USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
A Cuban refugee journalist in the United States has submitted to us an analysis of Voice of America (VOA) coverage of the Cuban protests. The author prefers to remain anonymous because of professional ties to broadcasting organizations in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), one of which is VOA.
Periodista cubana analyses Voice of America VOA News English and VOA Spanish Service initial reporting on protests in Cuba and concludes that sloppy work by Voice of America helped to boost Cuban communist regime’s propaganda and disinformation.
“With a few exceptions, coverage was sloppy, careless, unimaginative, not well thought out,” the Cuban-American journalist wrote. She pointed out that “Notoriously absent from most initial VOA News reports were statements by Cuban-Americans as well as conservative U.S. government leaders.”
She and other critics also noted that an initial VOA News English report on the latest protests in Cuba gave prominence to “the Cuban government’s viewpoints” and accusations against Cuban-Americans, which the Voice of America report left unchallenged. The VOA report called the latest protests “rare” making it appear that Cubans rarely protest against the regime. That is not true. Each time a Cuban risks his or her life to escape Cuba, he or she is making a protest. The scale of the latest protests was, however, unprecedented in recent years.
The last word in the initial VOA News report, already dominated by the Cuban regime propaganda and disinformation, went to a Cuban communist official attacking the United States. As noted by other media experts, Cuban protests were played down on the VOA News English homepage, often appearing as one of the last news items, or at times not at all.
The VOA Spanish Service did much better on Cuba protests coverage than VOA English or VOA foreign language services other than Spanish which rely on central English-language output for their translations, but the Cuban-American journalist noted that “VOA News and VOA Spanish gets mired in finding all sorts of reasons for the demonstrations other than communism and the totalitarian Cuban government, particularly the pandemic, the economic situation and the embargo.” “By dwelling so much on the embargo it appears as if [VOA] is touting the Cuban Communist Party line,” the Cuban-American journalist concluded.
The journalist did not analyze coverage by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s (OCB) Radio and TV Marti, which was much more extensive, but several weeks ago Senator Robert Menendez expressed his concern over the appointment by the Acting USAGM CEO of new Director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Sloppy Voice of America Boosts Communist Propaganda
By Periodista cubana (a Cuban refugee journalist)
In the late morning of Sunday, July 11, 2021, the world awoke to the news of mass demonstrations in Cuba. For those of us born in the island it is a personal matter, so radios, TV sets, computers and mobile phones were immediately turned on. It is a habit that I acquired during my almost 30 years at Radio Martí, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) and later at the Voice of America (VOA). Even in my retirement, that well-honed instinct persists. No matter how many years pass, it still kicks into gear whenever an unprecedented event happens. And this was one of them.
Events such as this can become a minefield for a journalist. This is what we are dealing with here: on the one hand, a government with one of the tightest media controls in the world. And on the other, a group of untrained, ordinary people with phone in hand recording what they see. The results may or may not be accurate, as we well know. My Journalism 101 professor would tell me that they are not to be considered reliable sources. The advent of social media has complicated this process tremendously with some who may be posing as “citizen journalists” posting false, edited or manipulated images, rumors, unsubstantiated reports and disinformation. Waiting until accredited media verifies and issues a story can be a slow process. Expressing viewpoints without the proper balance can lead to sweeping generalizations and/or editorializing. Coverage must be presented in a careful, even manner, because it can lead to violence. History has enough examples of that already.
The station I first accessed was Voice of America. It was a station I grew up listening to in Cuba. The first report I came across was titled “Rare Protests Hit Cuba Amid Economic, Coronavirus Crises.” President Díaz Canel visited the eastern town of San Antonio de los Baños in Ariguanabo Province early Sunday morning with the intention of addressing people’s frustrations about the lack of food, power outages and the raging coronavirus pandemic. Díaz Canel, as it has been customary with the Cuban leadership for the past sixty-two years from Fidel Castro on down, refused to take blame, directing the island’s woes instead towards the “Cuban-American mafia”, former President Trump, and the ever-guilty U.S. embargo. The comments must have seemed offensive to many of those present because soon afterwards they took to the streets, and when the day was over there were protests in about 40 different cities and towns all over the island.
The first word on the title caught my attention: “Rare.” First of all, protests are not rare in Cuba. There have even been some anti-government protests such as the Maleconazo in 1994, where protesters clashed with police and state security goons at Havana’s seafront wall, known as the Malecón. The demonstration was quickly dispersed and not long after there was a Mariel-like exodus where more than 35,000 citizens left for the United States. With the emergence of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) in 2005 protests at a much smaller scale were very frequent, always ending with some participants beaten and arrested.
The latest wave of anti-government protests began three years ago with the emergence of the Movimiento San Isidro, a group of Cuban musicians, writers, actors and academics who began protesting the government’s condition that they had to have approval for some forms of artistic expressions. Mistreatment from the government to members of this group was so harsh that it prompted many in the international community, and even in the country’s mainstream artist community, to express solidarity with them.
So in view of the above, the word “rare” seemed inappropriate to me. Perhaps a better word would have been “unprecedented.” There was one glaring difference between these protests and all the previous ones. They did not seem orchestrated by any group. The speed and spontaneity with which it spread from town to town was not rare to me. It was unprecedented. In 62 years of revolution, it had never happened in such a way. Therefore, the word “rare” was a poor choice to me.
Then there was the structure of the report. It contained several quotes, beginning with Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, referring to the Cuban people’s right to peacefully protest and voice concerns about COVID and medicine shortages. Then it quoted National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who expressed US support for freedom of expression and assembly in Cuba. The report ends with a statement by Carlos Fernández de Cossío, General Director for US Affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX), whereby he accuses the State Dept. of “promoting social and political instability in Cuba”, and that they should “avoid expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on.” Such a strong statement would have warranted a response, but it was not to be. Is this the way a U.S. Government-funded station should cover the news?
This report by VOA News and others that followed, included some reference to the COVID-19 pandemic and the dire economic situation as the primary reasons for the protests. Very few (if any) references to “liberty” and “freedom” were made. No references to Communism or Socialism, as well as Cuba’s dismal record of human rights violations throughout the years. Cuban protests were presented in such a way that seems to suggest that former President Trump and the U.S. embargo are basically responsible for the unrest.
Notoriously absent from most initial VOA News reports were statements by Cuban-Americans as well as conservative U.S. government leaders. On July 13, Senator Marco Rubio gave an impassioned speech laden with background information that could be key in understanding events in Cuba. It was ignored by VOA. In fact, Marco Rubio was largely ignored by VOA in those early days. There are TEN Cuban-Americans currently serving in Congress, three senators (Marco Rubio (R-FL), Robert Menéndez (D-NJ), Ted Cruz (R-TX)), and SEVEN U.S. representatives (Albio Sires (D-NJ), Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), Alex Mooney (R-WV), Anthony González (R-OH), Carlos Giménez (R-FL), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL), Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY)). With the exception of Menéndez and Sires, all are Republicans. And all have been making the rounds on US and international media speaking about the Cuban situation. None have had a significant presence on VOA newscasts except Bob Menéndez, whose announcement that the US will not invade Cuba has been widely covered. Why not conduct a discussion with two members of Congress from different sides of the aisle? That would have been interesting indeed.
Also on July 13, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro tweeted on the protests blasting the “Cuban dictatorial regime” that has not provided its people with the basic necessities. It was a strong statement that was visibly absent from VOA’s line up, in both its English and Spanish-language services.
VOA Spanish provided a bit more coverage of the event, as expected, but upon listening or reading their output one got the feeling that it was leaving out a lot of information.
For instance, on July 13, it issued a series of items on the different reactions in Latin America to events in Cuba. One in particular was “Cubans in Colombia ask for end of Dictatorship in Their Country.” It provided quotes by Cubans residing in that country that demonstrators asked for the end of repression and dictatorship, etc. When the reporter contacted the Cuban embassy for an opposite response, the Cuban Ambassador to Colombia brusquely said he “was not talking to the media. Thank you.” There was one reference to socialism. Another report from Bolivia talked about the “XXI Century Socialism” prevalent in Cuba. There were also many references to the US embargo, taken from VOA English News and wire reports.
Finally, on July 14, a VOA Spanish report with a different angle. “El Senador Marco Rubio exige al president Biden tomar “en serio” la situación en Cuba” (Senator Marco Rubio urges President Biden to “take seriously” the situation in Cuba) by VOA Miami Correspondent Luis Felipe Rojas. The report cites a video tweet by Senator Rubio in which he expresses his desire that this topic be “bipartisan”. According to the Senator, the President took 24 hours to respond.
There were two highlights of VOA Spanish coverage. First, the comments made by Mexican-born Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director for Amnesty International (July 13). Her comments were also translated into English. She summed it up nicely by calling on the Cuban President to “address the social demands of its citizens, given the economic crisis, the shortages of food and medicine, the collapse of the health system–which is not responding to the current COVID 19 crisis–and the accumulation of historical demands for respect of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” Another was the July 13 report by Jorge Agobian with an exclusive, 12-minute interview of State Department spokesperson Emily Mandrala, in which she indicates that “the focus should be on the people of Cuba.” The report was aired both in short form in the news and the entire interview was broadcast on BuenasNoches, América (BNA).
In sum, the bulk of VOA’s output left this analyst with the impression of “what else is new?” With a few exceptions, coverage was sloppy, careless, unimaginative, not well thought out. A lot of crucial information was inexplicably left out and a lot of angles left unexplored. By giving the Cuban government’s viewpoints so much prominence it gave the impression that VOA was promoting this particular view while in reports by other international broadcasters there were participants who actually made references to communism, freedom and democracy. In other words, there was no clear editorial guideline in place at VOA.
What should have been the editorial guideline to follow? Perhaps Ms. Mandrala’s statement gives us a clue: the focus should be on the people of Cuba.
Overall, both the coverage by VOA News and VOA Spanish gets mired in finding all sorts of reasons for the demonstrations other than communism and the totalitarian Cuban government, particularly the pandemic, the economic situation and the embargo. By dwelling so much on the embargo it appears as if it is touting the Cuban Communist Party line.
How about going to the source … the Cuban people? The key is in the slogans. Here’s just a few:
Abajo la Dictadura! (Down with Dictatorship!)
No Tenemos Miedo! (We are not Afraid!)
Queremos Vacunas! (We want Vaccines!)
Se Acabó! (It is Over! – Reference to the song Patria y Vida)
Sí se Puede! (Yes, we can!)
No Somos Mercenarios! (We are not Mercenaries!)
Patria y Vida! (Fatherland and Life!)
Queremos Libertad! (We Want Liberty!)
Somos Más! (There are More of us!)
Elecciones Libres! (Free Elections!)
Abajo Díaz Canel! (Down with Díaz Canel!)
Abajo el Comunismo! (Down with Communism!)
Que se Vayan! (Let them Leave!)
Only one slogan, the one about the vaccines, references the dire health situation with the pandemic. The rest are all about liberty, free elections, down with dictatorship and Communism. And if we look at the images that accompany the sounds of the demonstrations, there are a lot of young people, most with Cuban flags but also some U.S. flags. While the US is now in the midst of a collective discussion about the meaning of its own flag, there are many in the world, particularly in Cuba, who still look to the American Flag as a symbol of freedom and democracy.
From USAGM Watch:
Because, as described by a refugee Cuban journalist and others, the Voice of America is doing a poor job of covering members of Congress speaking out about the protests in Cuba, USAGM Watch is providing a few links. We also provide a link to President Biden’s statement on protests Cuba, which in the initial VOA News English report was summarized in one sentence. The July 12 President Biden’s statement on Cuba was not very long, but it had four sentences.
Ted Cruz (R-TX)
JULY 14, 2021
JULY 12, 2021
Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL):
Diaz-Balart Sends Letter to President Biden Urging Him to Lead the Global Effort to Stand Firmly with the Cuban People
JUL 15, 2021 PRESS RELEASE
Díaz-Balart envía carta al presidente Biden instándolo a liderar el esfuerzo mundial para apoyar firmemente al pueblo cubano
JUL 15, 2021 PRESS RELEASE
JUL 13, 2021 PRESS RELEASE
JUL 13, 2021 PRESS RELEASE
Carlos Giménez (R-FL)
Anthony González (R-OH)
Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY)
(WASHINGTON, DC) – Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis (NY-11), daughter of a Cuban refugee and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today released the below statement following Senator Bernie Sanders’
Malliotakis leads Republican Colleagues in Introducing Resolution Expressing Solidarity with the Cuban People July 13, 2021 Press Release
(WASHINGTON, DC) – Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis (NY-11), daughter of a Cuban refugee and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today led
Cuban American Rep. Nicole Malliotakis to Biden: Push for Human Rights, Freedom in CubaJuly 12, 2021 Press Release
(WASHINGTON, DC) – Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis (NY-11), daughter of a Cuban refugee and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today released the following statement urging President Biden to not revert to President Obama’s failed foreign policy strategy with Cuba and instead push for real
Robert Menéndez (D-NJ)
JULY 13, 2021
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) today joined Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC to discuss the latest on the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and the need for the United States to continue to stand with the Cuban people against the authoritarian regime.CLICK TO WATCH “The regime has to change in order to… READ MORE
JULY 12, 2021
NEWARK, N.J. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the highest-ranking Latino and Cuban-American in Congress, today spoke about the importance of having the United States stand in support of the Cuban people as they take to the streets of the island in an historic wave of… READ MORE
JULY 11, 2021
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today issued the following statement in reaction to a day of massive protests in cities and towns across Cuba calling for the end of the communist dictatorship:“In an historic day of protests, the world is bearing witness as thousands of… READ MORE
Alex Mooney (R-WV)
María Elvira Salazar (R-FL)
June 30, 2021 Press Release
Albio Sires (D-NJ
Congresista Sires Aplaude el Valor del Pueblo Cubano y Ofrece Conferencia de Prensa con Líderes Cubanos
Jul 12, 2021 Press Release
(Washington, D.C.) – En respuesta a las protestas de los cubanos en docenas de ciudades el 11 de julio contra la dictadura de Castro/Díaz-Canel y antes de una conferencia de prensa que se celebrará en West New York con líderes cubanos, el Congresista Albio Sires (D-NJ), Presidente del Subcomité para el Hemisferio Occidental, Seguridad Civil, Migración, y la Política Económica InternaciI
Jul 12, 2021 Press Release
(Washington, D.C.) – In response to Cubans protesting in dozens of cities on July 11th against the Castro/Díaz-Canel dictatorship and in advance of a press conference to be held in West New York with Cuban leaders, Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), Chairman of
Marco Rubio (R-FL)
JUL 15 2021
Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a Senate resolution (S. Res. 303) in support of the courageous Cuban people as they lead historic protests throughout the island against six decades of repression and tyranny from the Castro and Díaz-Canel regime. The resolution highlights the dictatorship’s long record of oppression against pro-democracy leaders, political opponents, and civic movements. Following this weekend’s wave of peaceful protests, the regime has once again arbitrarily detained José Daniel Ferrer, leader of Cuba’s Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of the San Isidro Movement, and 200 Cubans.
Joining Rubio in introducing the resolution are Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rick Scott (R-FL), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Tim Scott (R-SC), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Kennedy (R-LA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Josh Hawley (R-MO), James Lankford (R-OK), John Barrasso (R-WY), Mike Braun (R-IN), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Jim Risch (R-ID), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), and Cindy Hyde Smith (R-MS).
Video/Letter: Rubio Outlines How Biden Administration Can Begin Providing Uncensored Internet to the Cuban People Immediately
JUL 14 2021
Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a follow-up letter to President Joe Biden and released a video message outlining how the Biden Administration can begin expanding uncensored internet access in Cuba immediately, as organic protests against the country’s 62 years of tyranny under the Castro and Díaz-Canel regime continue. In his letter, Rubio also urged the President to direct Secretary of State Antony Blinken to convene a meeting of the permanent council of the Organization of American States and call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
JUL 12 2021
Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke on the Senate floor regarding the historic protests happening in Cuba. Watch his speech here and see … for a lightly edited transcript of his remarks.
Statement by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on Protests in Cuba
JULY 12, 2021
We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime. The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.