By Leonor Vulpe Albari.
The United States and Cuba have long had a tumultuous relationship and central to this relationship today are Alan Gross and the Cuban Five. Alan Gross, an American detained in Cuba since 2009, was accused of espionage. He imported communications technology into Cuba for a Jewish community, but this technology was meant to be used later by anti-Castro activists. The Cuban Five are Cuban intelligence agents sent to the U.S. to monitor violent anti-Castro Cuban exiles. They were detained in Miami since 1998 and only one, René González, has been released (Sweig 185).
American media sources that discuss Alan Gross and the Cuban Five today make certain, common historical assumptions. For instance, an extreme example from Fox News, “Cuban-American lawmakers dismayed over Obama handshake with ‘thug’ Castro”, quotes Rep. Ros-Lehtinen explaining that, by shaking the “bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro”, Obama, the “leader of the free world”, created propaganda for a “tyrant”.
Articles such as these ignore what Cuba was before Castro: a dictatorship supported by the U.S. (Ludlam 8). Under Fulgencio Batista, there was corruption, violence, and a booming sex and drug industry in Havana (Bolender 10). As well, most American sources fail to describe what communism in Cuba really looks like. Though there is only one political party, every five years since 1976 there have been municipal, provincial and national elections (Sweig 45), and the 1976 constitution was approved by 97% of voters (Ludlam 111). Lastly, sources often ignore the fact that Cuba provides education, healthcare, and other basic rights to its citizens (Sweig 45).
In contrast, other news sources encourage the picture of the U.S. as the oppressor, downplay the lack of civil rights in Cuba, and overlook human rights violations. In “Hurting the Cuban People Since 1960”, Richard Walden writes that “Cuba is no gulag”, and that the U.S. should be criticized for its human rights violations and the “unjust” arrest of the Cuban Five. Similarly, a Havana Times article, “Cuban Five: Wrong Guys in Jail”, describes the Cuban Five as heroes, the U.S. as an oppressor, and even states that “Cuba has been the target of right wing extremist organizations” for the past 50 years.
Though the U.S. has increased Cuba’s suffering, most obviously with the trade embargo, a balanced media cannot forget the Cuban government’s human rights violations. Thousands of political prisoners, as well as homosexuals and anyone who might oppose the government were put in jail in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 2010, Orlando Zapato Tamayo died in prison while on a hunger strike (Sweig 66-65; 265). To add, though Cuba holds elections every five years, there is only one party and one leader: Fidel Castro, then his brother Raúl since 2006 (Sweig 45).
By presenting Castro negatively, and Cuba as a communist country that guarantees its citizens no rights, the U.S. justifies its harsh trade embargo, its arrest of the Cuban Five, and Alan Gross’s project in Cuba. Similarly, Cuba has interests in maintaining an image of the U.S. as the oppressor; this helps it justify the arrest of Alan Gross, and maintain the idea that Cuba has freed itself from the U.S. It can thus more easily ignore the fact that Cubans lack many freedoms, and justify maintaining a one-party system.
The hostility seen today in the media between the U.S. and Cuba did not always exist. After the Cuban Revolution, most American media reacted with “cautious approval” (Welch 161). Economic changes and Cuba’s friendship with the Soviet Union, however, led to the deterioration of relations after 1959. Indeed, Castro ultimately “expropriated over 300,000 acres of U.S. property, all U.S.-owned tobacco enterprises, all U.S. banks, and all other U.S. business interests” (Sweig 77). These expropriations were resented in the U.S., which had invested over $1 billion in the country, and in late 1961 the U.S. implemented the embargo that is still in place today (Sweig 88).
Historical assumptions inform how the media report on the U.S. and Cuba, and how they report on Alan Gross and the Cuban Five. Though the scope of this article is limited to these stories, historical assumptions inform all media reporting and all politics. One must both learn history to be able to uncover these assumptions, and be a critical and attentive reader unwilling to take the “facts” at face value.
Postscript: In December 2014, Alan Gross was released and is to be awarded $3.2 million from the US government. President Barack Obama has also announced that the United States embargo has been effective and that there will be a change in policy towards Cuba.
Leonor Vulpe Albari is a graduate of the College of Humanities at Carleton University. She is pursuing graduate studies in International Laws at Maastricht University (Netherlands).
“Cuban-American lawmakers dismayed over Obama handshake with ‘thug’ Castro.” Fox News. Fox News Network. 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.
“Cuban Five: Wrong Guys in Jail.” Havana Times. Havana Times. 1 March 2009. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
Walden, Richard. “Hurting the Cuban People Since 1960.” The World Post. The Huffington Post. 17 April 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Bolender, Keith. Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba. New York: Pluto Press, 2010. Print.
Ludlam, Steve. “Regime Change and Human Rights: A Perspective on the Cuba Polemic.” Rethinking the Cuban Revolution Nationally and Regionally: Politics, Culture and Identity. Ed. Par Kumaraskwami. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Welch Jr., Richard E. Response to Revolution: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, 1951-1961. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Print.