Cuba: A Half-Century of Distorted News and Counting . . .

Since January 1959, nearly half a century ago, U.S. mass media have reflected the views of the U.S. government and systematically misreported the Cuban Revolution. Few reporters have tried to understand—much less explain—the Cuban Revolution.

May 16, 2008

Since January 1959, nearly half a century ago, U.S. mass media have reflected the views of the U.S. government and systematically misreported the Cuban Revolution. This should not surprise readers familiar with the equally unrevealing journalism on revolutions in Russia and China, although notable exceptions in each case shined beacon lights on reality. In 1957 Herbert Matthews, like John Reed in Russia and Edgar Snow in China, wrote front-page stories on Fidel Castro’s guerrilla band in Cuba’s eastern mountains. He emphasized the brutality of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and U.S. support for that corrupt and brutal regime, portraying Fidel as a democrat who followed a long line of Latin American revolutionaries. After the revolution triumphed, Lee Lockwood’s photojournalism for Life marked a second exception in which facts placed in context emerged from the stories.

Most post-1959 news stories, editorials, op-eds, and “in-depth” reports reminded readers, listeners, and viewers that Cuba was a Communist, totalitarian dictatorship that routinely violated human rights. The stories in leading newspapers and TV and radio news outlets emphasized Cuba’s economic failings, prevailing poverty, and lack of freedom. An evil yet intriguing dictator clung to power through his repressive efficiency. Few reporters tried to understand—much less explain—how the Cuban Revolution survived half a century of unrelenting hostility from its interventionist and powerful neighbor. Occasionally, positive stories emerged, but these were rare exceptions.

Both the U.S. government and the media show a lack of interest in understanding the realities of the revolutionary island and in interpreting events with some sense of symmetry. The subject of terrorism emerges as a dramatic example of double standards. The United States targeted Cuba in thousands of terrorist acts, including hundreds of assassination attempts against Castro. Cuba has not launched a single recorded terrorist mission against the United States. Yet the State Department includes Cuba on its list of “terrorist nations” each year. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the major networks seem to overlook this discrepancy.

During the Cold War, reporters axiomatically labeled Cuba a Soviet pawn in the eternal struggle between freedom and tyranny. After the surprising Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, government offices in Washington featured routine office bets on how many weeks it would take for Castro’s government to fall apart. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Andrés Oppenheimer’s Castro’s Final Hour (1992) enlarged the meaning of the words “final” and “hour.” Oppenheimer even claimed that the execution of Cuban general and Angolan war hero Arnoldo Ochoa for narco-trafficking had left a basis for a mass movement against the government. He’s still waiting for it to ­materialize.

The U.S. Interest Section in Havana has concentrated its efforts on cultivating “dissidents” rather than providing Washington with accurate information and analysis. In 2006, a U.S. diplomat in Havana told me he spent most of his workday “servicing dissidents.” I asked him if he could tell me how he distinguishes dissidents from Cuban state security agents. He looked down. “I try not to think of that.”

In 2003, Cuba charged 75 dissidents—supposedly independent journalists, librarians, and political activists—with conspiring with James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana. Cuba considered those arrested “traitors who could be prosecuted under a 1999 law that punishes people for assisting the economic embargo” (David Gonzalez, The New York Times, April 4, 2003). At the trials, 12 other dissidents, including some of the most articulate, revealed they had infiltrated the group as agents of state security and testified against their erstwhile comrades.

The media reported the story, but didn’t draw the obvious conclusion: Castro had already exported the vast majority of dissidents to the United States. The few who remained on the island depended on U.S. government support and thus relinquished any basis for broad appeal. They still serve as a vessel through which Cuba’s security forces gain the upper hand against their U.S. counterparts.

Over four decades, media stars and hacks alike have, like parrots, repeated U.S. government pretexts for anti-Cuban policies. Few bothered to ask what Cuba actually did to threaten U.S. interests; what grievances exist? Former U.S. arms control and disarmament adviser Paul Warnke (1977–79) chuckled when I asked him the question in 1980.

“Cuba violated the Monroe Doctrine,” he snapped. “It forged close military ties with the Soviet Union.” He said he personally didn’t worry about that, or about the second grievance. Cuba caused instability in the hemisphere by exporting revolution and had committed the cardinal sin of expropriating U.S. properties. By 1991, the Soviet Union had disappeared; Cuba had ceased to export even most of its sugar, let alone revolution; and the Castro government had settled claims with most of the nations whose properties it had confiscated and offered terms to U.S. companies as well. Few news reports mentioned these basic policy premises as the first George Bush signed the 1992 Torricelli Bill, which increased U.S. economic pressure on the island. Presto, the U.S. government had moved the proverbial goalposts.

The United States had a vendetta against Cuba, and its leader had to receive appropriate punishment. The policy became personalized: Castro had to pay for his misbehavior. Uninformed readers could well conclude from stories that only one person lived on that island just south of the Florida Keys and that Castro had won his place in the Guinness Book of World Records for length of time spent disobeying the United States.

Indeed, some of those who defended the keeping of the now famous Elián González, the boy whose mother fled Cuba on a raft and drowned, actually believed that Castro’s power included his ability to exercise mind control over Cuban children. A great uncle claimed him, and a movement developed to keep him in the United States, despite the fact that his very fit father wanted him and had all the law on his side. The reason given by the right-wing media and members of Congress for keeping the child: returning Elián to Cuba would mean delivering him to Castro—well-known as the father of all Cuban children. Attorney General Janet Reno ultimately applied the obvious rationale: “Children belong to parents.” She called a SWAT team in to liberate the child from his great uncle et al. and returned him to Cuba, thus incurring the wrath of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media.

The narrowness and skewing of reporting will hardly surprise close observers of contemporary Cuba, nor will it shock the few journalists who have penetrated the veneer of stupid questions with which most U.S. reporters arm themselves before­ traveling to the island on assignment. I recall several reporters­ asking me in the early 1960s whether­ Fidel had really belonged to the Communist Party before he declared himself a “Marxist-Leninist” in early 1961 or whether he had cut a secret deal with the Soviets long before he marched triumphantly into Havana in 1959. As bombs exploded throughout Havana in 1960 and planes from Florida dropped leaflets and grenades on Cuba, some reporters wanted to know why the Cuban government was “so uptight” and “paranoid” about the United States. Not only did they not know U.S.-Cuban history but they shared the assumption that U.S. standards should prevail for political behavior everywhere.

None asked when in Cuba’s nearly 500-year history had the island’s citizens enjoyed “traditions” of free speech, press, and politics. Few reporters I met in the 1960s or thereafter knew anything beyond a bare sketch of Cuban history. Nor did they bother reading about it.

After the revolutionary triumph, Castro allowed the photographer Lockwood to spend quality time with him. His articles and book, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s ­Fidel, remain the most objective yet critical and sympathetic portrait of a struggling revolutionary leader coping with the immense problems of underdevelopment while simultaneously warding off his aggressive neighbor to the north. Laura Berguist of Look also ran sympathetic features, as did Georgie Anne Geyer of the Chicago Sun-Times until she morphed into a supreme Castrophobe.

While most early reporting centered around the March 1959 executions of repressive Batista regime officials and the length of Castro’s speeches (Lockwood called him Cuba’s living newspaper), few understood that the natural course of the revolution had turned socialist.

“Betrayal,” charged historian Theodore Draper (in his 1962 and 1965 books), arguing that Castro had deceived many people by charming them, making them think that behind his iron, revolutionary will stood a sentimental liberal, Western intellectual. For liberals, Draper made the most coherent case. The typical reporter, however, pursued the inherent evil, weaknesses, and logical contradictions in Castro’s persona and discourse. They did so by ignoring levels of revolutionary, anti-liberal consensus within the Cuban leadership and focusing attention on the myth that only one man mattered.

Big media journalists pursued “the story,” but not its context. In 1974, Dan Rather sat next to me en route to Havana, where he would interview Castro for a CBS special (Castro, Cuba, and the USA), which I directed. He carried an expensive leather briefing book, “prepared for Mr. Rather by CBS News research department.” I could barely wait to see its contents. Noticing my eagerness, he offered me the portfolio. Inside, two thin clips from Newsweek and one from Time said Castro had made impressive gains in health care and education, but had deprived islanders of free speech, press, and politics—as if such virtues existed before the revolution.

Rather, in his first stand-up from Havana, reported in his urgent breathy style that while Castro had made significant strides in improving Cubans’ health and education levels, Cubans had no access to a free press; nor could they practice free speech or politics. In 49 years, neither reporters nor U.S. intelligence sources seem to have learned much, if anything, from Cuba’s top generals or Politburo members. Brian Latell retired in 1998, after serving four years as director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, the highest-ranking analytic position for that region in the U.S. intelligence community. Latell never went to Cuba, nor did he meet any of the people he speculates about.

In making five TV films in Cuba from the 1960s through the 1980s, I learned something about the strong ties that held together the brother- and sisterhood of revolutionaries of the generation that began with Moncada and included those who joined in subsequent years. They bonded with a common faith in goals and in Castro as a leader whom they believed had the will and astuteness to persevere without violating basic principles or the common ethical credo that revolved around sovereignty and social justice.

Most journalists who “drop in” to do quick reports on Cuba don’t talk to the top leaders. They exchange formalities with Foreign Relations Ministry bureaucrats, but when they speak about “hard-liners,” they have little notion of what this means. Few reporters have developed relations of confidence with any of the hundreds of thousands of members of the loyal fraternity throughout the island who actually mean patria o muerte (homeland or death) when they shout the slogan at rallies. Without knowing Cuban history—the wars for independence during the 1860s and 1890s, the revolution of 1932—they don’t comprehend Castro’s and other Cuban leaders’ seeming obsession with national independence and social justice.

In April 1959, President Eisenhower invented a lame excuse (he said illness, but played golf) to avoid meeting with Castro on his first visit to Washington. Ike had supported Batista, but didn’t claim to speak for “the Cuban people.” In 2008, Bush smugly refuses to speak to the Cuban government.

But the U.S. government doesn’t consider it necessary to know anyone in order to be close friends. After Castro’s 2006 illness, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Cubans that “you must know that you have no greater friend than the United States of America.” Cubans, even those disgusted with their government, shake their heads with incredulity at such good wishes. Bush enacted measures to hurt Cubans in their daily lives, barring them from seeing their relatives and limiting the amount of remittances their families could send. Somehow, he felt, these measures would turn Cubans against their government—as if despair caused by the United States could motivate a pro-U.S. counter-revolution.

The irony is that U.S. policy has remained consistent. In 1960, a State Department memo insisted, “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Its authors advocated U.S. measures “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” Punish Cubans to promote their own future well-being. Bush’s speech, further, implies a far more insidious intent. Did the president hope to incite Cubans to rebel?

“You have the power to shape your own destiny,” he exhorted. How this would be achieved was not made clear, except that the president also addressed the Cuban armed forces, and suggested portentously: “When Cubans rise up to demand their liberty . . . you’ve got to make a choice: Defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people,” he lectured Cuba’s military and police, or “embrace your people’s desire for change.” Huh? Does Bush want Cubans to rebel, and does he actually think its army would shoot its citizens? Castro retired in February. Nothing changed. Cuba had its transition, but in Washington no one seemed to notice.

Every four years, Cubans wait for a U.S. presidential election, hoping some sanity and logic will magically find their way into the White House. Hillary Clinton has already sworn not to even talk to Cuba until she sees progress. This might mean, what? Cuba lifting its embargo on the United States? Relinquishing its naval base on U.S. territory—or swearing to stop punching the United States in the fist with its face? Barack Obama has said he’ll talk to the Cuban government. John McCain remarked in February that “it’s naive to think you can sit down and have unconditional talks with a person [Raúl Castro] who has [been] part of a government that has been a state sponsor of terrorism not only in the hemisphere but throughout the world.”

What a sense of humor he has!

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow. He has written 14 books and made 50 films. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World (AK Press, 2007) and his newest award-winning film is We Don’t Play Golf Here, available on DVD via round

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