What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation


What's Going On at Pacifica?

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For those who harbor stereotypes about Pacifica as a holdover of sixties counterculture, those images are dispelled by a walk through any of the stations. Consigned to memory is the rabbit warren of dingy corridors and cramped studios where KPFA in its salad days broadcast "Street Fighting Man" as mood music for antiwar protests. All five stations have new or refurbished facilities, thanks to building campaigns over the past five years. Studios are Spartan but professional. Gone are the days when, at KPFA, flushing toilets could sometimes be heard on the air. Protest posters and the occasional gray ponytail on a 50ish male are among the signs that these are stations with political attitude. Each station broadcasts a varied mix of news and talk programs, along with lots of music. The idea is to provide programming that isn't available elsewhere on the dial. KPFA has been the news leader, producing a daily hourlong news program with three full-time staff members and two dozen volunteer reporters. It also produces a weekly program, dedicated to the music of the Grateful Dead, that is one of the station's most popular offerings.

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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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After three foreign correspondents are decertified, is Cuba sending a message to the international press corps?

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

At Washington's WPFW, where 50 percent of the audience is black, a four-hour block on Saturday of classic rhythm and blues is one of the station's most popular programs, and one that shows up high on citywide audience charts. KPFT in Houston has heavy doses of Cajun, blues and folk, and bills itself as "The Sound of Texas." ("But we don't do country and western," says station manager Garland Ganter, offering an unsolicited rebuttal to criticism from other Pacifica circles that his station panders to lowbrow popular tastes apparently considered incompatible with lefty politics.) The New York City station emphasizes news and also draws a dedicated following to its afternoon block of psychology and health--including Natural Living with Gary Null, author of bestselling alternative health and anti-aging books. And at KPFK in Los Angeles, the biggest fundraising success is a daily politics-culture talk show hosted by journalist Marc Cooper (Cooper also hosts the weekly RadioNation, a co-production of KPFK and The Nation Institute, which runs free on 120 stations).

A good share of Pacifica's hardcore politics--and attitude--is pumped out by the daily political interview show Democracy Now!, one of only two programs produced by Pacifica for mandatory airing on all five stations. The program is hosted out of New York's WBAI by Amy Goodman, an early and aggressive reporter in East Timor, and Juan Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist. Last year, Goodman was co-winner of a Polk Award for a Pacifica investigation of Chevron's involvement in attacks on civilians in Africa's Niger Delta; Gonzalez also won a Polk, for his newspaper commentary. The show's in-your-face advocacy style (it bills itself as "the Exception to the Rulers") creates devoted fans, and it is unquestionably Pacifica's marquee production. Stations are also required to carry the daily half-hour Pacifica Network News (PNN), which features news reports and commentaries from a network of freelancers and a staff of four journalists working out of the Washington station. The show is popular among Pacifica's affiliates (twenty-three stations run Democracy Now! and forty-two run PNN.)

There has never been a day when Pacifica was not a voice of dissent. A group of young Bay Area intellectuals led by Lew Hill, a World War II conscientious objector, created Pacifica in 1949 as an alternative to what they saw as the crass commercialism of American radio. Hill described the objective of Pacifica as promoting "a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors." KPFA was FM at a time when most radios were built with only an AM band; it refused advertising, and it asked its members to become "subscribers" and contribute money for the running of the station. Matthew Lasar, in his book Pacifica Radio, about the network's first three decades, described Hill as a pacifist anticommunist dedicated to providing a radio forum for the most diverse exchange of views, a haven of free speech in an era when dissident views on race, war and the emerging American empire were considered unpatriotic at best and un-American at worst.

The station, then as now, attracted people with a deep suspicion of authority, and internal disputes were frequent. At the time of Hill's death in 1957, he was involved in a wrangle with his board of directors over the firing of several employees, and one of the employees was picketing the station in protest. Pacifica's first battle was against the FBI's anticommunist investigations and McCarthyism. As American anticommunism emerged as the foremost threat to free speech, Pacifica's identification with the political left was solidified. Expansion into a network began with the creation of KPFK in Los Angeles in 1959 and WBAI in New York in 1960. KPFT in Houston was started in 1970, and the Washington, DC, station, WPFW, was founded in 1977 with the idea of establishing a predominantly black voice in that majority-black city.

Pacifica acquired a reputation for creative troublemaking and for broadcasting what others feared to touch. "Pacifica is high-risk radio," said a 1975 brochure quoted by Lasar. "When the theater is burning, our microphones are available to shout fire." Pacifica was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," was investigated by the FBI after WBAI interviewed a whistleblowing FBI agent, and it broadcast an interview with Che Guevara shortly before his 1967 execution in the Bolivian jungle. Pacifica sent a war correspondent to Vietnam in 1965, providing some of the first reports directly from Hanoi. Its uncompromising coverage of that war and its identification with the antiwar movement was the high-water mark of Pacifica's impact as a network and consolidated it in the affections and memories of a generation of Americans--most of whom are now in their late 40s to early 60s and still make up Pacifica's most avid group of listeners.

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