Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line As Cuba's government allows more debate in the press, one newspaper is rising to the challenge. Although it still faces limitations, Juventud Rebelde is publishing articles criticizing aspects of Cuban society in an unprecedented way.
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Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line

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Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line

Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For years in Cuba, speeches by Fidel Castro were splashed across Page one in the newspapers. Critical words were rare. In Cuba, daily papers are all owned and controlled by the government or the Communist Party, but since Raul Castro took over from his brother, he's been allowing a bit more debate in the Cuban press. At one had a newspaper, reporters have even been encouraged to investigate what's not working in their country. The paper is called Juventud Rebelde or Rebel Youth.

NPR's Tom Gjelten spoke with some of the staff there.

TOM GJELTEN: Juventud Rebelde was founded in 1965 as the newspaper of the Communist youth in Cuba. And throughout its life, it's mostly featured whatever dreary news the party leaders wanted published. But in recent months, the paper has been branching boldly out. Not long ago, they ran a critical three-part series on Cuban agriculture. Reporter Dora Perez and a colleague spent weeks talking to farmers and farm workers across the country. They wanted to find out why Cuba, with all its rich farmland, has to import so much food.

Ms. DORA PEREZ (Reporter, Juventud Rebelde): (Speaking in Spanish)

GJELTEN: Dora says she and her colleague heard nothing but complaints. Really, she says, our report was very critical. We're bad in agriculture and we have to say so. Three months later, Dora followed up with another investigative series, this one on education in Cuba. She found out that many Cuban parents were so unhappy with the quality of their kids' schooling, that they were hiring private tutors - something once unthinkable here.

For years, Fidel Castro told Cubans that their problems were the results of the U.S. trade embargo or the loss of Soviet aid or globalization. There was always an excuse. But Herminio Camacho, deputy editor of Juventud Rebelde, says it's time for Cuba to acknowledge its own failings.

Mr. HERMINIO CAMACHO (Deputy Editor, Juventud Rebelde): (Through translator) These articles aim at raising people's awareness. People need to know that things don't have to be like this here. We're bringing up problems that can't be blamed on our shortages, or on outside forces, or the embargo, or the world situation.

GJELTEN: For a Cuban communist newspaper, this editorial approach is unprecedented. Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, has been reading the Cuban press for a long time and he's impressed by what he has seen in Juventud Rebelde over the last two years.

Mr. PHIL PETERS (Analyst, Lexington Institute): You have Cuban journalists now, in some limited cases, and under government control, still, but Cuban journalists actually going out and documenting facts and contradicting official versions of the fact.

GJELTEN: Such stories are still the exception, not the norm in Juventud Rebelde. More common are the stories that simply quote government functionaries uncritically. Editor Herminio Camacho, says he and his reporters are still finding their way.

Mr. CAMACHO: (Through translator) We've made progress, but we have a ways to go, because our reporters have been conditioned to think in a certain way. They have inertia in their thinking. This kind of journalism we're trying to do is hard for us. Throughout our whole lives, we've done it in a different way.

GJELTEN: Camacho and his fellow editors have recently done away with the idea of beat reporting. He says journalists who focus on one issue or agency get too closed to the people they're covering. He's thinking here like a newspaper editor in a democratic society and not as a communist propaganda boss.

Juventud Rebelde stops well short of challenging the ideology of Cuban communism, but for a party organ even to raise sensitive questions could have unforeseen consequences in a tightly controlled totalitarian state. Some of the paper's recent reporting touches on key elements of the socialist system. One example, the state-owned companies that now control every aspect of economic life in Cuba.

Again, Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute.

Mr. PETERS: Their reporters went out and document it that a lot of the state enterprises just do not work, that there's no functioning supply system and that the enterprises actually exploit and cheat Cuban consumers. It was unbelievable, because that type of thing certainly didn't appear under Fidel Castro. And if Fidel Castro talked about those enterprises, they were paragons of socialist virtue and this is what we live for. He would always contrast that - their state enterprises with the exploitation that occur in capitalist societies.

GJELTEN: In fact, Fidel Castro apparently doesn't much like the pro-reform ideas in Juventud Rebelde and a few other media. In a newspaper column published last month under the title Do Not Make Concessions to Enemy Ideology, Castro lashed out at critics of Cuban socialism. People must be very careful with everything they say, he warned. Castro, whose mental and physical condition remains a mystery, said he was responding to a comment in one of Cuba's media outlets. He didn't say which one, and Juventud Rebelde editor, Herminio Camacho says he got immediately nervous it was his paper.

Mr. CAMACHO: (Through translator) I'll admit it, the first reaction I had was to worry. This was Fidel pointing his finger at someone. He's not president anymore, but we still see him as the leader of the revolution.

GJELTEN: Camacho has a hard time talking about Fidel. For nearly 50 years, the man has had absolute power in Cuba, to squash careers or send people to prison for the rest of their lives.

Mr. CAMACHO: (Through translator) For us, a criticism from Fidel is an - it's not just the fear, it's more than that. Among other things, we feel - in some ways we feel like we must be violating his wishes.

GJELTEN: Following Fidel's column, Camacho says he and his fellow editors resolved to be more, quote, "responsible." A fully reported article on the shortcomings of the economic reform program was held back, not to be published. Some writers who have broken their ties with the government are skeptical that Juventud Rebelde can be much of a force for change. Independent journalist, Reynaldo Escobar, who writes an opposition blog in Cuba, says he is impressed by some of the reporters working these days at Juventud, but does he see them as allies in the fight for democracy and free expression in Cuba?

Mr. REYNALDO ESCOBAR (Independent Journalist): No. (Speaking in Spanish). No.

GJELTEN: Any professionally aware journalist could write something that coincides with what I'm saying, Escobar says, but they wouldn't be doing so intentionally. Escobar is working for political change in Cuba. The Juventud Rebelde reporters are just trying to be journalists.

Ms. FERNANDEZ: (Speaking in Spanish)

GJELTEN: Shortly after Dora Perez wrote her series on education in Cuba, she got a congratulatory e-mail from a prominent Cuban writer, Adelaida Fernandez. Dora shared the e-mail with colleagues and with a visitor. Fernandez had delivered a highly critical speech on Cuban education at a convention of Cuban writers and artists. At the outset she cited the stories by Dora Perez in Juventud Rebelde. And how did Dora feel about that?

Ms. FERNANDEZ: (Speaking in foreign language)

GJELTEN: I was very proud, Dora says. One of the best things about being a journalist is when you know that what you write actually reaches people and moves them. Hardly a radical thought, but noteworthy coming from a reporter at a Communist Party paper in Havana.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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