Recently I received an email from Peter Phillips, the president of the Media Freedom Foundation, also known as Project Censored. With Mickey Huff, Director of Project Censored, he co-edited Censored 2012, their annual account of news stories that received little or no coverage in the previous year. Phillips titled his email "Cuba Sets a Global Example for the Achievements of Socialism." His article with the same title is the current lead item at the Project Censored website.
It's a curious antique, redolent of leftist writing in the U.S. 40 years ago, and is perhaps instructive as well. The title is a fine example of that style of "news" writing found even further back in Pravda and Izvestia, known as "socialist realism."
My first reaction was: "a global example of socialism?" Isn't that a euphemism? Isn't Cuba an example of Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, a one-party state, a.k.a. communism? Certainly it's not an example of democratic socialism like, say, Sweden. Indeed, isn't Cuba just about the only remaining example of Marxist socialism, other than perhaps North Korea?
Reading further, it became clear that the story was actually an effusive account of a nine-hour conference held in Havana on February 10, 2012, titled "Intellectual Encounters for Peace and the Preservation of the Environment." Attending were "some 120 authors, professors, and journalists," reported Phillips, rather breathlessly, "from dozens of Caribbean, American and African countries." According to Phillips, Fidel Castro, "(age 85)," addressed the group on a number of topics, ranging from the need to have gold or other assets backing up paper money to the threat to the environment posed by "neo-liberal capitalism." In Phillips's words, "Castro's main message was clear. Cuban socialism is an international example of a humanitarian economy in the world."
Not a single word of criticism of Castro marred the entire essay, which totaled nearly 1,000 words. On the contrary, Phillips's tone was fawning. Note this sentence, for example:
Fidel Castro, reverently referred to as "Commandante" by many of those present, was flanked by the Cuban Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, and the president of the Cuban Book Institute, Zuleika Romay.
Let us pause to imagine what Phillips and Project Censored would say if, during the last administration—or for that matter, our current administration—professors and journalists referred to George W. Bush—or Barack Obama—as "Commandante." Unless the reference were satirical, appearing in The Onion, say, or on The Daily Show, Project Censored would surely be outraged.
About Castro, he is merely obsequious, sycophantic, "honored to participate in the discussions held with the 'Commandante.'" Indeed, Phillips finds only marvelous things to say about Castro:
His energy is inspiring and his command of history and contemporary issues is phenomenal. Castro had serious health issues a few years back, but remains mentally alert. He walked with assistance from his bodyguards, but remained fully participatory in the nine-hour session.
One is reminded of the story put out by propagandists of the Chinese Communist regime in 1966 claiming that Chairman Mao in his seventies had swum nearly ten miles down the Yangtze River in just over an hour. This verges on the much lamented "cult of personality," a characteristic of Marxist socialist societies most recently on exhibit in the funeral of Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, capital of the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
Just as he cannot find anything wrong with Castro, Phillips cannot find a thing wrong in Cuba. He quotes Fidel: "We have over 80,000 doctors." Now, Cuban medical care is indeed a wonder, as is its medical education. What about its journalism, its media? Surely that topic would interest an organization that calls itself "Media Democracy in Action." But no, the article says nothing about censorship in Cuba. Apparently Project Censored is only interested in censorship when it takes place in the U.S. and other capitalist nations.
So was the conference. In Phillips's words:
The lies and propaganda of the corporate/capitalist media were important themes for the day. One participant remarked how the global corporate media seeks to create a monoculture of the mind inside the capitalist countries.
Now, let us not lampoon Project Censored or the other leftists who attended this conference. Rather, I wish to make several more general points.
First, Project Censored, located at Sonoma State University in California, does excellent work critiquing the United States. It is incapable of critiquing "socialist" societies. So were many leftists during the 1960s and '70s. I remember a friend in Mississippi, an innovative worker against its system of racial segregation. He also developed important critiques of various policies of the federal government. But when we discussed East Germany, for example, he defended even its policy of shooting citizens if they tried to flee their "socialist paradise." Phillips verges on this position, noting without criticism that only in the 1990s, "Cuba opened it doors to those who wanted to leave."
Phillips goes on to minimize the exodus from Cuba: "Some 30,000 people choose [sic] to move to the United States. Yet, ten million people choose to stay and build the independent socialist country that Cuba is today." Actually, the Pew Trust notes that more than 250,000 people who left Cuba after 1990 live in Florida alone. Across the U.S., about 1 million people claim to have been born in Cuba. I have no idea where Phillips got his number, but the actual outflow was at least thirty times larger. So Phillips engages in censorship or distortion of bad news about a "socialist" country.
Second, Project Censored and other writers of the same political persuasion seem oblivious to what their fate would be, were they Cuban. Not for a moment would Castro's "socialist" government permit anything like Project Censored. Phillips would last about a week in Cuba, once he started to point out its unreported or underreported stories. Like Lenin and Stalin before him, Castro has openly stated that Cuban education, media, and cultural activities sought to create a new socialist man, "a monoculture of the mind." To his credit, Phillips would not fit in.
Third, it is surprising that a project that focuses on censorship and the First Amendment in the U.S. does not even notice the complete absence of First Amendment rights in another country. Indeed, it's so surprising that it calls into question the objectivity of the project's work in this country. Commentators of various political persuasions have already questioned that objectivity. Phillips is aware of the controversy. Interviewed by KC Active late in 2009, he responded to "long-time critics who claim that Project Censored is a left-leaning organization. Nothing could be further from the truth." Then he shoots himself in the foot with his own email from Havana.
About Cuba: its government is indeed a dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a dictatorship, and it is of the proletariat. It has the health care, educational system, and some other benefits that go with the latter, and it is repressive like the former. To recognize the one without the other is bad scholarship, plain and simple, “BS” for short. Of course, "Cuba Sets a Global Example for the Achievements of Socialism" is not really scholarship at all, or even reportage. It's advocacy, plain and simple. It does not try to be accurate.
Even the notion that setting up a country so the same person can remain in charge for 49 years—and then be succeeded by his younger brother—might be problematic never occurred to Phillips. One wonders what Phillips thinks of Robert Mugabe, who passed his 88th birthday a few days ago and is in even better shape than Castro. Mugabe's Zimbabwe also claims a Maoist heritage and, like Cuba, initially emphasized health and education. Probably, like many leftists, he would say that Mugabe strayed from true socialist principles. Surely Mugabe did. The point, however, is that when the leader of a Marxist socialist state strays, its people have little recourse. That's the key problem with these states, and it is structural, sociological, not psychological. That problem is the most important single fact about Cuba. Peter Phillips is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State, but he missed it.