Democracy, Cuban-Style. (Storm over Cuba)

By Wald, Karen | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Democracy, Cuban-Style. (Storm over Cuba)

Wald, Karen, Canadian Dimension

Many jokes made the rounds in Cuba during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to that country, but perhaps none more to the point than this one:

Fidel Castro and the Pope were walking along Havana's famous seaside drive, the Malecon, when a gust of wind blew the Pope's mitre off his head and into the water. Fidel immediately leaped over the wall and into the water -- where, to everyone's amazement, he found himself walking on top of the waves. Taking this in stride, Fidel glided across the water, picked up the mitre, climbed back out, and handed the headpiece back to the Pope. And they continued on their stroll. The next day, prominent headlines on the Cuban daily newspaper Granma proclaimed: "Fidel Performs Revolutionary Feat; Walks on Water to Retrieve Pope's Mitre!" The Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano considered this an equally big event, but its version said: "Pope Performs Miracle; Enables Fidel to Walk on Water!" The Miami papers, of course, had their own spin. Their headlines blared: "Proven Beyond Doubt -- Fidel Cannot Swim!"

The Media Cover Cuba

Media coverage of Cuba in the United States, and in many other countries (depending, often, on their political and trade relations with Cuba and relative dependence on or independence of the U.S.) usually contains at least a grain of truth. However, what grows out of that seed, how it's interpreted, or twisted, often results in reporting that bears very little resemblance to what goes on in that country. Unfortunately the spin most U.S. and like-minded media put on their Cuba reporting cannot be viewed as lightly as the Pope joke. By omission and commission, intentional and unintentional, out of directives from editors, publishers and producers, or out of unconscious biases on the parts of the journalists themselves, sometimes due merely to ignorance, what gets reported about Cuba abroad is often far from accurate, misleading and, in the worst cases, intentionally false.

As a result of Washington's constant insistence, one of the "must" stories for foreign journalists reporting on Cuba is "human rights." They are not referring to the basic, elementary rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education, jobs and culture -- the so-called "social and economic rights" embodied in articles 22 through 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the outstanding features of the Cuban Revolution is its efforts to guarantee these rights, in large measure successfully up until the demise of its Eastern European trading partnerships. In fact, even today Cubans are the envy of most of the developing world -- and considerable pockets of the industrialized world -- for the extent to which they still enjoy the benefit of a government that considers food, education and health care to be essential human rights.

Human Rights in Cuba

But most of the U.S. media and its imitators in other countries are not thinking about these social and economic rights when discussing "human rights." They exclude these, and focus instead upon the individual civil and political liberties (and these as strictly delineated by U.S. definitions).

Rights are not absolute in any society. In the United States there are classic Supreme Court decisions and statements by jurists to remind us of this. "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose," and "Freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell 'fire!' in a crowded theatre," are two of the more famous expressions of such accepted limits. Several times in the last two decades, the Supreme Court ruled that the health rights of a child must supercede the religious beliefs of its parents. In other words, most agree that society has the right to place limitations upon individual rights when these come into conflict with the rights of others or the rights of society as a whole.

All governments place such limitations -- the difference is primarily which values each considers most important to protect.

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