Criticize and Punish: The Academia, the Democracy Funds and the Non-State Media

When I left Cuba with my three-year-old daughter on January 6, 2006, the Cuban government took away our home, an apartment in an upper-middle-class Havana neighborhood that my family had built in 1958. It also deprived us of the right to inherit my mother’s apartment and my grandparents’ house, both in El Vedado, and the house and land my family owns in Guanabo, a beach town east of Havana. We also lost the right to study on the island’s educational institutions, to elect its politicians, to open a business.

Since then, the government of the country where I was born has forced me to pay $800 every six years for a passport that I must present every time I travel to the island to visit my mother. It also requires me to pay in dollars for all the services I would need or want to receive there, from medical care to entrance to museums and artistic shows. It has even managed to make many people believe that those of us who no longer live in Cuba should not have an opinion on domestic matters. Or so I have been told on social networks.

My personal story is that of many Cubans who have left their country in recent decades. I tell it here not because of its particularities, but to illustrate the lack of capital with which many intellectual and cultural projects related to the island have to be forged, even those conceived and carried out outside Cuba’s national borders. Those projects lack not only a natural market, that is Cuban clients or buyers, but also national sponsors.

Unlike the “educated” immigrants from almost any other country, we Cubans emigrate without a penny to undertake almost any project demanding funds, and we cannot count on economic aid from our country of origin. My friend and fellow doctoral student, the Iranian daughter of a famous dissident and political refugee, partially paid her American graduate education with her family’s savings and investments in Iran. Likewise, when she needed to renew her passport for a graduation procedure, she received it, after paying about $100, the same day she went to the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., and had she not needed it with urgency, she would not have had to pay given her status as a student. I, on the other hand, had to resort to student loans to finance my education. I used them to pay the expenses of updating or renewing my Cuban passport every time I traveled to Cuba.

These days, the legitimacy of the funds the Cuban non-state media receives is being debated following its criminalization by the government of the island and its propaganda apparatus. Many projects, of very diverse quality, receive funds from private foundations backed by the US Congress, in particular from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This have been questioned from various sectors, including in some informal academic debates on social networks and in opinion articles.

Some people argue that any money granted by the NED would always come with strings attached that would subject those who receive it to the political agenda of the US government. This would be something difficult to pull off, as those funds are managed by a Congress whose majority passes from Democrats to Republicans sometimes within a period of two years, and in which coalitions and alliances are formed by people who fall in very different positions along the political and ideological spectrum. Funds, moreover, which through the NED have financed not only programs aimed at promoting regime change in Cuba, but also initiatives for rapprochement and exchange with the Cuban people and different actors in its civil society and in the cultural and intellectual spheres; these include the Cuba Program at the Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Colombia, a 2019 grantee, and research projects, such as the Center for Ibero-American Constitutional Studies, based in Mexico, which was a beneficiary the previous year. Finally, funds that, after the Resolution that came into force this January 1, which mandates that Cuban residents living abroad have to pay a four percent tax on their overseas income, would also go to the coffers of the Cuban government.

The objection to the funds received by the non-state media also overlooks the efforts of the Cuban-American lobby, and overall the Cuban-American constituency —the third largest Hispanic minority in the United States— that for six decades, like any other immigrant groups, have tried to influence the foreign policy of their adoptive country in relation to their country of origin. In other words, the criticism based on the alleged subordination of the non-state media’s agenda to the interests of the US government by virtue of the money they receive from it dismisses the agency of the Cuban diaspora, whose historical demands have also included initiatives ranging —like in the case of the funds allocated by the US Congress— from regime change in Cuba to the democratization of its political sphere and the articulation of a diverse and plural civil society. There would be no instrumentalization where interests converge. Or in any case, it would be mutual.

A review of the content published by these Cuban non-state media confirms their editorial and political independence from both the Cuban and the US governments. El Estornudo, for example, publish authors of very diverse tendencies and ideologies. Its columnists include Marxists such as the critic Iván de la Nuez, and liberals such as the historian Rafael Rojas. Its commentators are even more diverse, with authors with a flair for provocation, such as Néstor Díaz de Villegas, and choteo, such as Javier Marimón, as well as university professors such as Gerardo Muñoz and Juan Orlando Pérez. All of them are proponents of visions alternative to those of the Cuban regime. This outlet has furthermore condemned the US embargo on Cuba, criticized the Donald Trump administration and celebrated the way in which the Cuban government handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other criticisms directed against the non-state media point to the fact that the money dedicated to financing Cuban projects could somehow affect the budgets of entities such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I am not familiar with the internal dynamics that govern the allocation of the federal budget in the United States, but I don’t think they contemplate the diversion of funds from one sector to another. On the other hand, the Cuban projects would not be on an equal footing to compete with others supported by institutions —some as powerful as universities— much better prepared to apply for scholarships or to hire grant-writing agencies familiar with the language and style of the funding programs, and with access to their feedback. In 1998, I learned the hard way how ignorant of such formalities we Cubans could be when I applied for a British government scholarship to study in a doctorate program in the UK and, being finalist, I was interviewed at the British embassy in Havana. Even university graduates. Even, as I have learned since I left Cuba, those of us who live abroad.

The funds that American organizations allocate to support autonomous initiatives seeking to democratize societies —through the circulation of news, debate and independent intellectual production— like Cuba’s, constrained by undemocratic state media monopolies that distort, manipulate, and even suppress much of the information that circulates in and about the country, thus affecting academic production as well, are legitimate. They are as legitimate and beneficial as the funds the United States allocate to finance other academic and cultural programs, which also include, albeit perhaps in a less overt manner, political agendas. At least, as long as the terms and scope of the funds —starting with the criteria that justify them, including the very definition of democracy— are subject to debate, consensus and scrutiny.

Unlike other countries including the United States —all with governments that, by very diverse means, also influence the information that their citizens handle— in Cuba there are no private foundations or a business sector with the economic capital to finance an independent press that could offer different perspectives. Nor is there an organized civil society with the political capital to propose reforms leading to this. Instead, the Cuban government does have an extensive propaganda apparatus and censorship mechanisms, which include certifying who is or is not an artist, and pursuing and punishing those who propose any alternative that could destabilize the status quo. Therefore, in spite of the deficiencies that could be pointed out to the non-state media and their US funding programs —which project is exempt of them?— the proposed cancellation of the current funding mechanism although based on the idea of democracy use in the academia, would bring about the suppression of its exercise.

It has happened before, when forums and spaces have been closed for Cuba-related projects financed with NED funds, while others, sponsored by the Cuban government, find open doors. I am not arguing against the latter, but in favor of equal tolerance for all.

With its virtues and flaws, the Cuban non-state press is fundamental for the Cuba of today and tomorrow, including for its academic production. Not only has this media been a source of news that does not receive coverage in the state press, and opinions that differ from those of the Cuban government— thus contributing to the creation of a more informed and diverse public opinion —but it has also promoted many investigations, served as a platform for researchers and produced material of investigative interest. Many of the ideas circulating in the non-state media found expression in the demonstration of November 27, one of the most democratic events that Cuba has experienced in recent decades, whose subsequent articulation as a movement —the N27— has taken place, to a certain degree, in the independent press as well.

In an ideal world, Cuba’s non-state media would be financed through their own resources, or those of the community it serves, including the payment of subscription fees by their readership and scholarships from private foundations funded with local capital and equal scope. But neither Cubans in Cuba nor those in the diaspora —50 percent of whom, in the case of the latter, arrived in the United States after 2000 and carry the economic burden of supporting their families on the island— have the financial resources to do so. Therefore, until other viable funding alternatives become available, we academics should rethink the target of the criticism we produce from our ivory towers.

María A. Cabrera Arús (Havana, 1973). Sociologist. Studies and writes about the political meanings of fashion and material culture, and teaches at New York University. Author of the archive and collection Cuba Material.


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