National Geographic Magazine Hides a Terrible Reality Behind Beautiful Photographs

"As an elementary matter of principle, it is appropriate to take into account the native population's input when issuing criteria about other countries. Particularly, when your articles carry a political agenda so heavy, that the environmental decoration fades out immediately, as in your "Cuba's Wild Side" piece of propaganda."

Reader's comments censored by the National Geographic Magazine Forum.

By Carlos Wotzkow
Translation by Alba Herrera Rohdes
Edited by Jaums Sutton and Agustin Blazquez

I was born and raised in Cuba. I lived there for more than three decades and it is extremely pro-USA. A very good friend, whom I've known for over 20 years, fondly collected National Geographic magazines. His collection dated back to the 1930's and it was the most voluminous and interesting component of his library. Many of the issues were grouped by the year it was published, all bound in red hard-covers; and he was able to tell you which issue contained articles related to zoology in the Caribbean, and which mentioned Cuba.

But my friend (who has logged more than 32,000 nautical miles as a scientist developing a great reputation) has lost his mind. After reading National Geographic's article, "Cuba's Wild Side", he started considering that the evidence and all previous articles relating to Cuba confirmed his suspicions, i.e., National Geographic had become a propaganda instrument for Castro and his tourism industry. National Geographic was acting as the official organ of the liberals in their pursuit to end the U.S. embargo. The once prestigious magazine was no longer worthy of occupying space in my friend's cramped library; and horror of horrors, he burned them!

In June of 1999, John J. Putnam published an article that at first described very precisely the economic situation in Cuba.(1) However, half way through the article, the objective of the article became clear. The problem with Cuba's economy was not Castro's regime, but rather the U.S. embargo. That same month, National Geographic published his extensive dossier.(2) In it, Mr. Putnam writes about how well the foreigners who do business in Cuba are doing; but fails to allow any space to inform the readers that the brilliant director of the Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, whom he interviewed in 1999, was dishonorably expelled from that obscure institution, after questioning the transfer of double-use technology to Iran and Iraq.

It's too bad that the magazine did not investigate the 30,000 Cuban families that work for Tabacalera, S.A. of Spain who are paid substandard wages. God forbid that National Geographic would expose this kind of extraterritorial slavery that exists in Castro's Cuba!

In the summer of 2000, Peter Benchley published a dreadful article full of lies and political manipulations as depicted in the accompanying pictures of David Doubilet.(3) There, National Geographic, through its famous pages, tries to tell us that Cuba's coral reefs had not been altered since the 1950's, when Benchley first visited the area. Those species that he thought were extinct in the Caribbean as a result of poverty, hunger and necessity were thriving in Cuban waters in exorbitant quantities. The political message was obvious, blatant and insulting, as well as lacking any professionalism, that it wasn't worth continuing to read the article. For the first time in my life, I accepted the fact that at times National Geographic had to be filed away in the trash bin.

National Geographic's investigative reporters, go to great lengths to distance themselves from the Smithsonian Institution when said institution is under scrutiny,(4) but waste no time allotting space to the alleged sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker(5), (a bird I call the "Yeti of Cuba", since I believe it is extinct and exists only in the fantasies of the most obtrusive scientists of the Smithsonian Institution). The fact that National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution are the American institutions that publish the most about the existence of this species in Cuba, qualifies them as speculative press journalists and as scientific institutions of dubious professionalism. Behind all these false published reports, there is nothing more than a political agenda: to describe Cuba as a paradise, seeking to end the embargo, by arousing sympathy and interest from its readership.

Another myth reported as truth is the one that speaks of a sunken city at San Antonio Cape.(6) As was expected, National Geographic wasted no time getting an interview with Manuel Iturralde, Director of Investigations for the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, who, just like all the other scientists under the command of Dr. Rosa Elena Simeon, is charged with playing up to the fantasies of the gullible Americans: "The more the Gringos believe that beautiful things exist in Cuba, the more money they will bring. This never fails, and we are finally meeting the budget that not even Dr Simeon can meet."(7)

National Geographic should have reported about the situation of the Black Coral in Cuba, as it did about Mexico's in 2001.(8) The destruction of Cuba's Black Coral is so well known in Cuba that I have to assume that Cubans will have to wait twenty years for National Geographic to declassify the results of the expedition. I cannot understand how in their many travels through Cuban waters, these reporters could have missed the numerous shark fins found in Cuba's fishing fleet. In the 9,000 nautical miles I traveled there, I never once saw the "Ferrocemento", "Cayo Largo", or the "Mangle Rojo" (the most widely used vessels of Cuba's fishing industry), without dozens of these fins drying in the sun on the roofs of these ships.

But let's go back to the article that drove my good friend in Cuba crazy and who was not the only one to reduce his collection of National Geographic magazines to ashes. In "Cuba Naturally,"(9) which is nothing more than the written version of Winter's "Sight and Sound,"(10) the first thing that grabs your attention are the antics of a precocious child and the anxiety as described by the author trying to snap a picture of a crocodile leaping out of water.(11) Nothing wrong here, except for the fact that the bait being used for this spectacle is an endemic mammal of Cuba. That's right, what you see hanging from the tree is a "Hutia," an endemic rodent that is being threatened due the clandestine hunting by a people who have no legal access to a diet that includes animal protein.

It is truly pitiful to see Tobi (the white-bearded biologist seen in the photos) dedicate his time to pander to the commercial appetite of all these restless photographers from the liberal American media. It's shameful that National Geographic, which speaks so well of the natural paradise protected by Castro, had to resort to the sacrifice of an endemic mammal in order to obtain a picture. But what's most embarrassing is that the article borrowed the title of the most absurd book ever written about Cuba's environment,(12) and whose author, it's worth clarifying here, did not graze the Black Coral in order to sell it in the black market and thus satisfy his hunger, but rather to give the pieces of coral as gift to his American friends visiting Cuba.

If we are talking about accurate facts, then I most inform you that National Geographic and its assigned author lied; for Cuba does not have 263 protected areas.(13) The inaccuracy of this statement is such that it shows supine ignorance, if one assumes that it was not misrepresented intentionally. National Geographic and its reporter lie when they say that 22% of Cuba's national territory is protected. I can prove to you that this is not the case. They lie when they say that never before had two Bare-legged Owls been seen together in the same nest (the photo shows a juvenile and an adult bird, which is a very common occurrence, as I can attest to in my capacity as specialist in Cuban birds of prey).

Cuba, could not, under any circumstance, ever be compared to the Galapagos Islands, as no international organizations are allowed to stay and monitor, control or criticize the actions of the government there.

It's true that the Cuban Solenodon are being pillaged by the abandoned dogs and cats introduced in the protected areas by the local inhabitants. But it's also true, and National Geographic omits this, that this is the result of the lack of environmental education on the part of the Cuban government, which has allowed this to happen. The Cuban Solenodon, just as the Hutia (which National Geographic uses as bait), are also threatened by the deforestation that has taken place in the last 40 years due to the irrational mining effected by the government of Castro, and by the mining conducted by Sherrit International of Canada, one of the companies profiting by doing business with the government of Cuba, as previously mentioned by John J. Putnam in his articles (referenced in Notes 1 and 2).

In response to the demands made by Mr. McGeeham in his e-mail, and in relation to the proven inaccuracies found in National Geographic, I would like to conclude with a territorial example. National Geographic states that the Biosphere Reserve of Cienaga de Zapata consists of 15,000 protected hectares (37,064.49 acres).(14) However, the inventory of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in the Neotropical Region puts this number at 340,000 hectares (or 840,128.49 acres).(15) This reduction in protected area seems to be the result of the "environment license" granted by the government of Cuba to facilitate the construction of tourist resorts in places once ecologically protected, something taking place in all of Cuba's natural areas.

Why is it that National Geographic and its collaborators do not report on the apartheid imposed by Castro's government on the Cuban people which prohibits them to do business with or to have any access to lavish hotels built only for foreign tourists in the "New Cuba"? How is it possible that they do not report that Cuba's government is the biggest culprit in the extermination and exportation of black coral, dolphins and sharks? Why didn't National Geographic ask the renowned ornithologists Jerome Jackson and Lestter Short for a picture of the now-mythical Ivory-billed Woodpecker of Cuba? This is the bird believed by many to be extinct for years that the Cubans suddenly suggested had been sighted in the forests of eastern Cuba, causing a flurry of American ornithologists with expense accounts to rush to Cuba. Why didn't National Geographic seek out the specialist in rare species, John McNeely, for the location of this "endangered" species? Incidentally, these are all colleagues of mine, who have traveled extensively in Cuba.

Why didn't the scientists and advisors for National Geographic criticize the assigned photographer, Steve Winter, for his use of an endemic species as bait to procure a picture? Is this the kind of barbaric act that National Geographic would encourage once the embargo is lifted? How is it that such a prestigious magazine is denied the freedom to speak about the deforestation taking place in the mountains where the all these wonderful creatures survive? Why does a magazine known for its rigorous editorial scrutiny of its articles, fail to confirm the numbers cited by international organizations, instead publishing the hogwash dictated by Cuba's regime?

There's only one plausible answer to all these questions: National Geographic has no interest in publishing the truth. Is anyone at the magazine interested in taking a few minutes to seriously confirm what I've stated thus far? National Geographic is correct in justifying its actions by stating that they are not a detective agency, but it cannot deny, that when it comes to Cuba, its articles fall seriously short of their heretofore reputation. The scientific literature is there, in the best American libraries and available to all. And, if this is any comfort to you, you can rest assured that the books and journals I have at home which detail the truth about Cuba will not be burned.

Bienne, Switzerland
November 16, 2003

(1) Putnam, John J. 1999. Cuba after Castro. p2.

(2) Putnam, John J. 1999. Cuba: Evolution in the Revolution. p 17.

(3) Benchley, Peter, 2000. Cuba Reefs. A Last Caribbean Refuge. p3.

(4) McGeehan, Patrick J. 2003. Responding to a reader's criticism about the article "Cuba's Wild Side", this employee of the Division of Correspondence Investigation of National Geographic Magazine said, "I will be able to direct your correspondence more appropriate here if you can point at least one specific example of coverage in National Geographic regarding Cuba that you consider erroneous or misleading." Then, I believe the article you are actually reading is self-explanatory. (5) Mayell, Hillary 2002. Ultrarare Woopecker Spurs Ultimate Birding Trip. National Geographic News. January 15, 2002. p 5.

(6) Hanwerk, Brian 2002. Cuba's Sunken City. New Underwater Finds Raise Questions about Flood Myths. National Geographic News. p 5.

(7) Peraza, Yazmin Former director, National Museum of Natural History in Cuba: Conversation that took place in my presence regarding the announcement of a trip to Cuba by Paul Hammel (University of Pennsylvania) to try to find the Bachman's Warbler during the Autumn migration. While encouraging these self-financed expeditions brings visitors and their money to Cuba, it perpetrates scientific lies in the media.

(8) Mead, Gale 2001. Research Expedition Aimed at Halting Loss of Black Coral, National Geographic News. p 6.

(9) Winter, Steve 2003. Cuba Naturally. An Island Nation so Rich with Endemic Species that Biologists can Hardly Keep Count. Feature. http://www.National p 4.

(10) Winter, Steve 2003. Cuba's Wild Side. Sights and Sound Multimedia Show. National Geographic. 7 minutes.

(11) Winter, Steve 2003. Cuba's Wild Side On Assignment. Best of National Geographic. p 1.

(12) Silva Lee, Alfonso 1996. Cuba Natural/Natural Cuba. Editorial Pangea. National Geographic clearly states "263 protected areas," which is 27 more than Castro's government declared (236) in their official report to the United Nations (Environmental Panorama of Cuba 2000, Editorial Academia, p 24). The Cuban's report contains inconsistencies as well by declaring 79 areas of "national interest" plus 155 of "local interest" erroriously totaling 236, rather than the correct number, 234. Moreover, the 234 contain 80 already declared--the rest are merely "proposed". Note that all of the "errors" on the part of the Cubans and National Geographic serve to inflate the number.

(13) Winter, Steve 2003. Cuba Naturally. An Island Nation so Rich with Endemic Species that Biologists can Hardly Keep Count. Feature. http://www.National p 4.

(14) Scott. Derek A. and Monserrat Carbonell eds 1986. Inventario de los Humedales de la Region Neotropical. By Orlando Garrido. IUCN Cambridge. p 512.

Carlos Wotzkow is an Ornithologist who has written dozens of papers in scientific publications in Europe and the U.S. He is the author of the books Natumaleza Cubana (1998) and Covering and Discovering (2001) with Agustin Blazquez, and hundreds of articles on the destruction of the environment, politics and human rights in Cuba. His articles are distributed monthly in magazines and via the Internet. He has lived in exile in Switzerland since 1992 and now he is a Swiss citizen.

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