Cuban media is more complicated than it seems


Raphael Betancourt and Consuelo Fernandez

The media in Cuba, one of three remaining Communist countries in the word, is generally portrayed as a monolithic mouthpiece for the Cuban government, which maintains tight control over media coverage of everything from sports to politics.

According to University of Havana professors Rafael Betancourt and Consuelo Martin Fernandez, who visited JSC Oct. 2-3, the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

“I think that to a great degree it is monolithic, to a great degree it is reflecting political purposes rather than news and information, but that’s not the whole picture,” said Betancourt.

While Betancourt says Cuba’s international media coverage tends to be analytical and objective, he acknowledges that the national news is closer to propaganda than reporting information. “It’s hard for us to know what’s going on in Cuba just by reading the official media or watching the television news,” he said.

Betancourt says this lack of information is created by two factors: all of Cuba’s official newspapers are controlled by the Communist party, which exercises varying degrees of censorship, and they are constrained by the number of pages printed.

Granma, one of Cuba’s national newspapers, usually only has eight pages per issue. “But the Granma on the web is not constrained,” Betancourt said. “All of the newspapers — national, provincial and local — have web pages.”

Cuba’s growing internet access has not only expanded official coverage. It has also created a loophole that allows citizens access to actual news, creating — in effect — a parallel, more open media. While Cuban journalists are held to strict boundaries within the official news, nothing stops them from writing blogs, Betancourt noted.

“A journalist may have their own blog and be writing in the blog things that they wouldn’t write in the newspaper and there’s no repercussion, there’s no repression or anything like that on them typically,” he said.

The blogs send information out to citizens faster than the newspapers do. Fernandez explained that people will witness something happening in the community, but they will see nothing about it in the official news immediately. She used a recent gas shortage as an example. “Maybe three days after [the event] you can read in Granma the analysis of what happened,” she said. “Always after, not when this is happening . . . You need to access the blogs to see what is going on.”

There are other things that the newspapers leave out entirely. For many in Cuba who have limited or no access to the internet, they have invented what they call “El Paquete,” or “The Package.”

“El Paquete is one to three terabytes of entertainment produced weekly, which includes national and foreign TV shows, sports, movies, series and everything,” Betancourt said. “Everything from the worst of U.S. and Mexico television with these soap operas, which are horrible, to the latest films that got the Academy Award.”

Citizens can go to either someone’s house or a technology store and, for $1-3, get that week’s worth of entertainment downloaded onto their hard drives.

El Paquete is a fascinating cultural phenomenon that Betancourt wishes was discussed in the official media, but it isn’t. “It’s really cool, it’s really different,” he said. “The blogs and the academics and everybody’s discussing it, but nothing in the official press. It doesn’t exist in the official press.”

El Paquete is omitted from the official news media because its production isn’t sanctioned by the government. However, that doesn’t mean that every form of media has to be produced under the government’s watch.

Betancourt and Fernandez’s son is a filmmaker currently studying for his Masters in Film Direction. “When he was a sophomore in college he formed, with another friend, an independent production company completely outside of the law, but completely tolerated,” said Betancourt. At one point the company was under contract with Redbull to create “Surfing to Baracoa.” The short film featured a Hawaiian surfer arriving at Havana and then traveling across the country to a beach in Baracoa to surf. Redbull paid the company and aired the clip internationally. “All this is going on without any repression of any sort,” Betancourt said.

The Cuban government is also tolerant of criticism of the Cuba’s National Assembly, but only to a point. Betancourt is on the board of editors for Revista Temas which is a publication to which Fernandez contributes. “We write very serious stuff, but very academically based. It’s not shooting from the hip or anything,” he said.

On the last Thursday of every month, Temas holds a debate open to the community on a specific chosen topic. “We have people from all opinions . . . and people say really heavy stuff there. There’s no censorship whatsoever, and some people are very strong in their criticisms, but they’re not insulting,” Betancourt said.

Betancourt went on to explain that the late-night talk shows in America that mock Donald Trump are an example of something that would never exist in Cuba. “You don’t go against the leadership, you don’t talk badly of Raúl Castro,” he said. “That would be a line you would not cross.”

Cuban journalists who do cross that line within the official media risk termination of their jobs.
For a sense of Cuba’s official media, go to