Government-controlled news in Cuba offers disinformation on Venezuela

Anisia Cuesta Ordaz, 46, Irma Ostia La Cruz, 58, (in the middle) and some of her neighbors watch TV as President Barack Obama was received in Havana by Raul Castro on March 21, 2016.
Anisia Cuesta Ordaz, 46, Irma Ostia La Cruz, 58, (in the middle) and some of her neighbors watch TV as President Barack Obama was received in Havana by Raul Castro on March 21, 2016. For The Washington Post

For Cubans, the recent vote for a Constituent Assembly in Venezuela was “an exemplary victory” for President Nicolás Maduro, and the balloting took place “normally and with a great turnout.”

Street protests against Maduro are “acts of violence” organized by the U.S. government, and the protesters are not Venezuelans but “terrorists backed by right-wing elements.”

Those “alternative facts” are what Cubans get every day from their government-controlled mass media, which generate disinformation through a mix of censorship, propaganda and limited access to the internet.

Cubanet, an independent news outlet based in Miami, asked several Cubans on the island what they knew about the crisis in Venezuela after the mass protests started in May. Not surprisingly, they knew little.

“In an information world almost totally controlled by the government, people have access to news reports manipulated and biased according to the political priorities of the state,” said Freedom House analyst Jessica White, whose organization monitors freedom of the press around the world.

“We have certainly seen this in Cuba, especially when you look at the favorable coverage of countries like Venezuela,” she added. “The censorship of sensitive issues and the lack of diverse content eventually affects the capacity of citizens to inform themselves in a full and balanced manner.”

What Cubans do receive through the official media are reports that support the Maduro version of events in Venezuela, as well as those that involve conspiracies about the role of the United States in the South American country’s crisis.

Some of the reports could even be categorized as fake news. Several reports in Cubadebate, a state-run online news page, have mentioned an alleged plan by the Pentagon’s Miami-based Southern Command to topple Maduro. A document titled U.S. Southcom Operation “Venezuela Freedom,” American Strategy to Overthrow the Maduro Government has been posted on several web pages. Southcom has denied any link to the document, but that has not stopped its continued circulation.

Cubadebate is known for posting all kinds of conspiracy theories, from an allegation that the United States infected former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with cancer to reports that an Ebola outbreak originated with biological warfare center in Fort Detrick in Maryland. It also regularly publishes false news reports that cast a negative light on the United States — like the Manhattan couple that committed suicide because they could not pay for their medical needs.

Although not all Cuban government news outlets publish fake news, many of them omit information viewed as “sensitive” and stick to the official line.

Granma, official voice of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba, has not mentioned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in the past month, even though during that time he was released from prison, put under house arrest, returned to prison and then sent back again to house arrest.

Granma mentioned Lopez or Henrique Capriles, another top opposition leader, 75 times since January 2014 — the date limit for searches of its digital site. Maduro, in contrast, was mentioned 939 times.