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The Image of Cuba
in the U.S. Mass Media


By Alfredo Prieto González

The author is director of the Popular Communications Department of Havana's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, where he edits Caminos, a journal of socio-theological thought. He also edits Temas, a leading culture studies journal in Cuba. The following essay is part of an extensive study by Mr. Prieto on the ways Cuba is represented in U.S. media. He uses the ISLA publication as a reference source on press coverage.


The politically and emotionally charged case of Elián González has brought Cuba - more specifically U.S.-Cuba relations - to the forefront on media reporting. And while it is to be acknowledged that most U.S. media outlets, along with public opinion, have sided with the demand the boy be returned to his father, this has not translated into a better understanding of the contemporary Cuban reality. One may ask: how well does the average U.S. citizen - regardless of her or his political position - know Cuba? In what measure does this image of Cuba agree with reality and, above all, with the way Cubans see themselves?

Writer Tom Miller answers the question this way: Americans know little about Cuba, and nothing about Cubans. Cuban reality is perceived in the U.S. through a series of stereotypes informed by cultural differences, language barriers, Anglo-centrism, the Cold War mentality, the influence of the mass media, and the little opportunity there is for direct contact between the two peoples. These perceptions often obliterate the real issues, and make an issue of things that most Cubans would not recognize as such.

This essay constitutes an attempt at analyzing and discussing how the U.S. mass media, in its capacity as a consensus-manufacturer, creates and recreates the image of Cuba.

Two Public Powers: the Press and the Executive

"The American press" is a conventional, abstract category. It basically refers to U.S. mainstream press, a host of diverse media organizations that, according to Stephen Hess, can be characterized by their proximity to power and to authorized sources of information. The broadcasting efforts of this media complex are thought of and articulated in favor of politicians, as well as the higher income and better-educated sectors of society. Its final aim is to contribute as much as possible to the ideological and cultural reproduction of the system within which it thrives, and to help the ruling class reinforce its hegemony (see Prieto González, 1989). In order to maintain its hegemony, the ruling class must effectively impose its world-view, or "common sense", onto subordinated social groups (see Gitlin).

The ruling class in the United States is not homogeneous, which helps explain the diversity inherent in the mass media; its non-monolithic character. The media are not, in a strict sense, "the ideological apparatus of the state." The ideological reproduction of the system evolves, fundamentally, across a network of privately-owned media outlets that influence public policies.

Similarly, one should not assume that the process of image-formation and dissemination is linear and non-conflicting. The different actors involved have diverse interests and policy objectives. One of the basic weaknesses of the conspiracy approach, which takes the press as a blind instrument of government, is to conceive of this process as unitary and rational; depending, as it were, on an orderly command system between two public powers - the press and the administration. It is evident that the two have in fact collided on concrete policy issues toward Latin America, as in the cases of the popular Sandinista revolution, the Haitian crisis, the relations with Mexico, and, more recently, the question of the blockade against Cuba and of travel to the island.

In the United States, the relationship between the press and the Executive power is not unequivocal. It has undergone important changes from the 60s to the present, and it is mediated by a series of relationships and correlation of forces, such as those between "outside" political players, and between Congress and the President. It also responds to the ideological/political context, the nature of presidential leadership, and the communications strategies of the White House.

It is generally agreed that a strong and charismatic presidential leadership will often rule the roost in this relationship, using its influence to balance the media to its favor, but such a dynamic cannot be taken for granted. Thus, an administration such as Ronald Reagan's - whose media coverage had practically no precedent - found itself portrayed in an unfavorable light during the Iran-Contras scandal. As Senator Tip O'Neil summed up at the time, the issue led to the end of the "honeymoon" between the press and the White House.

Media studies maintain that the attitudes of the press and the media toward the Administration are dependent on the topic at hand, and, more than anything else, on the area of politics concerned. According to this paradigm, gaining media support for foreign policy decisions is relatively easy, provided there is presidential leadership that fills the general expectations about the United States' role in the world, and acts accordingly-not necessarily using its military might. Conversely, in domestic policy issues where opposed interests and perceptions emerge, such support is much more difficult.

This helps explain the coverage and public opinion achievements of the two Republican administrations before Clinton, which made efforts, each in its own way, to revive U.S. hegemony, exploiting the perception that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union and its advances all over the globe. Ideologically-laden as never before, the government's discourse helped block alternative discourses. The need to avoid the label "soft on Communism" was a concern as much within the structural policy ranks as in the media; the basis of the "Reaganian" world-view seldom being put into question. The fall of socialism in Europe, and the subsequent collapse of the "evil empire," propped up a public discourse that emphasized the superiority of the West over the East, along with the rise of the uni-polar view of the world in the political/military realm. However, the idea emerged in the U.S. collective consciousness that the country was a power in decline, given a series of domestic problems derived, to a great extent, from Republican economic policies. Today no one disputes that it was the state of the economy that made Bush lose the reelection, and that the economy, along with urban violence, narco-business and AIDS, constitute fundamental worries of today's average U.S. citizen.

The Image of Cuba in the 90s

In examining the images of Cuba now prevalent everywhere outside the island, one can see no fundamental difference to the image presented in the United States.

In order to understand the characteristics of the prevailing image of Cuba, it is necessary to provide some historical background. At the height of investigative journalism in the 1970s, U.S. journalism, immersed as it was in a moral and institutional crisis, and under the influence of an anti-establishment trend, developed more sophisticated analytical tools. However, this wasn't true with respect to Cuba. If it's true that early discourse about Revolutionary Cuba wasn't entirely negative, from the 60s onward Cuban reality was presented as a collection of war criminal executions; the idea of the "betrayed revolution," and the concept of a "Soviet beachhead." These images were strengthened by the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the following year's missile crisis. The terms of discourse had been laid down.

Later, as the political climate under Ford and Carter tended toward relaxation, a more constructive and realistic tone appeared in the media. However, Cuba's military presence in Angola and later in Ethiopia, gave way to a number of reports where the term "Satellite of the USSR" became common currency of both the political and the media discourses. Although the Cold War is over, the image of Cuba continues to be permeated by a web of stereotypes that derive from that time.

As Cuba was established to no longer pose a threat to U.S. national security, the flow of images focuses on the island's internal dynamics. In the post-Cold War world, Cuba has lost her "charm," becoming just another - albeit peculiar - Caribbean country. It acquires public relevance only in moments of crisis - such as the Elián González issue - but otherwise elicits only fragmentary and occasional reporting.

Mass Mediations

Cuban affairs are viewed and judged in reference to the triad "free" market, "free" elections, and political diversity (that is, the existence of a multi-party system.) This determines the discursive process according to which the island is perceived as a fossil floating in its own past, a kind of dinosaur. The media patterns acting upon Cuba today can be summarized into three main aspects.

l. Objectivity. The philosophy of liberal journalism endorses the principle of balance and equilibrium of differing viewpoints, which supposedly allows for equal consideration of each. The aim is to provide objective and unbiased information, so readers can draw their own independent conclusions. However, this principle does not agree with the way the media are evaluated at both ends of the political spectrum, as is evident in the frequent accusations of ideological prejudice by conservatives and liberals alike. Since the 80s, conservative institutions such as Accuracy in Media have emerged to monitor what is regarded as the "excessive liberalism of the media." As far as Cuba is concerned, these organizations have even identified a "media honeymoon with Fidel Castro," an idea obviously shared by the ultra-right of Miami in its attacks against such publications as The Miami Herald.

2. Ethnocentrism. Here U.S. values and culture become something like the inevitable and final crystallization of all possible social models. This allows for not taking Third World problems too seriously, and focusing on those countries only in the event of political crises, epidemics and disasters. From this point of view, Cuba could be compared with Pakistan. It receives informational focus through a specific event - for example, a hurricane - instead of a systematic coverage of the evolution of national reality.

3. Bias of the sources. The strive for "objectivity," together with the need of maintaining the status quo, leads the media to disseminate, and even to depend upon, corporate and government viewpoints. These are considered trustworthy objective sources, which in practice serve to portray their presumptions as undisputed truths and, above all, shape the parameters of public debate. This logic contains a whole political economy of information and, as Leon Sigal puts it, leads to a particular division of labor: Public officials have "the facts," and the press usually limits itself to acquiring them.

An analysis of the coverage on Cuba shows that the list of the most important sources are, in the first place, official agencies - spokespersons for the State Department, the White House, and others - to which is added a whole gamut of experts, predominantly conservative, and representing the Cuban-American elite. The problem of balance is, then, omission: although there's no lack of progressive or liberal points of view in the U.S., the truth is that those in tune with official policy objectives are given priority (see Prieto González 1990, 1995).

The Image Underpinnings

The problems associated with the construction of images of Cuba are especially manifested in the areas of the economy, the political system, and the human rights debate.

The Cuban economy is one of today's favorite entrées on the political menu, given the associated predictions of crisis and deterioration that supposedly will bring the end of the whole national project. Even before the economic crisis of the early 90s, negative growth had become a pattern, and if one adds a number of more recent drawbacks, the consecutive low indices in sugar production, food deficits, and the fall of imports, there is no doubt that those predictions had some reference to reality. The professionalism with which economic indicators are often reported cannot be ignored. However, given the informative model already in force, we rarely find any discussion on the origins of those problems, the circumstances under which they appeared, and the policies devised to confront them.

Informed by ideological assumptions, the media discourse basically emphasizes that which directly refers to the end of trade with the USSR. The main objective is obvious: to emphasize the idea of subsidy as "proof" of the Cuban socialist system's parasitical character and of its inability to provide for its citizens. The darker side of this formula is that the blockade is presented more as a pretext used by the Cuban government to hide its own incompetence, rather than what it actually is.

As for the changes taking place in the Cuban economy - such as the opening to foreign investment, the development of tourism, and the introduction of certain market mechanisms in the domestic economy - the media is often bent on questioning whether these are "heart-felt" measures. It is hard to find a report that emphasizes the level of realism demonstrated by Cuban policy in confronting the problems caused by the loss of its preferential markets, the US blockade, and the internal inefficiencies accumulated in trying to participate in an international economy that has itself undergone drastic changes.

The media presents reforms in Cuba as superficial, especially when contrasted with the supposed advantages of the neo-liberal formula (privatization, deregulation, etc.). Something similar happens with the evaluation of the political system. The question of democracy in Cuba is simply reduced to the lack of party competition and the absence of legal channels for challenging the hegemony of the Communist Party. Elections, according to this criterion, are nothing but a ritual, a predictable charade.

Only a total lack of analysis would allow one to qualify the Cuban electoral system, and the changes undergone by it since the Constitutional reforms of 1992, as "cosmetic." The question of democracy is not only exaggerated by the media, but also given absolute precedence over other fundamental questions, such as independence and sovereignty. The latter two concepts have been turned into anachronistic values by the media; mere pretexts used by local elites to remain in power, as they refuse to abide by universal standards. What the U.S. media fails to acknowledge is that public administration in Cuba has been shaped by the interaction of a plurality of concurrent spaces for participation, from the local to the national levels. But these are experiences practically unknown outside the island (see Dilla et al.).

But it is in the media treatment of the human rights issue where the vertical axis of the U.S. Administration reveals itself more clearly. The human rights issue began to acquire unprecedented attention in the early 80s, as the U.S. took a number of political, diplomatic, and propagandistic measures to shape public opinion, so as to be able to have Cuba on the carpet in international forums.

It is but symptomatic that one of the highest points in this campaign took place in 1986, just before the "Cuban case" was taken to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. From that moment onward, news agents and media organizations that are considered "aseptic" and "non-ideological" have been conceding an unusually large space to the alleged violations of such rights in Cuba - including charges of physical torture in jails and, as it usually happens with propaganda in other areas of Cuban life, notably inflating the statistics on the extent of the jail population.

Images have thus contributed well to one of their functions: to generalize particular cases, and humanize the drama of the so-called dissident, whose intellectual authorship and political projection are often nothing more than mere constructions. The aim is to legitimize an enlightened and peaceful change process, according to a pre-conceived model.

But one of the main weaknesses of this way of conceiving society is its reductionism, that is, its tendency to minimize or suppress any information that is non-conforming. The standard perception is that in Cuba everything is permeated by officialism, from sociological thought to culture. The assumption reaches levels of absurdity as with recent allegations from the Miami right wing that when Elián González's father demands the return of his kidnapped son, he's speaking under direct instructions of Fidel Castro. The existence of a civil society is thus supplanted by an all-pervasive Orwellian State (see Hernández). The Cuban media are also partly responsible for this perception. Conditioned by external pressures from the U.S., they almost unanimously help to propagate a "state of siege" mentality, which in turn precludes a more diverse and wider public debate.

One of the main obstacles for an understanding of the Cuban reality - one that is less stagnant and gray than usually believed - is the set of assumptions that the major media organizations promote. There are two main problems here: 1) points of view that are different from the so-called dissidence are automatically disqualified; and 2) everyday discussion - a natural element of Cuban idiosyncrasy - is hardly recognized, and often trivialized.

Will the Image of Cuba Change?

Judging from available evidence, it is very unlikely that a qualitative change will occur in Cuba's image in the U.S. media anytime soon. If for no other reason, simply because, as far as Cuba and the very nature and character of its political order is concerned, there is a clear coincidence between U.S. media and U.S. policy, regardless of the disagreements that may exist between these two public powers as to how best to do away with the enemy.

A change in Cuba's image of would have to be preceded by a change in the attitudes of the media, which would need to renounce (or, at least, minimize) an established position, and free themselves from a number of firmly rooted ideological and cultural prejudices. Needless to say, this is out of the question, especially in face of the recent changes in the balance of power on the world scale, and the new regional context; where Cuba appears not as a different political system, but as the exception in the dominant pattern throughout the entire hemisphere. As long as current attitudes prevail, whatever changes Cuba may undergo in its internal process will not affect its image abroad. This image would change only if Cuba were to give up its national project and its sovereignty. However, Cuba is not going to change its political system according to the aspirations inherent in an image constructed by the media. This is why the theses of isolationism and human rights will go on shaping public opinion and media discourse outside Cuba.


References

Dilla, Haroldo, Gerardo González, and Ana T. Vincentelli (1993). Participación popular y desarrollo en los municipios cubanos. Havana: Centro de Estudios sobre América (CEA), pp. 135-47.

Gitlin, Tod (1987). "Television's Screens: Hegemony in Transition", in: Donald Lazere, ed., American Media and Mass Culture. University of California Press, pp. 240-65.

Hernández, Rafael (1993). "Mirar a Cuba". La Gaceta de Cuba, No. 5, Havana, September-October.

Hess, Stephen (1984). The Government and Press Connection, Brookings Institution.

Tom Miller (1992). Trading with the Enemy, A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba. New York: Atheneum.

Prieto González, Alfredo (1989). "La prensa y la opinión pública norteamericana hacia América Latina". Cuadernos de Nuestra América, VI, No. 12, Havana, January-June.

____________________ (1990). "La conexión cubana". Cuadernos de Nuestra América, VII, No. 15, Havana, July-December.

____________________ (1995). "Made in America: la imagen de Cuba en el exterior", in: Rafael Hernández, coord. Cuba en las Américas. Una perspectiva sobre Cuba y los problemas hemisféricos. Havana: Centro de Estudios sobre América, pp. 7-14.

Leon Sigal (1983). Reporters and Officials. Lexington, Mass.

Translated and edited by ISLA

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