The Miami Herald
Jul. 03, 2002

Cuba's so-called journalists


  HAVANA -- It was a progressive idea. A delegation of Cuban journalists would host more than a dozen African-American journalists, many of whom would be seeing Cuba for the first time. This would be our chance to see Cuba for ourselves.

  The brainchild of syndicated columnist DeWayne Wickham, the gathering would hold joint panels to discuss journalism in our respective countries and learn more about one another. The sessions, held here at Martí International Institute of Journalism, were going along well-for a while.

  In his opening remarks, Wickham described the adversarial relationship in the United States between journalists and government officials, one in which the media serve as proxy for the public by closely scrutinizing the actions of elected officials.

  If any of us were momentarily lulled into believing that these were our counterparts, that impression was quickly shattered when several declared that they had
  supported the Castro revolution in 1959 and view their job today as helping those in power.

  I cringed. These are not journalists, I thought; these are government public-relations agents -- ``flacks.''

  Regardless of how they tried to spin it, they work for the state-owned media-TV, radio and newspapers, and they spew only the official line of Fidel Castro.

  Its not that I didnt know in advance that these were not, in the true sense of the word, journalists. But hearing them say that they were there to support the revolution underscored just how different we see our roles.

  One of them, Ulise Estrada Lescaille, director of Revista Tricontinental, prides himself on that association. In his magazine, he writes fondly of his ''days with Che
  [Guevara]'' in 1961. At the time, Estrada Lescaille was, he says, ''second in command of the MOE (department of Special Operations for Cuban Intelligence).'' Oliver North wasnt the first to switch from the military battlefield to the propaganda-filled commentary.

  When the so-called journalists in Havana spoke, it was as if each were reading from the same prepared statement. ''Were all Cubans,'' they would say over and over, denying that race is an issue in Cuban society.

  Yet, speak to dark-skinned people in Havana, and (once convinced that you are not a government official) they will admit that both color and class remain staples of Cuban society. Of course, the same is true in the United States.

  Like many communist countries, there are strict limitations placed on what one can write and say about the leader of the country. At home, we can openly question
  President Bushs intelligence, but here, to question Castro is unlawful and considered disrespectful.

  Clarence Page, a former colleague who worked with me in the Washington bureau of The Chicago Tribune, and I visited with some real journalists in Havana who say they cannot publish dissenting opinions without the risk of getting thrown in jail. They told us of constant harassment, and how its illegal to have a fax machine in the home without government approval.

  If they seek to cover a public function, some said, it is not unusual to be picked up by police, only to be driven miles away. By the time they can return to the site, the event is over. Still, most of them are not lingering in jail.

  As bad as things are in Cuba, they could be worse. I have friends in Beijing who cannot access news sites in China. Despite the government crackdown in Cuba, some government opponents manage to operate fax machines. If they can gain access to the Internet at a legal place, such as the hotels frequented by foreigners, news sites are not blocked.

  Looking at repressive governments, especially when away from home, makes one appreciate the beauty of the First Amendment, which protects free speech, the right to assemble and freedom of the press. Although Attorney General John Ashcroft is seeking to undermine many of the freedoms we take for granted, the U.S. Constitution is a unique document. We tend to take it for granted -- until we see the alternative.

  George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of NNPA News Service and BlackPress, is the former editor of Emerge: Black Americas Newsmagazine.