HAVANA – When Cristina Escobar gets in front of the camera, millions of Cubans watch her report the day’s events.
At just 28, Escobar is already one of the most visible figures on state-run television in Cuba.
She was trained as a journalist, but makes clear she’s also a defender of the Cuban government. And she bristles at the idea of the United States telling Cuba how to run its government.
“With new wave of Americans here...with this opening of relations with Cuba…I do not want the United States to bring me democracy. That is a project of Cubans,” she said.
Cuba’s socialist system could use some improvements, she concedes.
“Sure, but we're going to perfect it ourselves. I do not need anyone to come teach me,” she says. “Cuba is a sufficiently contradictory, plural country, open to dialogue, a vibrant society, to be able to build that future.
“What happens in Cuba is not dependent on what Obama says... No, what is happening in Cuba is decided by Cubans and I think that is something that must be preserved all costs. It is why many Cubans have died, for which many generations have sacrificed.”
On January 6, 2016, the State Department announced that $5.6 million in grants would be available for organizations interested in promoting human rights and democracy in Cuba. The State Department’s programs in Cuba are aimed at strengthening “the capacity of on-island, independent civil society to further the rights and interests of Cuban citizens, and to overcome the limitations imposed by the Cuban government on citizens’ civil, political, labor, and religious rights.”
Cuban officials regard such programs as illegal.
Escobar says there is more debate within Cuba than many outsiders imagine.
“I think it’s extremely superficial and unfair to think that people in Cuba have no opinion or don’t have ambitions or that there are no contradictions or no debate. Cuba is so more complex than that, so much more interesting and there are so many intelligent people.”
In May 2015, Escobar went to Washington while covering diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba. She wasn’t at all shy, firing off a four-part question complete with two-part follow-up. Among her questions was whether Obama planned to visit Havana before his term ends. Yes, the president hopes to travel to Cuba, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told her. No one in Washington remembered the last time that a Cuban journalist had asked a question, let alone six, at a White House briefing.
Rich Haney, author of the blog Cubainsider, quickly became an Escobar fan.
“She is obviously 100 percent Cuban and extremely patriotic,” Haney wrote. “Bold, beautiful, young, talented, and smart, she has a mission in life—to improve America's attitude towards her island. It's a worthy mission. She is an admirable young lady.”
Escobar hopes to use her media star status to help correct some misconceptions about Cuba.
“Often when one reads the foreign press about Cuba, it seems … there are two folkloric images: We are either a uniform society where everyone thinks alike, or we are drinking rum all the time and climbing into American cars from the fifties. That’s the image there is of Cuba.”
People in Cuba are “highly educated,” she says. “People demand a lot and are very smart and that's a challenge because there are no fools on the other side of the lens.”
She uses the term “public media” to describe government-owned news outlets in Cuba.
“I have a lot of clarity that the agenda of the public media is to defend the Cuban government because it belongs to the Cuban state and therefore the media must be practical, especially about the future.
“The future implies that President Raul Castro will not be president of the country. That means there will be a new president around which it is necessary to build a political consensus and for that you have to have public media that are consistent with that and that are able to build that consensus.”
Cuba’s public media, she says, must “give a voice to people.”
Ordinary Cubans should “see that journalists are on their side and not the side of those who maybe make them suffer more. That is, the journalist has to give voice to the most vulnerable in society, to the people, and … to rebuild the relationship between the institutions in Cuba and the public media. The Cuban people are very good people and deserve quality media.”
Over the past year, Escobar has dedicated much of her coverage to the renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations, which was announced December 17, 2014.
“Indisputably December 17 has marked us all in some way and the journalistic work, too, because before everything was all easier. Before there were the good and the bad. Before there were the victims and the aggressors. Not now. There is a president who says that a policy that chokes my country economically must be changed, and yet the congress of that same country doesn’t do it. It’s very difficult to understand. And the forces and interests are diverse.”
The Obama administration has called for an end to the longtime ban on trade with Cuba, but only lawmakers have the power to eliminate such restrictions. Escobar says some of the same people who want to lift the so-called trade embargo also hope for the socialist government’s demise.
“Some say, ‘We must change policy toward Cuba. We must end the blockade.’
Why? Why do they want to end the blockade? To also destroy the Cuban Revolution.
“The blockade must end,” she says, “but it should end in an atmosphere of respect for the sovereignty of Cuba and respect for the sovereignty of the Cuban people.”
Still, Escobar considers December 17 to be “a cause for celebration because it implied that the United States said it respected a government of Cuba. That had never happened between these two countries.
“The previous relationship was ‘Plattist,’ or linked to the Platt Amendment, which was an amendment that was added to the Constitution which entitled, for example, the United States to intervene militarily when it so desired in this country—and it did. That was the pattern of relations which existed before 1959.”
The U.S. rapprochement with Cuba also raised expectations of economic change on the island.
“The need of seeing an improvement in the quality of life in Cuba is great and people saw an opportunity, an open door and yet these opportunities have not translated into facts,” Escobar says. “They are only unexplored opportunities because the blockade legislation remains very severe and as enforced as ever.”
Critics of the Cuban government say the longtime U.S. ban on trade is not to blame for all the country’s economic troubles.
Whatever the case, many young people are fed up with the dismal economy and have been leaving the country as part of the biggest wave of Cuban migration since the 1990s.
Escobar says the “biggest challenge facing my generation” is to build a country “where it is possible to live well and be happy in Cuba.”
“I think it's possible, but at the same time is very challenging because we don’t have oil. We have people and if people leave, what do you build it with? That’s why I think it's a challenge that we must figure how to solve soon.”