Simplifying History: the BBC's Coverage of US and Cuba Relations

Josh Watts, 3 August 2012

Categories: USA | Cuba | BBC News |

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Cuban President Raul Castro 'grabbed the microphone' at a Revolution Day ceremony in eastern Guantánamo, reported the BBC, and 'made a seemingly impromptu address' in which he 'said he is willing to hold talks with the US'. So explained an article which left much unsaid with regards to US-Cuba relations.

In his own words, Castro is willing to talk to the US about 'the problems of democracy, human rights etc. But on equal terms because we are no-one's colony'. In BBC speak: 'Referring to renewed US criticism of Cuba's human rights record, President Castro said he was happy to discuss it, if that of the US was also up for debate'. These points merit elaboration which, unsurprisingly, the BBC does not provide.

For starters; the notion of Cuba as a colony. Prior to the 1959 revolution, the island was, ‘more than any other place in Latin America’ writes one historian, ‘virtually a de facto U.S. colony’ which was ‘made over for [the United States’] own needs and desires’, with US investors owning 90 percent of Cuban utilities, 50 percent of its railroads, and 40 percent of its sugar production, among other areas.1 The United States in fact believed it had a divine right to Cuba, its resources and inhabitants, which was not to be denied even by native islanders. In a study of American art, literature, poetry, etc., and the words of Senators, Congressman and government officials, Louis A Perez, Jr. demonstrates that through the use of metaphor - that is, viewing Cuba as a damsel in distress, a neighbour in need, a child which must be simultaneously protected, educated and disciplined, for example - the United States came to believe that, following its intervention in the Cuban war of liberation against Spain in1898, it had a duty - and furthermore, an undeniable right - to intervene in Cuban affairs and exert control over the island, in the perceived American national interest. Importantly, such metaphors were, in the tradition of empire, self-fulfilling, as Perez Jr. explains: ‘Precisely because the pursuit of national interest was imagined as enactment of moral purpose, the Americans could plausibly demand the world to acquiesce to the purity of their motives’, ‘conclud[ing] that other people had no cause to doubt their intentions or oppose their policies’2 – in this case, intervention in the ‘Spanish-American War’ of 1898, the result of which delayed the liberation of Cuba, with the island transferring from Spanish to American hands.3 Indeed, as Perez Jr. has written elsewhere, the US, through its intervention, ‘had not only rescued and revived the moribund colonial order, it had also assumed responsibility for its protection and preservation’.4

To speak of ‘the problems of democracy, [and] human rights . . . on equal terms’, refers, in this case, to the United States respect for the human rights of its own citizens. ‘President Castro said he was happy to discuss it’, explained the BBC, ‘if that of the US was also up for debate’. Naturally the BBC did not feel it necessary to venture down such an avenue. Let us do so. With regards to repression in the US, the FBI’s COINTELPRO programs throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s – in which political organisations were subjected to numerous methods of subversion, intimidation and murder, in an attempt to disrupt, discredit and destroy the groupings of activists – are an obvious case.5 Turning to the present, however, Bradley Manning springs to mind; with the ‘extraordinarily harsh conditions’ in which he was held at Quantico marine base (in the words of The Guardian) constituting torture.6 It is interesting to observe BBC reports on Manning. In one, entitled ‘Bradley Manning must face “aiding the enemy” charge’, the BBC reported that ‘During pre-trial hearings, [judge] Col Lind also heard arguments about whether or not the leaked material actually harmed US interests - and whether this mattered’, citing ‘Prosecutor Maj Ashden Fein [who] called the reports "completely irrelevant", arguing [that] the government did not have to prove if damages actually occurred, only that Pte Manning knew they could’. The BBC takes the prosecutor’s opinions at face value, whilst not even quoting the defence – who are, for the record, paraphrased in the report. Given the US response to the leaking of the data, whether or not the effects of the leak ‘matter’ to ‘US interests’ is undoubtedly relevant - indeed, in this instance paramount. Regardless, the BBC is satisfied by the prosecutor’s predictable conclusion that such details are ‘completely irrelevant’, and does not pursue the line of inquiry. The report rounds off with mention of ‘a video showing US troops firing on Iraqis from a helicopter’. Further elaboration is required however, as the video – known as ‘Collateral Murder’ - in fact showed the soldiers repeatedly firing on civilians and laughing whilst doing so. Such details are obviously too grisly for readers of BBC news. Completely relevant however, is that Manning ‘lip-synced to Lady Gaga while he downloaded thousands of classified documents from military servers, according to a computer hacker he befriended’ – the opening sentence of a BBC profile on Manning.

Returning to the Cuba report, and in keeping with the urnquestioned reception of quotations, it is reported that ‘the White House called the arrest of a group of dissidents attending the funeral of activist Oswaldo Paya "a stark demonstration of the climate of repression in Cuba"’. To repeat, little is made of accusations of repression in the US. In fact, to take this a step further, brutal repression in friendly states is seen by some as laughable: for example, a report in The Economist on Saudi Arabia speaks of an ‘almost comically restrictive law [which] now threatens fat fines and summary closure of any organ that dares to commit such breaches as ... [included in] a long list of . . . no-no’s’. Such laws - ‘even tougher’ than those which had already led 33 people to lose ‘their heads so far this year [July/August 2011] to the executioner’s righteous sword’ - rendered the kingdom to be in no way ‘a sissy about justice’.7

The report concludes with the citation of First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who said of the ‘US naval base’ (BBC) in Guantánamo Bay: ‘We will continue to fight such a flagrant violation... we will never stop trying to recover that piece of ground’. This is all the BBC has to say on the matter of the US installation in Guantánamo Bay. However, it scarcely acknowledges the true nature and history of the ‘naval base’. It should not need stating that the territory is not simply a naval base, but used for illegal torture, chosen due to it being a ‘legal black hole’, in which victims have little – if any – rights to claim redress or protection by international law.8 This completely relevant fact, unsurprisingly, is ducked by the BBC, as are its implications. As one commentator notes, by ‘impos[ing] a blanket denial of Geneva Convention rights on its Afghan prisoners in Cuba, [the United States ] loses its moral high ground as an advocate for human rights and democracy in the world’.9 Turning to the history of the American installation on Guantánamo, it is not observed that the base is an ‘outstanding example’ of the result of a ‘perpetual treat[y]’, which was ‘imposed upon [Cuba] because of [its] weakness’, following the war of 1898.10 Indeed, it is a ‘vestige of colonialism staring down the throats of the Cuban people’.11

In an accompanying analysis, Sarah Rainsford comments that President Raul Castro ‘was full of defiance against the US and defence of the revolution’. Without stating the utmost obvious, reasons for such defiance are not hard to find. The BBC’s ‘Country Profile’ of Cuba notes – at its inception – that ‘Cuba has survived more than 40 years of US sanctions intended to topple the government of Fidel Castro’. Further down it is explained that ‘Cuba has fallen foul of international bodies’, yet no such negative commentary is made on ‘40 years of sanctions intended to topple the government’, or world-wide condemnation of US practices in Guantánamo Bay. Indeed, the headline of the report, ‘Cuban President Raul Castro ‘willing to talk to US’, portrays the Cubans as the unconscionable, stubborn, aggravators in relations, but the information found in the BBC’s own profile of the island suggests an explanation as to why Cuba may not be overwhelmingly enthusiastic towards the United States.

In its coverage of this event, then, the BBC ignores much relevant history - some of which can in fact be found on its own website. Relations between the United States and Cuba are of far greater complexity than the report suggests, not least because the US has, for the last 40 years - by the BBC’s own admission - attempted to overthrow the government of former-President Fidel Castro. To those seeking an honest interpretation of the potential ‘thaw[ing]’ (BBC Cuba country profile) of relations between Cuba and the United States, the report does an immense disservice.


1. Gabriel Koko, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy 1945-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 139.

2. Louis A. Perez, Jr., Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), p. 7.

3. Perez, Jr. notes that the Cubans have effectively been erased from their own history: reference to the 1898 war as the ‘Spanish-American’ war removes the involvement of Cubans in the war -– what was in fact, their war of liberation against Spain. The US involved itself to gain control over the island, camouflaging its actions in the metaphors described above; notions of benevolence and sacrifice by American soldiers earned the United States – in its own mind - the right to dominate the ‘liberated’ Cubans. Such metaphors persisted further, to the extent that many in the US were furious at the Cubans’ lack of gratitude to the US, which had spent gold and lost American lives, whilst the Cubans were in fact, understandably, frustrated and incensed by the continuing subjugation, albeit by a different foreign power.

4. Louis A. Perez, Jr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 192.

5. See Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, c.1988 (Boston: South End Press, 2002).

6. See, for example: Ed Pilkington, ‘Bradley Manning's treatment was cruel and inhuman, UN torture chief rules’, Guardian, 2012;
Bruce Ackerman and Yochai Benkler, ‘Private Manning’s Humiliation’, The New York Review of Books, 2011;
US: Explain Conditions of Bradley Manning’s Confinement’, Human Rights Watch, 2011;
Nicole Coulson, ‘Torturing Bradley Manning’, Socialist Worker, 2011.
To compare Manning’s treatment to that of the tortured prisoners of the United States’ ‘War on Terror’, see, among others: Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2006); Michael Otterman, American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (London: Pluto Press, 2007); David Rose, Guantánamo: America’s War on Human Rights (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).

7. ‘Nothing liberal yet’, The Economist, July 30-August 5, 2011.

8. See David Rose, Guantánamo: America’s War on Human Rights (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).

9. Amitav Acharya, ‘State-Society Relations: Asian and World Order after September 11’, in (eds.) Ken Booth and Tim Dunne, Worlds in Collusion: Terror and the Future of Global Order (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke and New York. 2002), p. 202.

10. Gordon Connell-Smith, The Inter-American System (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1966), p. 27. Connell-Smith observes that ‘Often, the independence of . . . new states has been qualified by treaties, upon whose “sanctity” the interested great powers have insisted’, whilst ‘international law has been created in the main by the great powers, which alone can in practice enjoy many of the rights in theory possessed by all nations’ (pp. 27, 26).

11. William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions since World War II (London: Zed Books, 2003), p. 185.

Categories in which this article appears: USA | Cuba | BBC News |

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