Cholera in Cuba
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Chinks in the state’s media monopoly

Winds of change

Chinks in the state's media monopoly

Nov 3rd 2012 | HAVANA | from the print edition

SIX days after Hurricane Sandy passed through, Santiago, Cuba's second

city with a population of 500,000, remained without power. Running water

in Santiago, where a cholera outbreak was reported earlier this year,

was scarce and there was a shortage of food. More than 115,000 houses

were damaged and 15,000 destroyed. Around 30% of Cuba's coffee crop was

reported lost. Thanks to a civil-defence policy that insists on

evacuation, hurricanes rarely cause large-scale loss of life in Cuba.

This time 11 people died—though that contrasted favourably with at least

52 in neighbouring Haiti.

Another difference with the past is that much of the information from

the scene came from independent—and technically illegal—Cuban

journalists. The first reports of serious damage and deaths came from

text messages in the city, long before state-controlled news announced

the loss of life at the end of an evening broadcast, almost 15 hours

after the hurricane struck.

Increasingly, Cubans are able to gain access to such alternative news

sources, albeit indirectly. Since 2008 when Raúl Castro, the president,

allowed Cubans to buy mobile phones, their number has sextupled, to

1.8m. Internet access from mobile phones is still not allowed, but users

can broadcast text messages via Twitter. Internet connections at home

are generally banned, but resourceful Cubans get around this by buying

passwords from those, such as doctors and academics, who are allowed access.

All this means that Yoani Sánchez, Cuba's best-known blogger, has come

to be seen by the authorities as the island's most problematic

dissident. A new law announced last month that will scrap a hated

requirement for exit permits contains a clause allowing the government

to continue to deny permission to travel abroad to anyone who seeks to

undermine Cuba's communist political system. It was widely assumed to

have been drafted with Ms Sánchez in mind.

Another recent reminder of the authorities' difficulty in controlling

information involved the health of Fidel Castro, Cuba's former leader,

who is aged 86 and had not been seen since March. Many outside

commentators were surprised when he did not send a message of

congratulation to Hugo Chávez, his close friend and ally, on his victory

in Venezuela's presidential election on October 7th. Twitter was flooded

with rumours that Fidel was dead or dying.

Someone decided that Fidel had to reappear. News was leaked to the

foreign press in Havana that he had visited the city's grandest hotel,

the Nacional, where he had been seen chatting to staff. The truth was

less impressive. Mr Castro, alive but very frail, was driven to the

hotel in a wheelchair-friendly minibus, along with his wife and the

visiting former vice-president of Venezuela, Elías Jaua. A photograph

was released of the group inside the vehicle, together with the hotel's

manager, who is a senior Communist Party member.

Two days later, an article by the former president was published in

state media, ironically entitled "Fidel Castro is dying". In it, he hit

out at the foreign press for the stories about his health and said he

felt fine, but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future.

He had decided that it was "definitely not my role" to take up media

space that should be devoted to more important tasks. These presumably

include combating the bloggers.

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