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Digging for Farm Press Freedom in Cuba

Weed control on a Cuban organic farm

By Owen Roberts, University of Guelph
Courtesy of the AAEA newsletter

When it comes to freedom of the press in Cuba, another revolution looks like it’s getting underway, one involving e-communication.

I felt fortunate to be selected to take part in the AAEA press trip to Cuba. From my perch as an AAEA member and as president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ, a global organization that includes AAEA, and cites support for freedom of the press as one of its tenets), the Cuba trip was a great opportunity for a first-hand look at how — and if — information was moving in the country.

Specifically, I wondered if press restrictions there against Cuban journalists were being affected positively by liberalized trade talks between Cuba and the USA, perhaps signaling the end of what Cubans call the US trade blockade.

Democratic societies and free-press organizations roundly agree that Cubans do not have freedom of the press. No independent newspapers have operated since Fidel Castro took control of the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Cuba 171st out of 180 countries for press freedom. It doesn’t get much worse.

But it’s an enigma. Foreign news services (AP, Washington Post, etc.) can run bureaus there and report at will. They believe their communications are monitored, but they’re not censored.

And here’s a really strange fact – the Cuban constitution actually guarantees freedom of the press. The key is that freedom can only be exercised in accordance with the aims of socialist society and state. So whether or not that’s truly free is highly debatable.

However – and this is pivotal — the constitution doesn’t reference e-communications.

Weed control on a Cuban organic farm

So, some urban Cuban journalists have taken advantage of that loophole by setting up free news websites in Spanish. After all, in the strictest sense, e-communications is not churned out by a press, per se, but who knows how long this end-around will last.

I was fortunate to meet with an American reporter living in Cuba, who works for one of the major news wires. I was told a dozen or so e-news sites have sprung up in Havana. They are still very much underground, but they have not been shut down by the government. Will they open the door for a truly free press, similar to how a few chinks out of the Berlin wall grew and grew until freedom there was realized?

In rural Cuba, the picture is less clear. No free farm press exists, either. And on the e-side, Cuba does not have fibre optic cable, and the Internet is unpredictable, even in a huge city such as Havana. So it seems like a stretch to think e-communication is taking place with poor rural Cuban farmers, who would be hard-pressed anyway to be able to afford Internet.

That begs the question: if farmers aren’t getting information via the Internet, and there’s no free farm press, just how are they getting it?

Our delegation heard of two ways, from other farmers (i.e. neighbors) and from the university…which is, to say, the government. Officials at Havana’s agricultural university, the Universidad Agraria de la Habana, told our group agricultural information is available at regional hubs throughout the country. That includes the university’s technical journal, Ciencoas Technicas Agropecuarias, which seems to be written more for other scientists than for farmers.

Cuban farmers would certainly benefit from greater accessibility to information, let alone technology. Some government and agriculture officials say agriculture, like the press, should remain aligned with the socialistic state. That’s fine, but a free flow of information could still help improve production, regardless of the politics. Based on the state of agriculture we saw there – hand-plowing with cattle, primitive mechanization and intensive manual labour — farmers need help if they’re going to grow and service export markets.

As a result of government contacts made during the AAEA trip, I’ve been invited to request a dialogue with Cuban agricultural officials specifically about agricultural journalism and knowledge mobilization. I’m glad this trip opened that door. Ultimately, I would love to see Cuban agricultural journalists form their own writing guild, join IFAJ and be free to exchange information globally.