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Cuba Adopts Russian Narrative on Ukraine War

FILE - A Soviet Union flag is seen on a building in Havana, April 24, 2019.
FILE - A Soviet Union flag is seen on a building in Havana, April 24, 2019.

When Brent Renaud was killed covering the impact of the Ukraine war, state media in Cuba described the American photojournalist as a CIA agent.

The state-run news website Cubadebate cited an Iranian news outlet as the source of the story, which it ran on March 13. But it didn't specify the name of the Iranian outlet.

Renaud, an award-winning photojournalist, was in Ukraine on assignment for TIME Studios, working on a documentary about refugees when he was killed. Fact checkers have debunked the claim about his being a CIA agent.

Independent analysts say efforts to link the journalist to the U.S. intelligence services illustrates the way Havana has adopted the Russian version of events on Ukraine.

The state-aligned media also seek to discredit Western reporting on the invasion.

Across Latin America, the Russian version of events has been promoted through social media and via RT en Español, the Spanish-language version of Russian state television.

VOA spoke to independent journalists and analysts in Cuba to assess why the communist government has replicated the Russian reports, thousands of kilometers from the front line.

The International Press Center, the Cuban government media center in Havana, and the Cuban Embassy in Madrid did not reply to emailed requests for comment.

Conflict downplayed

Juan Manuel Moreno Borrego, who works for the independent outlet Comunitario Amanecer Habanero, said that Cuban official media have downplayed the Ukraine conflict, which has dominated headlines around the rest of the world.

"The reports in the official media in Cuba of what is going on in Ukraine are minimal and superficial," he told VOA in a telephone interview from his home on the Caribbean island.

"There is no mention that there has been an invasion. Instead it is called a 'special military operation.' Of course, there is no mention of the genocide that is going on in Ukraine."

The terms reflect official directives Moscow issued to Russian media personnel, who can face up to 15 years in prison for not covering the war on Kremlin terms.

The United Nations on Thursday voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over atrocities and human rights violations related to the war.

Despite limited coverage in state-run media, Moreno believes almost all Cubans are aware of the war.

"I am sure that 90 percent of the Cuban population know the reality of what is happening through access to social media," he said.

Moreno said RT has an important presence in Cuba because it broadcasts in Spanish and is viewed widely.

"But independent journalists here are doing their best to inform the people of Cuba about the reality of what is occurring in Ukraine," he said.

UN abstention

Alberto Corzo, director of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), a nongovernmental group that created a network of independent journalists, noted that Cuba had abstained in a recent United Nations vote on the Ukraine war.

"In my personal opinion, the abstention by Cuba shows the conduct of traitors because it shows [the Cuban government's] fear to define its posture and which side it is on," he told VOA.

"From the beginning, the Cuban government has said the only reliable source for information [about Ukraine] is Russia Today in Spanish, alleging that CNN and other media are at the service of the West. Official media reports justify the aggression of Russia towards Ukraine," he said.

RT en Espanol, which reaches throughout Latin America, portrays the United States as a greater threat to world peace than Moscow. "Never forget who is the real threat to the world," read a RT headline in February, The Associated Press reported this week.

Although many claims reported on RT en Espanol have been discredited, researchers say its Spanish-language content on Ukraine is the third most shared site on Twitter.

Ana Leon, a journalist who writes for the independent news website CubaNet under a pseudonym for her safety, believes Cuba repeats the Russian version of the Ukraine war because it cannot afford to fall out with a close ally on which it depends financially.

"Since the start, the official media in Cuba have been aligned to the Russian version of events. They have talked about the special military operation to protect the people," she said.

Contrary to revolutionary principles

"The actions of Russia are contrary to all the principles which the Cuban revolution stands for, like the right of the people to determine their own future; however, Cuba has denied the brutality of Russia. Reports [in the state media] talk about the 2014 democratic election [in Ukraine] as a coup d'etat."

The pro-European Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's 2014 presidential election on a platform that included a promise to stop the war in the eastern regions. He was defeated in 2019 by current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Leon said that when Russia softened a debt deal, this ensured Cuban loyalty in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict.

"Two days before the invasion of Ukraine, on 22 February, Russia changed the $2.3 billion debt deal for Cuba to relieve the economic pressure on the communist government," said Leon.

Russia agreed to postpone the debt payments until 2027.

The loans, provided to Cuba between 2006 and 2019, helped underwrite investments in power generation, metals and transportation infrastructure, the Reuters news agency reported.

Russia's decision to soften the loan terms came as Havana struggled to cope with a deepening social and economic crisis, which led to food shortages and lack of medicine and sparked widespread protests.

Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Havana and Moscow have enjoyed strong military and economic ties.

This alliance faded after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 but Russia has continued to deliver humanitarian aid and offer loans.

Normando Hernández, the director general of the ICLEP in Miami, said the Cuban government fed its citizens an alternative reality over events in Ukraine.

"The Cuban state media is following the Russian line on Ukraine exactly. It refers to the invasion of Ukraine as a special military operation and there is no mention of massacres of civilians," he told VOA in a telephone interview.

"They are trying to stop the people of Cuba from knowing what is really going on in this war, which was started by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin."