Ray Suarez Responds to Critics of Cuba Series

BY Ray Suarez  December 29, 2010 at 4:32 PM EST

suarez.jpgCuba — its past, present and future — sits comfortably in a category, along with abortion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now global climate change, of difficult stories to tell. No matter what the reporter writes, he or she is going to make somebody mad.

In her op-ed critique of my recent series of reports from Cuba, Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes, “it was hard to recognize the country Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing.”

Watch the series:


In reality, it was hard to recognize my series of reports from Ms. O’Grady’s description. While saying my work sounds like a “state propaganda film,” she never mentions the appearance in part three of Dr. Ruber Rodriguez Cruz. One of the doctors exported by the Cubans to work in countries with doctor shortages, Rodriguez said:

“During this time that I had outside of the country, I was able to realize that, for example, in Africa, despite the extreme poverty, they had freedom — same in Guatemala, same in Bolivia, the freedom they had in expressing themselves. And this really opened my eyes to the immense suffering caused by the lack of freedom in Cuba. This was really the main thing that prevented my return to Cuba.”

This doctor, and his statement, seem unlikely candidates for a state propaganda film. Interestingly, Ms. O’Grady also neglected to mention the presence in our series of Dr. Julio Alfonso, who left his home country in the 1990s and now lives and works in Miami. Our report included [this passage from Dr. Alfonso](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/health/july-dec10/cuba_12-21.html):

“When a Cuban patient goes to a hospital, he must rely on the resources available at that moment. Sometimes, a simple urinary infection can’t be treated because they don’t have the right antibiotics or some of the basic medications to treat chronic illnesses.”

In my narration that followed, I described Dr. Alfonso as “frustrated with the limited financial resources given to Cuban doctors.” I described this doctor’s efforts to train Cuban-educated doctors and nurses who have headed to the United States. We showed a room packed with Cuban defectors and closed the sequence with Dr. Alfonso: “Cuba looks abroad to supply the Cuban people. Every Cuban has a family member abroad to send medicines. Plus, there are organizations like ours that send medical supplies.” Again, an odd candidate for any state propaganda film I’ve ever seen.

Ms. O’Grady’s overall description of my recent work would give you no inkling that during the series Carlos Saladrigas, a leader of the Florida-based Cuba Study Group, told the audience of the PBS NewsHour:

“I think the Cuban economy is in a freefall. And unless the reforms that are made are significant enough, deep enough, structural enough, they’re not going to work. We have seen them in the — we saw them in the Soviet Union. We saw them in many other places. When you try to tinker, tinkering doesn’t work.”

The examples of Ms. O’Grady’s myopic outrage are many. One man we interviewed for the series particularly ticked off the Cuban government. Oscar Espinosa Chepe is one of “The 75,” a group of political prisoners hassled and mistreated for years by the Castro government, before the majority was pressured to leave the country. I introduced his section of the story this way:

Oscar Espinosa Chepe was imprisoned by the communist regime. He was only freed when his health declined. He’s experienced the heights and depths of revolutionary Cuba. In a tiny apartment, he shows me his soap allowance for the month, his ration card. As a representative of the Cuban government in Eastern Europe, he watched communism collapse in other countries and lost faith in the system’s future.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE, economist (through translator): “It’s a process. You think. You analyze what’s going on in your country. And then you see the mistakes or the wrongdoings. For example, right now, we live in a moment of complete frustration, and most of the Cuban people are feeling that way. The revolution is going backwards. It’s now taken the country back to a point that is worse than it was before 1959. Our dreams have become a nightmare.”

It would be hard to find any indication in Ms. O’Grady’s op-ed of the presence of this man in the series, still in a tiny Havana apartment after stoutly refusing exile as the price of freedom.

Not every critic of the current order in Cuba we featured in our broadcast is an internationally prominent dissident. Jose Lagar is a barber in Havana. While he discussed proposals for opening the economy to more self-employment and private enterprise, he complained bitterly of the high rents charged for his tiny shop and the bite it takes from his take-home pay, and his desire to buy his shop outright:

“Yes, I’m really hoping that, during the Congress, they will talk about changing this policy, because it’s really abusive. If they keep on raising the rent, I will have to go home. There is no way I can hold on, paying this much money.”

Then I added, in narration: “I asked if he’d say the same if Raul Castro were in his chair. Lagar said he would, and he would charge the president more for the haircut to cover the rising rent.” Again, you would never know from the tone or the text of Ms. O’Grady’s broadside that anything but the most unstinting praise was heaped on the Castro brothers and what their decades of rule have brought to Cuba.

We showed the ancient, sputtering autos. We showed the medical students getting clinical training in rooms with cracked plaster and peeling paint. Again and again we stressed the poverty of Cuba. One aspect of Cuban life we emphasized were the strong results, affirmed by international organizations and research, in many of the key metrics used when assessing the overall health of a country. Cuba has, for a country of its income, very high life expectancy. Cuba has, for a country of its income, low infant mortality. Cuba has, for a country of its income, low rates of infectious disease. On these measures, Ms. O’Grady is silent. As silent as she is about the presence of critics of the Cuban government and system in the series.

To refute one of the central themes of the series of reports, that Cuba manages to achieve broadly based results that compare favorably to those in other developing countries Ms. O’Grady offers … silence. Oh yes, and anecdotes. Her op-ed includes plenty of anecdotes, and quotes from published reports now many years old. For years I’ve been told anecdotes are not data. I can only assume Ms. O’Grady has not gotten that memo.

To round out the examples of excerpts from the nationwide broadcast that Ms. O’Grady appeared not to notice, let me present professor Katrin Hansing of the City University of New York, who was describing the tension and fear inside Cuban society. During the NewsHour report, Hansing, who grew up in Cuba, conceded there is a range of opinion of the quality of the cradle-to-grave resources provided by the Cuban state, and adds:

“But people have had the basics from, you know, education, to work, to health care, to the bare minimum of food, a roof over their head, taken care of. And, yes, the quality of all of this has been going down severely in last 20 years, since the economic crisis. But now, you know, with all of these new announcements of potential unemployment, and that you have to kind of fend for yourself, and, you know, that is scary to people, because, psychologically, this is something completely new.”

It’s an old newsroom truism that if you’re making both sides angry you probably got it about right. I have always found that old saw less than satisfying. What I’ve found over long years of reporting is that people with a strong set of beliefs about a long-standing controversy dismiss all interview subjects and facts they agree with as self-evident. All somebody who has taken a side is looking for is the stuff they don’t agree with. The thinking goes: if people I don’t agree with are included in the reporting, then everything else the reporter writes must be wrong, too.

That kind of intellectual laziness is problem enough from anyone. Coming from a member of an editorial board of one of the best-read newspapers in the country, it’s horrifying. After reading Ms. O’Grady’s op-ed, would you, the reader, have any inkling that any information contrary to the Cuban government line was ever presented in the series? The transcripts, the video, and other reporting all exist online, and will for years to come. The Cuban government has already informed us that the NewsHour is not welcome in Cuba for any further reporting.

I am sure the Wall Street Journal is capable of much better.