July 29, 2020
Milena Recio

Cuban Information Flows in the Time of COVID-19

The first half of an unforgettable year is past us. We have experienced simultaneously, in almost every country of the world, the fear of imminent death and physical pain. We were forced to halt to our daily lives, confine ourselves way from the streets, while the global economy induced itself into a coma, posing serious consequences for less developed countries such as Cuba.

Many, when thinking about the presence of the virus in Cuba, foresaw a major disaster. Our precarious material conditions and inability to store products to resist long-term confinement, sizable high-risk groups—people over 60, who represent 20% of the population—and the low availability of ventilators at the ICUs were three of the principal causes for concern. The shortage of financial resources needed to import products during the pandemic, and the limitations to the Cuban economic and commercial activities caused by the blockade/embargo imposed by the United States, completed our Dantean outlook.

Nonetheless, Cuba has achieved—in medical and epidemiological terms—praise-worthy results in the struggle against the pandemic. On June 23rd, there were 2,319 confirmed cases and 85 deaths in total. In less than three months—from March 11th, when the first cases were confirmed—Cuba managed to control the spreading of the disease preventing the sanitary system from collapsing.

The fast-detection strategy (more than 157,000 tests were conducted), extensive tracking of the chains of contagion; the isolation of people with suspected COVID-19, even without having any symptoms, in facilities prepared to comply with this purpose; and the use of an array of preventive and therapeutic medicines—many of them produced in Cuba—were key factors that contributed to the containment of contagion, and above all, to achieving low levels of mortality.

Due to its magnitude, the COVID-19 pandemic imposed an unparalleled state of emergency on Cuba; even though the official authorities as well as the population had a vast experience throughout decades facing natural disasters such as very powerful hurricanes, and epidemic outbreaks such as dengue, zika, cholera, HIV, or the meningococcal meningitis, among others.

Such crises and their management also offer insights into the governing conditions and the civic reserves available in a country.

In  Cuba, responses to extreme situations generally call for an increase in the generation and dissemination of information, and of communication by the official press run by the Communist Party. This arrangement has regularly monopolized rhetoric and interpretation of events, echoing the official voice and sources, and channeling message lines of propagandistic character.

However, the last decade has seen both an increase in the access to digital technologies and to Internet connection in Cuba and a growing media ecosystem within, about, and directed at Cuba. At the end of 2019, there were 7.1 million Internet users in Cuba (63% of the population) and more than 6 million people owned SIM cards. This has represented a gradual democratization of information in Cuban social life. Nonetheless, these processes have not unfolded without causing frictions, disputes, and obstacles.

¨Conversations¨ on Cuban social media have a transnational magnitude and influence deliberative action, the mediatic agenda, the formation of public opinion, and decision-making in Cuba.

During the COVID-19 crisis, independent journalists, YouTubers, and opposition activists denounced interrogations and detentions, and the imposition of fines under Decree-law 370 ¨About the Computerization of the Society in Cuba¨, which in its article No. 68 establishes as an offense the ¨spreading, through public networks of data transmission, of information opposite to the social interest, values, good habits, and the integrity of the people. This wording is quite ambiguous, and can lead to arbitrary interpretations.

The enforcement of such a draconian measure to repress what the authorities consider to be actions opposite to the social interest, also underscores the dearth of regulatory protection over public communication processes in Cuba.

For years, the enactment of a Press, Information, and Communications Law has been expected. This law is supposed to regulate the rights and responsibilities of those involved in these practices, and to protect society from oppressive actions against freedom of speech and media manipulation.

Cuban authorities condemn the existence of programs whose purpose is to advance regime change. These programs, which are sponsored from abroad, provide moral and monetary support to anti-government media initiatives. In light of these accusations, it is of fundamental importance for Cuba to establish laws that clearly define the rules of the game for everyone and eliminate the arbitrariness that plagues the state’s current relationship with independent media outlets.

In the face of COVID-19, the possibility of developing shock-absorbent strategies in Cuba has proven more conspicuous than before ­– not despite of, but rather thanks to the growing participation of diverse communication agents, capable of shaping public opinion and forcing accountability and policy adjustments.

This has likely been the result of not only the efforts of a somewhat unstructured civil society, new alternative communication channels, and social media actors, but also of a more lenient attitude by governmental institutions that has allowed for questioning and guidance. Also, the national press has deployed creative resources in a more professional manner, even though it is still not fully tolerant towards diversity of opinions and is still rooted in a model mainly based on propaganda.

Some possible lessons

As advised by the World Health Organization, the communication of the risks and spread of truthful information, accompanied by early advice and guidance, are crucial in the management of epidemic outbreaks.

The public administration of data about the evolution of the pandemic has been one of the most important and instructive particularities of this process in Cuba.

After the first positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed, rickety official news broadcasts on Television Cubana were suddenly replaced with live speeches via Internet and national TV given by Dr. Francisco Durán—who has become a kind of national hero due to the positive results achieved in the struggle against COVID-19.

During Dr. Durán’s press conferences, he offered data related to the number of tests conducted, hospitalizations, deaths, medical discharges, and superspreader events. He also gave additional explanations about the pandemic and answers to questions from the national media, the accredited foreign press, and users on social media.

Cuban audiences were grateful for the daily update, but soon many recognized a bias in some questions which were selected to avoid delving into thorny issues. The program evolved into a format in which the questions appeared to have been shared with the speaker beforehand, leaving little room for improvisation. Thus, the program ceased to be a press conference, taking on the qualities of a simulated dialogue. It became formal and lost the ability to respond “on the spot” to people’s criticisms and concerns; whom in turn realized that the epidemiologist couldn’t give proper answers to every question, since some refer to problems collateral to those caused by the pandemic, whose solutions were beyond his competence.

Dr. Durán´s charisma helped serve his purpose, since he uses a simple and calm language which conveys a sense of knowledge and security, and also had an impact on the public compliance with the protective measures.

One of the shortcomings in the handling of statistical data by state entities—including the Public Health Ministry and the official press—has been a lack of format versatility and analytic derivations from the raw data.

On the Internet, the services of a project named Postdata, linked to the School of Mathematics and Computer Science of the University of Havana, whose dean took part in the government’s science advisory commission created to address COVID-19, had a lot of merit. Yet despite these connections, the were not able to present data visualizations in the official media; especially on television, inforgraphics would have added complexity to the interpretation of figures.

Besides official statistics on the epidemiological crisis shared by Dr. Durán, other strategic information about how to behave during quarantine was transmitted in a fragmented or scattered way. Such was the case of the Carmelo neighborhood in Havana, which was declared a quarantine zone one night—access points would be closed and safe passage granted to essential workers—yet denied by officials the following day.

Furthermore, clarifications about how specific groups of people—physically disabled people, pregnant women and those who perform as heads of households, the elderly living alone, etc.— should behave during quarantines were not provided in time. Social assistance was provided to all of them, but sometimes inefficiently and poorly communicated. This diminished the positive impact of social assistance on some groups who needed help.

In all the coverage, not a single website was created with all the necessary, organized, and accessible information on the spread of Covid-19 in Cuba. Such would have complimented the long transcripts and summaries of Mesas Redondas published by Cubadebate, through which it is difficult to find desired data due to the diversity of topics covered in each broadcast; as well as the mostly-sterilized updates on the Councils of Ministers which tend to be published on the President’s official website and are reproduced throughout the state media.

For Cuban audiences, who must transfer a significant a portion of their income each month to ETCSA in order to surf the Internet, it would have been more useful to have a one-stop source where they could find information related to the pandemic, including government declarations, institutional reactions, expert opinions, local reports, scientific findings, international updates, etc.

Along with Dr. Durán, other officials like Prime Minister Manuel Marrero, Minister of Public Health, Dr. José Ángel Portal and the Minister of Economy Alejandro Gil gained visibility and sympathy, since they showed resolution and authority, in sharing their own perspectives with the public. The participation of scientists from multiple fields also benefitted the official media coverage.

In the independent media space, we saw an alignment in favor of health care and the postponement of ideological agendas in favor of journalism focused on the severity of the circumstances: in prevention and risk mitigation, dissemination of information on services, and the duties and responsibilities of institutions and specialists confronting of the crisis. In many instances, the discourse was of greater quality, since it leaned towards informative pieces focused on the ¨hard facts ¨ about the situation in Cuba and around the world. This entailed the recovery of professional attributes inherent to journalism, such as the comparison of sources, the attribution of authority to sources, and the placing of data and information in corresponding contexts. This was the case even among some outlets which otherwise focus on generating clickbait, fake news and driving polarization among Cubans.

Investigative journalism proved its usefulness during the pandemic. Various reports contributed to the clarification of developments and the establishment of best practices from a journalistic point of view. Among these was an exposé published in the newspaper Invasor, from Ciego de Ávila, inspired by a local outbreak in the municipality of Florencia. This case was cited by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, who referred to the people involved as ¨irresponsible¨ and called for ¨rigorous¨ action. Invasor indirectly debunked that allegation and explained that the “party” accused of being a superspreader event was just a family lunch with Cubans who live in the United States, which took place several days before the closing of national borders imposed by the government, and the enforcement of stay-at-home and social distancing measures. The local newspaper found the facts and redeemed the dignity of those affected.

Fact-checking and detecting fake news showed their promise among new media initiatives in Cuba, for example in the joint coverage provided by El Toque and Periodismo de Barrio to counter the outbreak of disinformation that coincided with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

On May 21st, ETECSA announced that since March they had seen increases of 46% in voice traffic through cellphones, 92% in the use of mobile data, and 96% in the use of Nauta Hogar (Wi-Fi at home). The amount of information shared among Cuban users through apps such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Twitter and Instagram has skyrocketed during the outbreak.

Even informed audiences became victims of disinformation campaigns. One of the first fake news reports exposed was one related to the description of Cuban Interferon-Alfa2B as a vaccine. This idea spread on social media, and often the carriers of this misinformation were supporters of the Cuban government who, far from helping, were reducing the perception of risk.

There are hints that alongside its burden on people and institutions, the struggle against COVID-19 also may have strengthened bonds of solidarity and co-responsibility, invigorated by a shared feeling that, thanks to the efforts of many, our dangerous battle against the pandemic in the Island has been won.

The lesson is clear: omissions of fact and half-truths create a void which will always be filled, in many cases with other fake or low-quality information, used to manipulate the public and deny them joint responsibility or decision-making capability.

Cubans on social media—the forum where those who live on the Island and those who belong to its diaspora gather to share, shatter or build consensus—¨won¨, by means of the debates and demands, some ¨battles¨ from which some lessons can be drawn. They contributed to decisions to close borders and schools sooner rather than later, and influenced fee reductions by ETECSA, which while minimal, provided a degree of economic relief. They drove public scrutiny and attempts to fix the problems with the state’s new e-commerce system, which sell products in foreign currencies. They demanded the ¨rescue¨ of a press note removed from Granma, which was later included again with some edits, in which Díaz-Canel announced ¨a Social and Economic Development Strategy in which we ratify that we cannot keep doing things the same way¨ and talked about ¨introducing the new sectors involved and actions already established into our economic strategies and development policies¨ based on economic planning documents issued over the past decade.

Interactions on social media were highly relevant, and a type of social action closely monitored by authorities, which create a two-way exchange between the virtual and physical worlds. ¨Conversations¨ on Cuban social media have a transnational magnitude and influence deliberative action, the mediatic agenda, the formation of public opinion, and decision-making in Cuba.

Another accomplishment driven by social media was the retraction of news coverage of alleged offenses that were being simultaneously adjudicated in both Cuban courts and via live television. During the spring, National Television News broadcasted 52 of these offenses, and in many cases the identities and images of alleged offenders were exposed and these were subjected to interrogations and confrontations before TV cameras. Such behavior was rebuked as unethical, even by journalists of the official media, and considered official misconduct that affected due process. Due to intense public criticism, reporters and editors at local news television programs refrained from repeating that same method.

In the long run

Even though the figures allow for positive and optimistic interpretations from the public health perspective, this disease has caused deaths and suffering in Cuban families. The COVID-19 pandemic has represented for Cuba, like for all affected countries, a tragedy.

It will be long before the  sociological and psychological effects of the pandemic can be fully known or explained. There are hints that alongside its burden on people and institutions, the struggle against COVID-19 also may have strengthened bonds of solidarity and co-responsibility, invigorated by a shared feeling that, thanks to the efforts of many, our dangerous battle against the pandemic in the Island has been won.

Considering Cuba’s complex media ecosystem, the management of communication has been far more effective than during past critical events, such as the tornado that hit Havana in January 2019 and its recovery; and the Cubana de Aviación crash in 2018.

There was more transparency and consistency in the provision of data, greater diversity of outlets and opinions, less misleading propaganda, visibility toward local events, and new linkages between civil and political societies, among other aspects. However, there are no heroes, nor should any one person receive special credit. There is a long way to go before we achieve greater journalistic efficiency, societal democratization, rule of law, and the restoration of collective political and moral values which reinforce our identity.

The pandemic has been controlled, but the worst of this crisis is still ahead for Cuba ­– the economic crisis, whose origins are not rooted in the outbreak, but in what preceded it. The COVID-19 crisis has worsened the traumas of an economy which suffers from structural distortions that impose a heavy load upon its citizens.

There will be no magical solutions, but solutions will be needed now more than ever. The way out from the economic quagmire is correlated to the topics discussed above: how a society and its authorities manage and promote dialogue and communication, how they shed centralized planning and authoritarianism in favor of law enforcement, citizenship participation, and consensus building.

Milena Recio is a Cuban journalist and editor who holds a Masters degree in Communications from the University of Havana, and is the author of the book Periodismo Digital: el límite de lo possible (2006). She previously served as an editor for OnCuba and Progreso Semanal.