SOS: A plea for freedom from the media narrative on Cuba

Since the beginning of protests in Cuba, the US corporate media have been peddling false narratives and outright lies about the country.

People take part in a demonstration in support of the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, Cuba, July 11, 2021 [File: Yamil Lage/AFP]

In the wake of this month’s protests in Cuba over food and medicine shortages and other complaints, the New York-based magazine Travel + Leisure ran an item titled “4 Ways to Help the People of Cuba Right Now”.

First on the list is “asking the US for humanitarian intervention” in order to “help alleviate the dire situation citizens are in”. Never mind that Cuba’s dire situation has just about everything to do with United States interference in the first place – particularly the six-decades-long blockade that, under international law, technically qualifies as an act of war – or that magazines called Travel + Leisure should perhaps stick to the subjects at hand rather than serving as conduits for imperial propaganda.

The fourth suggestion on the list is to “drink some Cuba libres in Miami”, the unofficial capital of right-wing Cuban exiles. The name “Cuba libre”, which literally means “free Cuba” and generally involves rum and Coca-Cola, evokes nostalgia for the good old days when the island existed blissfully under a brutal US-backed dictatorship.

But the problem extends far beyond Travel + Leisure. The US corporate media as a whole have been less than serious in their coverage of recent events in Cuba – to the extent that many outlets have deceitfully published images of pro-government demonstrations cast as the opposite.

Propelled by the “#SOSCuba” hashtag, The New York Times and other usual suspects rushed to report, aghast, on a Cuban security crackdown in response to the protests, characterised by the jailing of dissidents and alleged human rights violations. While such critiques are not in and of themselves invalid, they would surely hold more moral traction were they not issued by the media mouthpieces of a country that has long operated an illegal prison-cum-torture centre on Cuban soil.

Although mainstream articles do often mention US sanctions, they almost never convey their comprehensively asphyxiating nature – context without which none of Cuba’s contemporary history can begin to be understood. It would be like reporting the spontaneous collapse of buildings across Mexico City on September 19, 1985 – without mentioning that there had been a magnitude 8.1 earthquake.

Among the outlets peddling straight-up lies is Newsweek, where one Cathy Young contends that “blaming Cuba’s economic woes on the US is ludicrous” and that the effects of the embargo were “always limited by the fact that no other countries joined in”.

After all, the beauty of being the global superpower is that you get to call the shots – regardless of whether anyone else really wants to “join in”. Essentially, the current US government approach is to make life such hell for anyone wanting to deal economically with Cuba as a sovereign nation that, for example, the island cannot even obtain sufficient syringes in the middle of a devastating pandemic.

So much for “Cuba libre”.

Of course, there is no denying that sanctions kill; just ask Iraq, another territory where the corporate media have traditionally played a starring role in agitating for US intervention. When confronted in 1996 with reports that half a million Iraqi children had thus far died on account of these sanctions, then-US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright charmingly responded: “We think the price is worth it.”

Whatever the human cost of the embargo on Cuba, it is safe to surmise that the price will never be high enough to deter US capitalism from its path of vengeance against a tiny country that dared to remove price tags from basic rights like healthcare and education.

Meanwhile, in light of the US history of excessively lethal violence across the entire planet, the uproar over the Cuban crackdown becomes an ever more absurd spectacle. The day after one person was reported to have died at the protests, Cuban exile Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago issued the grave warning that, if US President Joe Biden “bungles the bloodshed in Cuba, Democrats can kiss our vote goodbye forever”.

A Washington Post article on Cuban exiles in Florida – who tend to excel at dramatically and disproportionately occupying media spotlights – quoted a 39-year-old attendee at a rally in Miami: “We’re here for people who are dying.”

Speaking of people who are actually dying in disproportionate numbers, the events in Cuba have also provided the media with ammunition to slam the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013 following the acquittal of the US police assassin of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – yet another casualty of US law enforcement’s long-running homicidal habit vis-à-vis Black people.

In the eyes of select media outlets, the fact that Black Lives Matter has now had the nerve to call on Biden to end the embargo on Cuba means that the organisation is not only “defending the totalitarian Cuban regime” (Newsweek again), it is also supporting police repression of Black Cuban protesters and, intriguingly, even “advocating the use of slave labour – including Afro-Cuban slave labour – by US corporations” (The Washington Post).

Anyway, the more birds that can be killed with the anti-Cuba stone, the better for the US empire.

Last but not least, no media coverage of Cuba would be complete without the two cents of the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who never misses a chance to weigh in on the evils of Latin American governments who have veered from the proper path of fanatical right-wing oppression.

According to O’Grady’s latest hallucinations, Cuba’s “Covid Uprising” can be explained in part by “Havana’s practice of human trafficking [that] robs the nation of available medical professionals”.

By “human trafficking” O’Grady means the nation’s decades-long, internationally celebrated programme of medical diplomacy, which has seen Cuba deploy tens of thousands of medics across the globe to combat disease and, now, the plague.

Throughout my own travels, I have had the fortune to come into contact with a few of these doctors – such as the female one who attended to me at a free healthcare clinic in Venezuela, and who was apparently unaware that she was a trafficking victim. Instead, she remarked with pointed irony that, like the US, Cuba was also present in myriad international conflict zones – but for the purpose of saving lives.

Compare O’Grady’s professed concern for Cuban health with her infatuation with “the man who saved Colombia”, ie former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who presided over the slaughter of an estimated more than 10,000 civilians as part of the so-called “false positives scandal” – among other presidential activities.

Needless to say, the current bloody repression of protests in Colombia – a trusted right-wing ally of the US – has not merited much media consternation or the rampant proliferation of an “#SOSColombia” hashtag.

And while O’Grady insists that the Cuban “regime” will exploit its “population’s agony as a negotiating tool” to wrest concessions from the US – a prospect that has already been proven dead wrong as Biden endeavours to out-Trump Donald Trump on sanctions – it is worth reviewing a recent dispatch from Helen Yaffe, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow.

Writing from Havana, Yaffe reminds us that, from the get-go, the US objective in Cuba has been “regime change”. A secret 1960 memorandum from Lester Mallory, US deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, stated as much: “Recognising popular support for the revolutionary government, [Mallory] advised measures to ‘weaken the economic life of Cuba … to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government’”.

No wonder, then, that the narrative has to be so fervently rewritten. Luckily for those pleading “#SOSCuba”, the media are fully on board.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.