Havana — Cuba, not the Soviet Union, first introduced the concept (if not the word) of glasnost to the political and journalistic life of socialist nations. That at least is the claim of Cuban journalists and journalism educators, who say the move to ``openness,'' publicly discussing ``mistakes'' and criticizing public officials for wrongdoings in the media, began in the 1970s, before the concept was heralded as a new communication policy by the Soviet Union. The road to Cuban glasnost has not been an easy one, according to journalists and leaders of the Journalists Union of Cuba. They say they spearheaded the fight for change. The low status of journalists in Cuban society, and the penchant for secrecy among political and economic leaders has made the press's transition from mere propagandists to what they call watchdogs and critics a very difficult one.
Whether the transition has actually been accomplished is questionable. But recent developments in Cuban journalism at least give credence to the claim that the profession on this island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida is changing. Among the developments:
Journalists have received salary raises.
Higher professional standards have been introduced.
Increased educational requirements are mandated for journalists.
The first press law under the Castro regine is expected to be enacted this year.
The first three developments are designed to raise the professional status of Cuban journalists, who have suffered from neglect and lack of respect despite the important role the press has played in establishing Marxist-Leninist socialism.
The new press law is now being considered by the National Assembly. This is the last step in the process of enactment, and the assembly is expected to put its stamp of approval on the document during its second 1987 session in December. The press law is supposed to make access to information easier for journalists, and cooperation from government, party, economic, and industrial leaders a legal requirement. It also promises to give legality to the press's critical function in society, say Cuban journalists.
Carlos Mora Herman, a member of the commission that drafted the new law, says it will oblige officials to cooperate with journalists. It will also better define the role of the 3,000 working journalists, and that of the three national and 15 provincial newspapers, a bevy of special interest and specialized magazines, 54 radio and three television stations. Mr. Herman says journalists must ``be more critical.''
Cuban journalists seem to agree that what they label as Cuba's ``war'' with the United States, ongoing since the late 1960s, created a ``spirit of secrecy'' and a mentality that made people in positions of responsibility keep journalists at arm's length. It also made journalists censor themselves to the detriment of Cuban journalism, according to Lazaro Barredo Medina, vice-president of the Journalists Union of Cuba (UPEC).
Just how much ``openness'' journalists now seek and the degree to which they will be allowed to be critical is a question mark. The way that they attribute the negative aspects of Cuban journalism solely to the ``war'' with the US without assigning any blame to its Marxist-Leninist underpinnings may provide some clue to an answer.
While the press has recently dealt with specific cases of official corruption, there is little evidence to date that it has in any significant way become more critical, is publicly monitoring the behavior and performance of officials in all spheres of Cuban society, questioning the respect for civil and human rights, or examining the sociopolitical system for its failures.
But Medina insists that the press really is more critical nowadays. ``This puts the media in a more objective position,'' he says. ``Our dirty laundry is now exposed. We are convinced now more than ever that showing mistakes publicly makes us stronger.''
Says Herman: ``There is more understanding on the part of the state, our national leaders, of the importance of openness to journalists,'' a key requisite for a new Cuban journalism.
There seems to be a willingness to let journalists participate in the critique of Cuban society as long as the socialist system is not questioned and the definition of socialism is that of the party.
Indeed, Castro in his closing speech at the fifth Congress of UPEC in October 1986 told journalists, party, and state leaders, ``... we must struggle to achieve a new stage, one of much greater communication between journalists and Party and state officials; we must establish daily, systematic contact, to which end Party and state leaders' full cooperation is needed. We could say that this is the beginning of a learning process, a mental adaptation to develop real cooperation so that everybody realizes the role that revolutionary journalism plays in the construction of socialism.''
The Cuban constitution guarantees ``freedom of the press.'' But it defines this freedom from a Marxist-Leninist angle, making it highly restrictive from a Western perspective. Castro has best summarized Cuban Marxist-Leninist freedoms in his often quoted: ``Everything within the revolution is permitted, everything outside of it is not.''
Dr. Victor L. Kautzman, head of the Union of Cuban Jurists and of the legal department at the Ministry of Justice, says ``the new law will, in essence, not change anything. It is going to simply define precisely how things will be carried out in the media.'' From a Marxist-Leninist point of view, says Herman, ``We don't think that journalism and government work apart.''
This is all a far cry from the Western tradition, which seeks to provide a market place for any and all ideas, relies on the reason of the public to discriminate between truth and error, and defines the function of the press as one of an independent watchdog over government.
Peter Gross, an associate professor of mass communications at California State University in Chico, spent two weeks in Cuba last December.