Despite the economic turbulence around us, we still enjoy a world where our wants and needs are, for the most part, fulfilled. We eat at our favorite restaurant, buy pricey shoes, cosmetics, the occasional lap-top computer, and perhaps even a car. In our relentless effort to have it our own way, we impose our consumerist point of view even on our choice of a news outlet. Thus, liberals watch CNN and MSNBC; while conservatives patronize FOX and Talk Radio. Similar polarization of news consumption is in evidence in the two best known national newspapers: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Within this framework of news as another consumer product, the unprecedented hunger strikes of several Afro-Cuban dissidents have gone largely unnoticed by the American media. Why? Perhaps because FOX is on the look-out for developing news about Cuban protesters (likely to be middle class and white) who challenge the ideological system to press for political reforms, or who undertake heroic efforts in order to flee the captive island; while The New York Times is eager to denounce how the US embargo is only effective for inflicting hardships on the poor people of Cuba (predominantly black). In this environment, the story of a poor Afro-Cuban who starves himself to death in order to bring shame and outside scrutiny to the Cuban regime does not make for a good fit with the established news packaging norms.
On February 23, 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 83-day hunger strike. His death was widely reported from the grassroots blogosphere all the way to the triple canopied Western media (print, radio, television); nevertheless, the media’s coverage either lacked the sharp focus offered by bloggers, or actually bypassed the unfolding tragedy, as evidenced by Matt Frei’s story on “Cuban Wheels: Impact of the US Trade Embargo.” In this BBC report, the viewer sees Frei fulfilling his life-long wish of driving a 1951 Buick convertible down the Havana Malecón Boulevard, while he considers the implications of such a relic in the context of globalism. At the end of his narrative, the Zapata Tamayo story is referenced indirectly by a link at the bottom of the page: “READ MORE: Cuban prison hunger striker dies.”
More typical of the media’s coverage of this tragedy was a Marc Lacey’s New York Times report that included a historical summary of hunger strikes by Cuban dissidents, including those who are currently engaged in such desperate political action; yet, Lacey fails to point out what is most significant about the current strikers: their racial identities. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Guillermo Fariñas, and Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antúnez) are Afro-Cubans, long considered as the most loyal group of supporters of the Cuban Revolution. As Amelia Rosenberg Weinreb points out in her recent study, Cuba in the Shadow of Change, the Afro-Cubans are bearing disproportionately the brunt of Cuba’s economic disaster, without the benefit of family-abroad remittances that non-Afro-Cubans enjoy (107). If the allegiance of this large segment of the total population is in question, then the regime’s ultimate fate may indeed hang in the balance. Stay tuned, but I have a suggestion. Even if we still are likely to seek those outlets that “think like we do,” don’t just settle for what you would like to hear, broaden the scope of your news sources. Blogs offer a more democratic, informative alternative.
Note: My gratitude to my friend Rolando Pulido for lending me his art work.
Weinreb, Amelia Rosenberg. Cuba in the Shadow of Change: Daily Life in the Twilight of the Revolution. U P Florida: Gainesville, Florida, 2009.