfect example of the “free” part of the market economy in Cuba. Back in March, Etecsa, the island telecom monopoly, granted approval to the artist Kcho to open the country’s first public wireless hub at his cultural center. Needless to say, Kcho has close ties to the Cuban government and “is operating the hub using his own, government-approved internet connection, and paying approximately $900 per month to run it.”
It is a painful irony that those who repressed and stole over the years – and their progeny – are vacationing abroad, posing with foreign celebrities and lining their pockets quite handsomely. So, at the end and as promised by the 1959 revolution – or accident – we are all equal…but some are significantly more equal than others.
And the poor? Well, they are there. The same place they were before. They are waiting for the trickle down economy to sprinkle something on them. Again, no news there were it not for the fact that we are talking about Cuba. People who suffered expropriations because we needed to share better now have to hear that the restaurant La Guarida charges $25 per plate. Yeah, they probably also sell strawberry and chocolate ice cream. The rest of us have to hear there is no single black waiter/waitress in the “cool” restaurants and cafés of the new Cuba. All that was old is new again, and we have a new white and rich elite that buys its status with its silence, its complicity with the oppression and its disregard for the rest.
I wonder how many Wi Fi hotspots will be located in Los Pocitos, Jesús María, Guanabacoa, and rural areas of Pinar del Río or Baracoa. I wonder what would be done to help usher into the new, digital economy, for instance, black Cubans whose economic status keeps deteriorating and are the ones without family abroad to support them.
To me this is very personal. I was a poor, black, unconnected Cuban, and that became very apparent to me when compared to my whiter and richer – and also beloved and most decent – University classmates. However, despite everything else, I didn’t lack most of the things that would grant me an even playing field. In another ironically cruel twist, it was a much more egalitarian society, but it was criticized a lot more. I wonder how girls like me would fare now. How I, myself, would fare had I stayed in Cuba, since my job prospects were bleak, given my stubborn lack of acquiescence with the politics of Cuba’s illustrious leadership? I wonder how the people in my Habana Vieja hood are faring? I’m sure neoliberal reporters would cover that next.  
I can’t shake the images of the Arab Spring, where people under brutal dictatorships – some of which we had happily supported when they served us, but, again, I digress – were covering the rebellion by Twitter. I’m sure the Castros can’t shake it either.
To me this sounds the same as when they removed the exit permit. No need to worry, because hardly anyone gives visas to Cubans, so, besides being a cash cow, the exit permit was just making patent to the world the dictatorial ways of the beautiful island. Before, the internet was restricted to an elite, privileged – and government sanctioned – few. Now, the internet is restricted to an elite, privileged – and government sanctioned – few with money.
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One response to “The neo-liberal media coverage of Cuba’s opening

  1. Pingback: La cobertura mediática neoliberal de la seudoapertura cubana | War Diaries·

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