The Image of
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
____________________ (1990). "La conexión
cubana". Cuadernos de Nuestra América, VII, No. 15,
____________________ (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.
Translated and edited by ISLA
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