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Watching the Reporters | The Nation

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Watching the Reporters

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Fidel Castro seldom mentions the foreign press, and even more rarely praises its work. But in 2005, as anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles surfaced in Miami, Fidel went on television and read out loud a story from the Chicago Tribune. He liked the story, and liked it even better when he flipped back to the byline and discovered the reporter's name.

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John Dinges
John Dinges has been writing for many years on Latin America. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and...

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Two senior citizens of the
cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban
coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his
mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early
years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he
was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters
and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante
Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray
goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most
feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the
major events of the revolution and became chief of state security
after the 1959 victory.

Their encounter, counterspy and
spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting
here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from
all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs
invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions
were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US
delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506
Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.

"We talked as
professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever
meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of
their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide
security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that
it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I
told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the
revolution," said Valdes.

Valdes disclosed that his
security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in
the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation
that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the
island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from
inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary
sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was
imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the
island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the
other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually
impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was
the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration
special project against Castro that included intelligence collection,
sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.

Castro sat
across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering
hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow,
even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial,
respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations
and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at
one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a
final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the
conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once,
José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay
of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel
pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he
said.

During a break, Castro rushed over for a private
conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which
the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial
that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in
Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's
shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle
old scores."

The five members of the 2506 Brigade
delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with
Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of
keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo,
who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro
activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents
as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.

The
strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the
US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his
Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of
Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from
the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA
officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy
consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but
the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would
change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather
than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious
defeat.

There was no disagreement on the US side that the
invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the
United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops
on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran
said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry
they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting
offshore.

CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted
Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he
insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when
Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of
Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does
'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'"
The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different
measures, including assassination, to get rid of the
regime.

The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the
conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea
that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the
invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the
mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a
meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the
event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion
force.

Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade
member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United
States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope
that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro
didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner
and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were
killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after
long negotiations.

For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic
survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the
United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a
standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an
increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the
meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their
desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States.
But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the
writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own
making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.

For three years, from 1975 through 1977, the countries in what is
known as the Southern Cone of South America underwent a human rights
crime wave unprecedented before or since in the region.

"In reality, I give thanks to the reporter, Gary Ma--" Fidel hesitated. Then he continued with surprise in his voice. "His name is Marx! Compadre, even more respect for the reporter. His name is Gary Marx, and in reality this newspaper is an organ that at least tries to say some things."

That was then. Two months ago, Marx was called into the Cuban International Press Center (CPI) and told his five-year stint as a correspondent in Cuba had come to an end. "The bottom line was basically this," Marx told me. "[CPI director José Luis Ponce] said to me, 'This is nothing personal, this is business. Our overseas image is very important to us. We weighed your positive stories against your negative stories. There are too many negative stories. We think we can do better with someone else.'"

Just like that. Marx's expired accreditation would not be renewed, and as of that moment he could no longer write about Cuba. No specific stories were mentioned, although Marx had sensed he was in trouble for some time as it became harder and harder to get interviews with Cuban officials.

"They were very nice about it," he said. He wasn't being expelled. He could stay in Cuba until his visa expires in June, and his two children would be able to finish the school year.

Just as Marx was politely muzzled, the BBC's Stephen Gibbs and a freelancer for the Mexican newspaper El Universal, César González Calero, were also told they no longer had credentials to work as journalists in Cuba. Their stories were likewise too negative; González Calero was told his reporting was "not the most convenient for the Cuban government."

The question is, Why now? Cuba's domestic media have always been tightly controlled by the government and the Communist Party. In 2003 there was a draconian crackdown. Seventy-five dissident writers and intellectuals, some of whom were trying to create samizdat newsletters with firsthand reports from inside Cuba, were imprisoned with sentences of up to twenty-seven years.

But reporting by foreign correspondents has been encouraged in recent years. Starting in the late 1990s, for the first time in decades, four US news organizations were allowed to open bureaus in Cuba: CNN and the AP, as well as two Tribune Company newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Cuban government seemed to see coverage from inside the country as an antidote to the relentless attacks on it by the US government, especially the Bush Administration. With Fidel's illness and the prospect that Cuba is on the eve of historic change, Cuba is again a big story, and news organizations are jockeying to be in position to cover the transition from Fidel to what comes after.

Reading Gary Marx's voluminous catalogue of stories from his five years living and writing in Cuba, one is struck--as Fidel once was--that this is a tremendously thorough journalist who not only understands a lot about Cuba but has a good deal of affection for the country.

There are negative stories, to be sure--but no cheap shots or the kind of condescension that characterizes much of public comment about Cuba in US political and media circles. His stories about the plight of the imprisoned dissidents and the struggling pro-democracy movement probably irritated the government. His poignant tales of Cubans obsessed with escaping the island and medical doctors lured into defection by US government enticements painted unfavorable but hardly new images of discontent. In the bulk of his reporting, Marx analyzed with authority the evolving changes inside the government since Fidel stepped aside in favor of his brother Raul.

Some of Marx's strongest work was a series of almost a dozen reports a year ago on the lavishly financed but ham-handed US propaganda efforts to promote regime change in Cuba. He documented the midnight distribution in Havana neighborhoods of pamphlets with translations of a speech by President Bush and the elaborate effort to smuggle into Cuba DVD recordings of pro-US television programs--pointing out that DVD players are all but nonexistent on the island. Tens of millions of dollars were wasted, he wrote, based on a Government Accountability Office report, on no-bid contracts for anti-Castro groups in Miami and to buy items--Sony PlayStations, cashmere sweaters and Godiva chocolates--presumably to be smuggled into Cuba.

"Gary Marx is a very balanced reporter," said Marie Sanz, Agence France-Presse's correspondent for four years in Havana. "He went everywhere on the island. He's not an arrogant American. He is unusual in that he is full of empathy for the Cuban common man." That depth of reporting may be part of the problem. Sanz says the Cuban government may prefer neophytes--she calls them "starry-eyed reporters"--who haven't had a chance to develop the kinds of sources correspondents like Marx have accumulated over the years.

In a closed society like Cuba, a correspondent's longevity can translate into the ability to penetrate otherwise inaccessible realms of society. That's going to be indispensable when the coverage of the so-called "transition" begins in earnest. "It takes years to win people's trust, to get them to open up," Marx said. "In terms of a public dialogue about the future, there is none. The private dialogue is what I tried to get at in my stories, and the only way to do that is by living here and getting to know people and winning their trust."

Marx and his wife, Cecilia Vaisman--a radio journalist specializing in documentaries on Latin America--have made Cuba a home for themselves and their two children, ages 8 and 10. "My kids grew up in Cuba," he said. "It is an incredible country and I have come to love the place--the people, the culture. They are very open in some ways. Obviously, in other ways it is an incredibly closed society; there is a tremendous amount of fear here. I have very, very mixed feelings."

Marx emphasized that he remains on cordial terms with Cuban officials, as have the other two correspondents. Reporter González Calero is expected to continue living in Cuba despite the ban on his reporting, and in late April the BBC negotiated for its correspondent, Gibbs, to continue working through June.

It is hard, then, to fathom the rationale for the Cuban actions. It likely has more to do with creating leverage over other foreign correspondents than with the reporters' "negative" coverage.

"I'm not sure what their motives were," Marx said. "I think they basically felt the hit they took in the short term is probably worth the benefit of sending a shot across the bow to all the remaining correspondents in Cuba: 'If you want to be here for the big day when Fidel goes and witness whatever transition takes place, you better be careful.'"

In the meantime, reporters are on a tight leash. Credentials, when they are granted, are short-term--for as little as thirty days--and the press office is constantly reviewing reporters' stories. Most foreign correspondents I know will try to resist that kind of pressure, however, and stop short of self-censorship. They will write the story as they see it and--as Marx has done--take the consequences. But the pressure undeniably has an effect.

Absent from the Cuban calculus seems to be any sense that a more open atmosphere for public conversation about Cuba's future--either inside or outside the island--might help lay the groundwork for whatever comes next. There are many intellectuals in Cuba, one of the most highly educated countries in Latin America; but government actions in recent years have sent a signal that debate among them is dangerous.

Nor does the government seem overly concerned about its eroding support among intellectuals elsewhere in Latin America, where Fidel and Cuba have long enjoyed adulatory status. The turning point for many was that 2003 roundup of dissidents, among them Raul Rivero, a journalist with indisputable bona fides as Prensa Latina's former correspondent in Moscow.

Rivero was released for health reasons and now lives and writes in Spain. But according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are still twenty-four "independent journalists" behind bars. That total gives Cuba the dubious distinction of being "one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world, second only to China," CPJ director Joel Simon wrote in a letter to Raul Castro appealing for their release. An earlier letter from CPJ, to Fidel Castro, was co-signed by 107 prominent journalists and intellectuals from nineteen Latin American countries.

Those arrests and the Cuban government's latest actions might seem counterproductive, making it more difficult to mount a credible defense of Cuba in world public opinion and in its long-running battle with the United States. But some who know the country well, like Marie Sanz, have a grudging respect for the realpolitik of the Cuban government.

"The Cubans should never be underestimated in this propaganda war," she said. "They know what the foreign press wants and how it works. They play hardball."

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