Did the trend toward press freedom in Cuba die with Castro?

Media from around the world are in Santiago de Cuba this weekend to report on the funeral of Fidel Castro. But some who have previously reported from the communist country say journalists shouldn't assume the death of the former president will mean a loosening of restrictions on the media.

Why reporters can expect to have every word scrutinized as country works to manage its image without Fidel

Carlos Harrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has reported from Cuba several times over the past 30 years. He believes the Cuban government is likely to clamp down on any journalist who suggest its power has been diminished by Fidel Castro's death. (CBC)

Media from around the world are in Santiago de Cuba this weekend to report on the funeral of former Cuban president Fidel Castro. But some who have reported from the communist country in the past say journalists shouldn't assume the death of Castro will mean a loosening of restrictions on the media.

"I would anticipate, at least in the short term, that just the opposite will occur," says Carlos Harrison. 

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The Miami-based reporter has reported from Cuba several times over the past 30 years, including during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the island in 1998, and the 1994 Cuban Raft Exodus, when 35,000 Cubans took advantage of Castro's public pronouncement that "whoever wanted to leave, could go." 

Harrison believes the Cuban government — for now still run by Castro's brother, Raul — is likely to clamp down hard on journalists who suggest its power has been diminished by Castro's death in any way.

"Every bit of reporting [journalists] do now is going to be scrutinized very carefully for any kind of suggestion of weakening on the part of the government."

Cuba's Fidel Castro governed the country for 49 years, the longest of any head of government in the world. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Speaking to CBC's The Investigators, Harrison recounted how he has often reported from the country by entering as a tourist, rather than as a credentialed journalist, which requires approval from the Cuban government. 

That's because his past reporting nearly landed him in a Cuban prison, when the government, at a news conference, accused him of being a CIA spy.

"That's when I ran for the airport, very quickly. Assuming that back then, before the computers were really strong in Cuba, that being a Soviet-style communist bureaucracy, that I could get out before they caught up with me."

Outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have begun a process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Last August, the first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years landed in the country.

Tourists pass by images of Barack Obama and Raul Castro ahead of the U.S. president's historic, three-day visit to Cuba last March. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

In 2010, as a gesture toward Obama's call for greater human rights, Raul Castro began loosening some restrictions on the media. For instance, journalists were now allowed to travel abroad, with permission of the government.

But Harrison believes journalists — both those based in Cuba and those reporting there now, including Canadian journalists — should expect to have every word heavily scrutinized as Cuba works to manage its global image without Fidel.

"Even credentialed journalists, I think, have to be aware that the situation right now is extremely, extremely cautious from the part of the government there.

"Their immediate reaction is to clamp down on anything that might affect them. And that's going to mean journalism."

The Investigators with Diana Swain: Carlos Harrison

6 years ago
Duration 3:49
Miami-based journalist explains why reporting in Cuba will be greatly scrutinized in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death

Also this week on The Investigators, the challenges for Indigenous reporters covering the protest at Standing Rock, N.D., which has ballooned from a largely Indigenous protest to one including multiple voices and viewpoints.


Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.