Ignacio Ramonet’s hundred hours of interviews with Fidel have been out in Spanish for some time, and came out in English about a year ago. This is an excerpt where Fidel talks about “freedom of the press” and the concept of a cult of personality. The translation is Machetera’s though, because she doesn’t have a copy of either book yet, so it’s not really her fault if it’s better than the real thing.
Ramonet: You showed me an impressive amount of reading material which you read and consult every morning to keep up with what’s going on in the world: scores of cables and articles translated from the international press. And in regard to this, I’d like to talk for a bit about news in Cuba. The impression one has is that, although excellent journalists exist, there’s very little criticism about what’s going on in Cuba. What’s your opinion about that?
Fidel: Look, honestly, our press is not in the hands of the Revolution’s enemies, nor is it in the hands of U.S. agents. It’s in the hands of revolutionaries.
Our press is revolutionary, our journalists, in radio or television, are revolutionary. We have plenty of periodicals; each organization has its own press – the workers, the youth, the Party, the campesinos, the Armed Forces. There are scores of periodicals and all are revolutionary.
Ramonet: The impression that one has upon reading them, or listening to the radio or watching television news, is that everything’s going well, only successes or victories are reported, there are no problems, nobody’s dissatisfied. It’s a little strange because I would imagine that at least within the Party there are probably debates, discrepancies and arguments taking place with a lot more critical force.
Fidel: Look, for quite awhile here there’s been a tendency to suppose that to criticize or denounce things done badly is to play the enemy’s game or give comfort to the enemy and the counter-revolution. One has to fear talking about something, because it could be useful for the enemy. And we’ve discovered that the work of the press is really important in the struggle against negative facts. We’ve encouraged the critical sprit. We came to be convinced that it’s necessary to develop the critical spirit even more. And I have encouraged the maximum critical spirit because it’s fundamental to perfecting our system.
Of course, we know that there are exceptions, but we want responsible criticism. And in spite of the possible consequences, it’s better than not having criticism at all.
Ramonet: Could this desire for responsible criticism go as far as the much vaunted freedom of press?
Fidel: If you’re talking about a free press with the right to counter-revolution or that of Cuba’s enemies to speak and write freely against socialism or against the Revolution, I’ll tell you that we’re not in favor of that kind of “freedom”. As long as Cuba remains blockaded by the Empire, permanently attacked, a victim of unjust laws like Helms-Burton or the Cuban Adjustment Act, a country threatened by the very president of the United States, we can’t give this kind of “freedom” to the allies of our enemies whose objective is to fight against socialism’s existence.
Ramonet: Some free media would be considered incompatible with the Revolution?
Fidel: Speaking of “free” media, who calls it that? What are they talking about? Who writes it? It’s talking about what the newspaper and television owners want to talk about. And they decide who will write. You know that well enough. There’s talk of “freedom of expression” but the reality is that what is basically being defended is the right of private property over the mass media. Here, in Cuba, I’ll tell you frankly, there’s no private ownership of mass media. But each mass organization has at its disposal its own media: the students have theirs, the workers, the unions, the campesinos, even the armed forces. Everyone has their own press and believe me, they have a lot of leeway to publish what they wish.
Instead of questioning our ways, which are a result, a consequence, of more than 40 years of resistance against our powerful neighbor, it would be worthwhile to ask our citizens if they do or don’t feel free.
Ramonet: There are foreign publications that are also censored and not distributed in Cuba.
Fidel: Look, there are plenty of foreign publications, both North American and European, distributed in Cuba. Important newspapers, serious ones.
We’re a lot more tolerant than you say. These things can be found for sale in many places and can be bought with foreign currency. Tourists buy them and any Cuban with access to foreign currency can buy and distribute them. It’s not a crime. No-one here is afraid of whatever these publications might say against the Revolution, or of what appears on channels like CNN which many people have no problem getting.
But we can’t spend our resources – because we have other priorities like energy, food and health – on importing foreign press. This type of import is not an absolute priority for us. And it could be that the circulation of such and such a publication is limited because it is engaged in systematic campaigns against us, counter-revolutionary ones. Campaigns to spread calumnies, lies and falsehoods, in order to divide, to create confrontations. That we don’t tolerate.
Why should we accept the circulation of a counter-revolutionary newspaper here?
Because look, for those who are always talking about freedom of the press, whenever Cuba has denounced something that is inconvenient for people to know, it’s not published either. You know that every press has to hew to a certain line, the line charted by the controlling owners of the media, some with more freedom, others with less – although one must not overlook that there are plenty of independent people.
Ramonet: Are you satisfied with the level of press criticism here?
Fidel: Okay, I don’t know if you’ve been able to follow our press in detail, but I can tell you that my most important source of information about what’s happening in the country, better than the reports sent to me by the Party or other state communications, the one I appreciate the most is that which comes from the newspapers. They keep me up to date with everything that’s happening. And I read them every day, at the end of the day.
You speak of the critical spirit, but I ask myself: Where is the critical spirit in the press of so many countries who pretend to be more democratic than we are? Where is the critical spirit of those journalists and television channels in the United States, who’ve supported, like real propaganda spokesmen, President Bush’s war against Iraq?
The truth, ethics, that ought to be the first right or attribute of a human being, is constantly shrinking. Press cables, the media, radio, television, cellphones and Internet sites emit a torrent of news in every direction every minute. It’s not easy for a citizen to follow the course of events. An intelligent human can barely orient oneself in this storm of news.
To those media who pretend to be free and critical but depend on advertising and never criticize their sponsors, I say: Why are so many billions wasted on advertising? What could have been done with those billions wasted on advertising?
Here we have a country whose GDP (Gross Domestic Product) comes about without a single penny of advertising, neither in the newspapers, nor in the television, nor in the radio – we don’t have any kind of commercial publicity.
What part has the mass media played, disgracefully, in the United States and in many parts of the world? And I’m not attacking them. Those who know, like yourself, the effect that these mass media have in mind, can understand that here, media is used to educate, to teach, to create values. And I am completely convinced, because of my lived experience, that values can be planted in men’s souls, in the intelligence and the heart of human beings.
We don’t go around with hypocrisies of any kind, talking about a European “free press”. We dream of another kind of free press, in a cultured country, a country where culture is integral, and allows communication with the world.
Why do those who fear free thought not educate their people, neither bringing them nor attempting to give them the maximum cultural level, historical knowledge and the widest variety of politics, and appreciate things for their innate value, why do they remove this from their own heads? Now, you have to have some element of judgment to be able to remove things from your head.
When they emerged, the mass media seized minds and ruled them not merely on the basis of lies, but on conditioned reflexes. A lie is not the same as a conditioned reflex. A lie affects knowledge, a conditioned reflex affects the capacity to think. And being uninformed is not the same as having lost the ability to think, because the reflexes have already been formed: “This is bad, that’s bad, socialism’s bad, socialism’s bad.” You have all the ignorant, the illiterate, the poor, the exploited, saying: socialism is bad, communism is bad.
They don’t teach the masses how to read or write, they spend billions on advertising every year to pull the wool over the eyes of a huge majority of humanity who moreover, pay for the lies they are told, converting a human being into a person who, apparently, doesn’t have nor wish for the capacity to think. They make them buy soap, the same soap in ten different brands, and they have to resort to trickery, because these billions are not paid by the manufacturers, they’re paid by those who acquire products thanks to advertising. They spend to create conditioned reflexes, so that one will buy Palmolive, another Colgate, another Candado, simply by telling them a hundred times, so that a lovely image is associated with the product, planted and carved into the brain. They who speak so much of “brainwashing” sculpt it and give it form, they take away human beings’ capacity to think.
Are they going to talk of “freedom of expression” in countries that have 20 percent, 30 percent illiteracy, with the other 80 percent somewhere between totally and functionally illiterate? With what criterion, which included elements, do they opine, and where?
If many cultured and intelligent people who want to publish an article have no way of publishing it, they are then ignored, smashed, and disgraced. The mass media have been converted into instruments of manipulation.
We possess and share with absolute conviction that such media should be used to educate, to develop people’s knowledge. These instruments play a great part in the Revolution; they’ve created consciousness, concepts, values, and we’ve not necessarily employed them well. We know, however, what they can do, and we know what the Revolution has accomplished, among other things, because it’s made the media available.
Now, we’re not going to believe the story that the Western media’s destiny is to create values like solidarity, feelings of brotherhood, camaraderie, a spirit of justice.
They talk of values in a system that is naturally selfish, that is by its nature, individualistic. Meanwhile people need more preparation than ever before to understand the problems in this world, growing in complexity, that will never be resolved if the people are not educated.
Ramonet: Although you’re hostile to the personality cult, and have denounced it every so often, the Cuban media frequently refers to you and you occupy an important place in their content. Does this bother you?
Fidel: Look, I’m going to say the following: I, contrary to what some think, don’t appear that much in public. I’m not accustomed to being featured on the television news every day, and up to a fortnight might pass without my appearance in the newspapers. I appear when there’s a commemorative event where I have to speak. Or when a head of state visits Cuba. Or when something extraordinary happens, like a devastating storm, for example. I assure you that it doesn’t please me much to appear in the dailies, on television or the radio. Here there’s no worship of the head of state, nothing like that. The news is written naturally enough. I would say that the media talks about me with respect, but with familiarity. No-one sees me as the personification of some Olympic figure. Lots of people see me as a neighbor, they’ll tell you.
Naturally, I’m hostile to everything that could be perceived as a personality cult, and you might note, I’ve already said it, that in this country there’s not a single school, factory, hospital or building that carries my name. Nor are there statues, there practically aren’t even pictures of me. Here we don’t do official portraits. It’s possible that in some office, someone has put up my photo, but it’s on their own initiative and in no case is it an official photo. Here no State organization spends money or wastes time making and distributing official photos of me or any other leader. That, in our country, doesn’t exist.
I am constantly at war with the the people in charge of the media in order to not appear in the press or in the newspapers. You’ll observe that one of the world leaders who appears least in his country’s media, is I. I don’t like appearing in the media. Nor do I care for being given titles and charges such as “President of the Council of State and Ministers” or “First Secretary of the Party.” I have a lot of conflicts with my people because I don’t care for any of that. Because for me, fortunately, the people call me Fidel. I am the first to stimulate the spirit of criticism.
Those who know me, and know my speeches and my ideas, know that I am very critical, very self-critical about that, and that I’ve fought firmly against any kind of personality cult or deification.
Ramonet: The mass media, in the hands of the State, has often served to distribute propaganda.
Fidel: We want to use the media to elevate the general cultural level. For that reason we’re creating new educational channels. Over those, the program “University for All” gives language courses and a wide variety of materials apart from scholarly programs. In 2003 we inaugurated a third television channel, for education, and in 2004 we launched a fourth channel, also educative. Television is a real, yet not well utilized, format for transmitting knowledge on a mass scale.
Using audiovisual media, exhaustively, we have a stage on which to demonstrate, not to plant poison, or distribute propaganda, not so that someone else will do one’s thinking, because if certain media are used incorrectly, they can take away a citizen’s option to think, because they think for you, and tell you what color you have to use, if the skirt should be long or short, if the current fabric is this or that. Advertising is propaganda, because it sends a message from afar about what we should use, what soft drink we should drink, they come and tell us what beer we should drink, or what brand of whiskey or rum. No-one wants to see their children entertaining or amusing themselves by learning to consume drugs, or seeing violence and absurd things that poison the mind of a child.
Ramonet: Do you believe that the State, in today’s world of new technologies, can still control information?
Fidel: Less and less all the time. Today there are new ways to transmit and receive messages. There are satellites that can direct a signal downwards, there’s the Internet which permits the sending of a message to any corner of the world because, really, in general, those who have Internet also have electricity, telephone and the possibility of communicating.
And we shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual underpinnings, scores of millions in the world who aren’t necessarily from the exploiting, wealthy class. One has to see, remember, for example, there in Seattle, remember Québec, remember Geneva, Florence, Porto Alegre, recall the mobilizations against neoliberal globalization that have already taken place all over the world, organized across the Internet, by people with culture and knowledge. And there are many things that threaten life on the planet today, apart from wars, climate change, the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, pollution of the atmosphere, rivers and seas that threatens all planetary life and against which all the people of the world mobilize and have common cause with Latin Americans, North Americans and Europeans.
Today there are media for communicating with the world which leave us less victimized and dependent on the major media, whether it’s private or state-owned, because today with the Internet everyone with an aspiration, an objective, can make common cause, whether in underdeveloped or wealthy countries. That network can also be used for the worst intentions, such as it seems was done by those who planned the September 11 attacks.