New York Times goes on a Cuban crusade

By Thomas Sparrow
BBC Mundo

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President Barack Obama shakes Raul Castro's hand at Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa.Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Times editors think circumstances are ripe for a thaw in US-Cuba relations

Cuba clearly is on the minds of the editors of the New York Times.

In the last month the paper has published five weekend editorials in English and in Spanish asking the US administration to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.

In the pieces the Times has asserted that the US trade embargo on Cuba is "senseless" and should be dismantled, and it has criticised the administration's "stealth efforts to overthrow the government" in Havana.

In addition, they have suggested that the White House should remove Cuba from the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorist organisations and should propose a prisoner swap that would see the release of Alan Gross, the American development contractor who has been in a Cuban prison for nearly five years.

"Washington should recognise that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba's evolution toward a more open society," says the most recent editorial, published on Sunday. "That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge."

Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times's editorial page editor, tells the BBC that the five editorials have been in line with the newspaper's longstanding position on Cuba and the embargo.

Nevertheless, it is intriguing that the Times has been running so many consecutive pieces on the same country, with clearly defined intervals, in two languages and in moments when President Barack Obama is defining his agenda for his remaining two years in office.

The motivation behind the paper's month-long crusade is that the editors believe that "for the first time in more than 50 years", the situation both in Cuba and the US favours such deep political change.

The newspaper has highlighted how reforms implemented by Cuba mean that the island is positioning itself for a "post-embargo era", while in the US there is a growing number of voices that are in favour of deepening ties with Havana.

Image source, Granma
Image caption,
The Cuban newspaper Granma prominently displays a New York Times Cuba editorial on its website

Moreover, Cuba analysts in the US have argued that President Obama now has an important window of opportunity to signal change on his Cuba policy, in the run up to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which will be held in April in Panama. With President Raul Castro also in attendance, it presents the opportunity of a meeting between the heads of state.

According to Rosenthal, what the Times ultimately wants with its editorials is to "influence American policymakers as they continue to contemplate Cuba policy" and "encourage reforms on the island that would empower ordinary Cubans and expand personal freedoms".

This bet coincides with the hiring of Colombian journalist Ernesto Londono, a former correspondent for the Washington Post, as a member of the newspaper's editorial board.

Since Londono joined the team in September, the newspaper has been publishing frequent bilingual editorials and has increased its focus on Latin America with additional texts on Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Speaking of the Post, their editors have also weighed in on Cuban-American relations but take a pessimistic view of the Times's calls.

"While Cuba has toyed with economic liberalisation and lifted travel restrictions for some, we see no sign that the Castro brothers are loosening their grip," they write. "Fully lifting the embargo now would reward and ratify their intransigence."

Mr Rosenthal says that he is pleased the editorials have "invigorated a debate here, in Cuba and across Latin America".

The articles have certainly been discussed on the island, and on Monday the online edition of Cuba's official newspaper Granma prominently featured the most recent editorial under the headline: "New York Times editorial recognises US policy of interference towards Cuba."

In a column published on state media, Cuba's former President Fidel Castro also cited nearly word for word one of the early editorials, which called for the end of the US embargo. He notes that the Times "under certain circumstances follows the political line most convenient to its country's interests".

He grouses, however, that the Times also criticises his nation's human rights policies, but ends with praise for the editorial.

"The article is obviously written with great skill, seeking the greatest benefit for US policy in a complex situation, in the midst of increasing political, economic, financial and commercial problems," he writes. "To these are added the effects of rapid climate change; commercial competition; the speed, precision and destructive power of weapons which threaten the survival of mankind."

The articles have also found an interested audience among the large Cuban exile population in Florida, many of whom have criticised the Times for supporting a possible prisoner swap.

Despite this reaction both in Cuba and in the US, some analysts are sceptical about the influence that these editorials can actually have.

"I wouldn't make too much of the New York Times, but it is yet another pillar of support for the White House to take action," says Ted Piccone, who specialises in Latin American affairs at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Talking to the BBC, Mr Piccone says the Times "sometimes has an inflated sense of power and influence" and he believes the editorials are "not very influential in and of themselves".

Irrespective of those perceived levels of influence, Times editor Rosenthal says he is pleased with the outcome so far, and he signals that more editorials are to come.

"We will continue to look for angles that can inform the debate," he says.