Last month Cuban baseball stars and brothers Lourdes and Yulieski Gourriel left the national team in the Dominican Republic in order to pursue careers in Major League Baseball. It was reported widely from the official Communist Party newspaper Granma to regional and national news outlets. The coverage certainly represents a change from some years ago, when the issue would have been considered taboo, but was unremarkable considering the progression of Cuban society and media since then. But for New York Times editorial writer Ernesto Londono the incident represented a dramatic emergence of free expression in Cuba, which, he argues, has been brought about only by the Obama administration's change in policy toward the island.
The move by the Gourriel brothers was not a surprise inside or outside of Cuba. Rumors that Yulieski's days were numbered with the national team were reported as early as June 2015 on Cuban blogs and shared on social media by Cubans.
While the Cuban government allows its players to compete in foreign sports leagues, the U.S. government does not permit Cubans to obtain visas due to the embargo. Consequently, Cubans seeking to play in MLB must establish residency in a third country and declare they do not intend to return to Cuba.
Londono's political bias is most salient when he calls Cuba "the most repressive country in the hemisphere." Similar right-wing propaganda has been used for decades against the progressive government for challenging U.S. political and economic control by "the threat of a good example."
Since the late 1950s, the U.S. government has sponsored client states throughout the hemisphere ruled by military dictatorships that eliminated political opposition, clergy, students and peasants with death squads whose bloody campaigns reached genocidal levels in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador.
In Cuba, on the other hand, political disappearances and killings are unheard of since the Revolution assumed power in 1959. Nor is there even one single refugee from violence.
In his opinion piece "Pushing the Boundaries of Free Speech in Cuba," Londono cites Cuban journalists lamenting the state of their country's baseball league in the wake of the Gourriel brothers incident, and questioning whether Cuban youths are apolitical, as evidence of a trend driven by U.S. policy:
"American critics of the Obama administration's rapprochement with Cuba have called the shift in policy a failure by focusing on how rigid the socialist government has remained. They're missing something important: The new relationship has done much to diminish the culture of fear and obedience the state has long used to control its citizens. For years, those who criticized the government paid a high price and were branded as traitors, but today Cubans from a broader cross-section of society are speaking out with less fear."This statement contains several spurious claims. First, that the Cuban government has remained "rigid." Under President Raul Castro, the Communist Party Congress decided to reform its economic model. Since millions of Cuban participated in nationwide debates in 2007, the government has deliberately implemented consensus reforms that emerged from this process. In 2012, Castro expressed a desire to adapt to present challenges "without haste."
Second, the claim Cuba has a "culture of fear and obedience" is clearly ideologically driven. Londono doesn't provide any examples to substantiate this allegation. It is taken for granted this is how Communist governments behave. Violence has never been a tool of population control by the Cuban Revolution. And it is not clear who allegedly paid a "high price." It would be impossible to name even a single person who paid the ultimate price of his life.
Lastly, after failing to establish that the political culture he describes ever actually existed, Londono argues that culture has now changed - thanks to the U.S. policy shift under the Obama administration.
Cubans unsurprisingly reject a narrative that puts the United States at the center of the changes in their politico-economic system. Juan Manuel Alvarez, a computer sciences engineer in Havana, disputed the idea that Granma's publication of the Gourriel brothers departure had anything to do with encouraging Cubans to test the limits of free expression.
"For a long time in the country, internal problems have been discussed with much more freedom, and that is not at all related to December 17, 2014 (the bilateral announcement of normalization between the two countries)," Alvarez said in an email. "The whole dynamic that Londono refers to, in which the blogs and regional journalism web sites like the Vanguardia are included, has been driven by the Communist Party itself and its main leaders, because before there definitely existed a strong control over all that."