What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation


What's Going On at Pacifica?

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But Pacifica's clout during the glory days of the antiwar movement did not carry over into the later seventies, as movement politics became more fragmented and divisive. A single unifying cause was replaced by a flurry of competing and aggressive groups, each with a narrower interest than before and each with a constituency. Programmers at Pacifica became little more than brokers allocating airtime according to which hinge squeaked the loudest. Once allocated, programming slots were treated as entitlements. In one case, at KPFK in Los Angeles, an elderly activist tried to leave his air slot in his will. In this small world, in which most Pacifica programmers were unpaid volunteers, control over airtime was the ultimate, and often the only, reward.

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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.

The five stations divided the day into a patchwork quilt of programs, scheduled more in line with a volunteer's preferences, clout and available free time than with any view toward the audience. Lew Hill once remarked that a program serving even one listener well was worth putting on the air, and that became a mantra whenever someone questioned whether anyone was listening. "Pacifica was great in the early seventies," says NPR reporter Mike Shuster, who was a Pacifica UN reporter in the late seventies. "But when the war ended in 1975, and even before when the antiwar movement petered out, Pacifica began to grope for what to do. That was when the splinter programming came in. That was what the left was like then." Pacifica redefined itself as "community" radio, in which community was conceived not as a single city but as dozens of diverse interest groups and political constituencies.

Radio was also changing. Pacifica held a nearly exclusive franchise on listener-sponsored public radio until the late sixties. Then Congress brought together hundreds of educational FM stations into a coordinated public radio system. NPR was created and began to distribute a news and features program called All Things Considered in 1971. The news system was funded by Congressional appropriations to a new entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave operating grants to qualifying stations, including the five Pacifica stations. Dozens of Pacifica reporters and producers made the move to NPR, attracted by better pay and a more stable journalistic environment. NPR's Pacifica graduates include diplomatic correspondent Ted Clark; medical reporter Patty Neighmond; former Pacifica Vietnam correspondent Chris Koch, who became an All Things Considered anchor; New York reporter Margot Adler; and Robert Krulwich, who then moved from NPR to CBS and then to ABC television.

Internal upheavals, presaging the current crisis, shook Pacifica's New York affiliate. Programmers rebelled against the Pacifica board's attempt to remove some programs, barricading themselves in the station's control room for almost six weeks in 1976. For a time, management and staff had an active and open discussion of reaping a windfall to put Pacifica back on its feet by selling the station's valuable commercial frequency. The idea, then and later, was to acquire cheaper noncommercial stations with equivalent power and continue broadcasting.

Was anybody listening? When Pacifica learned the answer to that question it was a shock. In the late eighties, when the network began to subscribe to Arbitron surveys to measure its audience, KPFT in Houston had so few listeners it didn't show up in the surveys, while WPFW in Washington was actually declining in audience. The two small stations were running chronic deficits and had to be regularly bailed out by the larger stations.

Yet Pacifica still had great moments as a national network that echoed its impact during the antiwar years. Only Pacifica provided national broadcasts of the weeks of Congressional hearings into the Iran/contra scandal in 1987, elevating national correspondent Larry Bensky to journalistic prominence. The national broadcasts demonstrated Pacifica's acceptance among mainstream listeners--audiences surged during the national broadcasts, then dropped back when stations returned to regular fare.

As Pacifica entered the nineties, its signal was reaching 40 million people, but little more than one in a hundred listened long enough or often enough to be measured. NPR stations now existed in every Pacifica market and were attracting the news-hungry, socially active audience who had once been loyal Pacifica devotees. With a far larger news budget, NPR provided wall-to-wall coverage of crucial events like the run-up to the Gulf War and the war itself. NPR's news audience had caught up to Pacifica and was roaring away--growing from 2 million to 8 million in just ten years. In the five Pacifica cities, NPR stations were doubling and tripling Pacifica's audience.

Inside Pacifica, the argument that NPR's success was somehow the result of watered-down programming pandering for popularity was growing thin. Political purity still mattered, but some began to think seriously about growing the audience.

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