When Brent Renaud was killed while covering the aftermath of the Ukraine war, state media in Cuba labeled the American photojournalist as a CIA agent.
State-run news website Cubadebate cited an Iranian news agency as the source of the story, which was published on March 13. However, she did not name the Iranian news agency.
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 refuted the claim that he was a CIA agent.
Independent analysts say efforts to link the journalist to US intelligence show how Havana has adopted the Russian version of events over Ukraine.
The pro-state media are also trying to discredit Western coverage of the invasion.
Across Latin America, the Russian version of the events was promoted on social media and on 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 copied the Russian reports thousands of kilometers from the front lines.
The International Press Center, the Cuban Government Media Center in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Madrid did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Juan Manuel Moreno Borrego, who works for the independent newspaper Comunitario Amanecer Habanero, said the official Cuban media downplayed the Ukraine conflict, which had dominated headlines around the rest of the world.
“The reports in Cuba’s official media about what’s going on in Ukraine are minimal and superficial,” he told VOA in a phone interview from his home on the Caribbean island.
“There is no mention that there was an invasion. Instead, it is referred to as a ‘special military operation’. Of course, the genocide in Ukraine is not mentioned.”
The conditions reflect official instructions from Moscow to Russian media personnel who could face up to 15 years in prison if they do not report on the war on Kremlin terms.
The United Nations on Thursday voted to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council over atrocities and human rights abuses linked to the war.
Despite the limited coverage in state media, Moreno believes almost all Cubans are aware of the war.
“I am sure that 90 percent of the Cuban people 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 widely viewed.
“But independent journalists here are doing their best to inform the people of Cuba about the reality of what is going on in Ukraine,” he said.
Alberto Corzo, director of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Speech and Press (ICLEP), an NGO that has created a network of independent journalists, noted that Cuba abstained in a recent United Nations vote on the war in Ukraine .
“In my personal opinion, Cuba’s abstention shows the behavior of traitors because it shows it [the Cuban government’s] Afraid to define his stance and which side he’s on,” he told VOA.
“The Cuban government has said from the start that it is the only reliable source of information [about Ukraine] is Russia Today in Spanish, claiming that CNN and other media are in the service of the West. Official media reports justify Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine,” he said.
RT en Espanol, reaching all of Latin America, portrays the United States as a greater threat to world peace than Moscow. “Never forget who the real threat to the world is,” read an RT headline in February, The Associated Press reported this week.
Although many claims reported on RT en Espanol have been refuted, researchers say Spanish-language content about Ukraine is the third most shared page on Twitter.
Ana Leon, a journalist who writes under a pseudonym for the independent news website CubaNet for her own safety, believes Cuba is repeating the Russian version of the Ukraine war because it cannot afford to associate with a close ally quarrel on which it is financially dependent.
“From the beginning, the official media in Cuba have adapted to the Russian version of events. They talked about the special military operation to protect people,” she said.
Contrary to revolutionary principles
“Russia’s actions run counter to all the principles that the Cuban Revolution stands for, such as the people’s right to determine their own future; however, Cuba has denied Russia’s brutality, reports [in the state media] talk about the 2014 democratic elections [in Ukraine] as a coup.”
Pro-European Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election with a platform that included a promise to end the war in the eastern regions. He was defeated by current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019.
Leon said when Russia softened a debt deal, it ensured loyalty to Cuba in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict.
“Two days before the invasion of Ukraine, on February 22, Russia amended Cuba’s $2.3 billion debt deal to ease the economic pressure on the communist government,” Leon said.
Russia agreed to postpone debt payments until 2027.
The loans granted to Cuba between 2006 and 2019 helped fund investments in power generation, metals and transportation infrastructure, Reuters news agency reported.
Russia’s decision to soften credit conditions came as Havana grappled with a deepening social and economic crisis that led to food and medicine shortages and sparked widespread protests.
Havana and Moscow have enjoyed strong military and economic ties since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
This alliance faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russia has continued to provide humanitarian aid and loans.
Normando Hernández, Director General of ICLEP in Miami, said the Cuban government has provided its citizens with an alternative reality about what is happening in Ukraine.
“The Cuban state media closely follows the Russian line in relation to Ukraine. They refer to the invasion of Ukraine as a special military operation and there is no mention of massacres of civilians,” he told VOA in a phone interview.
“They are trying to prevent the Cuban people from knowing what is really going on in this war started by [Russian President] Wladimir Putin.”