Fabiola Santiago

Tragic Cuba plane crash shows that new Cuban government can't afford to cover up news

Video shows large explosion after Cuban plane crashed in Havana

A new video released on social media shows a large explosion after a plane came crashing down in Havana, Cuba on Friday, May 18, 2018.
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A new video released on social media shows a large explosion after a plane came crashing down in Havana, Cuba on Friday, May 18, 2018.

It's not exactly business as usual in Cuba anymore.

The Cubana de Aviación plane crash, a major breaking news event, debuted a new generation expertly using technology.

The flight from Havana to Holguín crashed shortly after takeoff at 12:08 p.m. on empty farmland on Friday, May 18.

Thirty three minutes later, the official Cuban television network tweeted the tragic news to the world with scant information. But by then, photos and videos of the plume of smoke and ball of fire, taken by neighbors racing to the scene, were already circulating on the Internet and were in the hands of the island’s independent journalists and international media outlets.

We, on this side of the Florida Straits, could hear and see the horror as Cubans were experiencing it.

The scenario was horrific, heart-wrenching and surreal.

Throughout the day, Cubans with limited access to social media like Facebook would learn from independent news sources inside and outside Cuba that the Boeing 737-200 had been leased by their government from the troubled Mexican charter company Global Air.

In March, Cubans had learned from a report in 14ymedio, the online publication led by blogger Yoani Sánchez, that Cubana de Aviación, the national carrier, was canceling flights, a story picked up by outside media, too.

The Cuban government had grounded the aging fleet because of safety issues —and now this.

Cubans would now know too that all those 112 souls who lost their lives had innocently boarded a 39-year-old airplane. One survivor remains in the hospital.

Their government wouldn’t tell Cubans most of that, but they found out anyway — and promptly showed up at the Cubana de Aviación office to demand refunds for upcoming travel.

“I don’t want to go on a plane,” a young man told WPLG Channel 10 reporter Hatzel Vela, who is stationed in Havana. “Officially, they don’t say if the planes are fit to fly, but we know because of Internet the planes are not in good condition.”

It’s mind-blowing for people accustomed to living with the latest electronic gadgets and speedy connectivity — the world at your fingertips — to think that Cubans accessing information detrimental to their lives is a big deal.

But on an island where information has been tightly controlled for the last six decades, it’s a major development.

You can say that Cuba finally enters the latter part of the 20th century — although it has quite a long way to go to join us in the 21st.

In fact, it was fascinating to watch the Cuban news media — especially the official Granma and Cubadebate.com, accustomed to the dogmatic packaging of news through the lens of political convenience — struggle to cover major breaking news in modern times.

They wrongly reported at first that the plane was bound for Guyana as well as the number of passengers and crew on board, which kept changing throughout the day.

One interesting occurrence: Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, visited the crash scene immediately, as any governor would rush to the scene of a disaster, and he gave interviews about what he saw.

He delivered the news that “a high number” of casualties was likely.

On Cuban television, while Díaz-Canel spoke, on the lower right corner of the screen an interpreter delivered his words in sign language to the deaf, as is done in the United States in preparations for and during disaster recovery.

In contrast, the older journalist announcing developments to the nation on CubaTV would deliver every bit of news in a hard-to-decipher mangle of bureaucratic speak, and end every segment with a version of “signed by the Ministry of Health” or “signed by the Ministry of the Interior.”

Whew.

On the other hand, Cuba’s two highest aviation officials gave interviews to accredited media, explaining that Cubana had been leasing the plane for less than a month without complaints and that, under the agreement, Global Air was responsible for aircraft maintenance. They wouldn’t comment further, and the information they provided does favor the government even though it does not absolve it of responsibility. But for tight-lipped Cuba, that level of response to media is new — and welcomed.

As for Raúl Castro, still head of the Communist Party, he was nursing a hernia operation and sent his condolences.

The tragic plane crash is putting the government of Díaz-Canel to the test.

And one thing has become evident: The Cuban government can no longer afford to cover up news when there’s a growing army of citizens equipped with cellphones and computers.

They have a right to know. Propaganda doesn't cut it anymore, not even in Cuba.

Follow me on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago

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