Since Raul Castro took control of power in Cuba as a result of his brother Fidel Castro’s health issues in 2006, things have undeniably changed. The island nation that has long been famous as a very strict socialist society with restricted liberty is slowly starting to open up in some aspects. The major change has touched upon the softened relations with the neighboring U.S, who has been the definite enemy of state ever since the Cuban revolution in 1959. Additionally, laws on private enterprises have loosened up and it is now easier for regular Cubans to open their own businesses. However, what has not really been taken into consideration is the freedom of media. This key ingredient for an open and democratic society still has a long way to go.

Last month, Barack Obama announced that the U.S will remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors to terrorism. In April, President Obama and Raul Castro had the first sit-down talks between the nations’ leaders since 1956, and soon U.S and Cuban negotiators will meet to discuss the possibility of re- opening embassies in each other’s capitals. It is almost like a fairytale: two stubborn enemies are now approaching each other in a beautiful act of reconciliation. It has also been easier for Cubans to apply for a visa to travel abroad and has become easier for foreigners to go to Cuba. Most people, including Cubans themselves, welcome this. The increased economic freedom is also shown in the growing numbers of privately owned businesses such as guest houses, restaurants and taxi services.

This is obviously a welcome development by most people, but these are mostly economic reforms to strengthen a relatively damaged Cuban economy. For people to enjoy liberty, it is imperative that there is a functioning media landscape with press freedom. In this respect Cuba is still living in the spirit of the revolution, illustrated in the government slogan “journalists are the weapon of the revolution.” All Cuban national newspapers, television channels and radio stations continue to be controlled by the Revolution Orientation Department 56 years after Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara led the revolt against former President and dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Barack Obama and Raul Castro (to the left of the U.S president) during the Inauguration of the seventh summit of the Americas in Panama 2015. Picture: PresidenciaRD, Flickr
Barack Obama and Raul Castro (to the left of the U.S president) during the Inauguration of the seventh summit of the Americas in Panama 2015. Picture: PresidenciaRD, Flickr

Cuban journalists in exile often explain how national media constantly reflects government policies and supports the communist party’s opinion, thereby impeding the views of citizens. A common example of how biased Cuban media reports international news is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Cuban media only reports on attacks by Israel and never the other way around. Protracted prison sentences are at stake for journalists who publish material that does not “conform to the aims of a socialist society”. If publications are considered as acts that “destroy Cuba’s political and economic and social system”, the people behind them can risk up to 20 years in prison. These factors are manifested in Cuba’s press freedom score of 90, as determined by American NGO “Freedom House”, where 1 is absolutely free and a 100 is absolutely not free.

Another major issue in Cuba today is the lack of internet access. With a population of over 11 million, there are still only 5,300 broadband internet accounts in the country. So even though there is a considerable number of Cuban bloggers who do express their opinions freely, there are relatively few Cubans who are able to follow and read them, particularly since an hour of internet at a café often equals a weekly wage for many Cubans. The majority of people who do access the internet are only reaching a limited version where only certain websites can be seen – mainly government pages. Unrestricted internet can only be accessed illegally, for example by buying black market memory sticks to download uncensored news, information, shows, film and so forth.

Sunset on the Cuban capital city of Havana. Picture: Howard Ignatius, Flickr
Sunset on the Cuban capital city of Havana. Picture: Howard Ignatius, Flickr

Cuba is definitely changing and is showing signs of gradually opening up the economy, which has long been closed for the world, to the global market. If, for example, the Cuban real estate market opened up for foreign investors, prices would be expected to explode since the closed market has kept the prices relatively low. However, the regime is far from letting go of Cuba and its people. The freedom to write and express opinions without risking severe punishment is essential for a modern society. As long as media is as strictly controlled as it is now, foreign investors might want to think twice before exploring the Cuban market in the future. The economy is certainly important, but some things are more important. The right to be able to access information and news, movies and music, and the ability to email and communicate with anyone you like, is a basic human right. A free media and the liberty to express yourself openly are always of greater importance.

Alexander Edberg Thorén