Quantcast

What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation

  •  

What's Going On at Pacifica?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The standoff lasted sixteen days. Employees were locked out but continued to be paid as archive tapes, then piped-in music, filled KPFA's air. On July 29 Pacifica management hollered uncle. Berry announced that the station would be opened and turned over to its staff. "This means we will not be enforcing any rules about what is on the air at KPFA for the time being, as a noble experiment," she said.

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

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
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.

But far from dying out, the rebellion has escalated into a mini-political movement, fought on the air from the Berkeley station and over the Internet by activists all over the country. In October Chadwick removed (and assigned to unspecified duties) Dan Coughlin, news director of Pacifica Network News, a few days after he had written and put on the air a news item about sixteen Pacifica affiliates boycotting his own program in protest against the Pacifica board. Coughlin had been having his own run-ins, and a union employee had recently won a grievance against him, but the timing of his removal made it obvious that he was another victim of the sporadically applied gag rule. The side-taking was complete when the host of Pacifica's other national program, Amy Goodman, weighed in against the Pacifica national board, calling publicly for Coughlin's reinstatement.

A group of freelance reporters for PNN called a national "strike." The strikers didn't have the numbers to keep PNN from getting on the air, but suddenly longtime contributors to PNN who continued to file were branded as scabs. One of those so branded, Saul Landau, who had been writing commentaries for Pacifica for a decade, sent out "an appeal to all progressives" to "stop the Pacifica bashing" and warned that "continuation of what has become a veritable war against Pacifica could lead to the death of the only alternative radio network progressives possess." Signers included Oakland Mayor and former Pacifica talk-show host Jerry Brown, actors Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and writer Barbara Ehrenreich. A similarly illustrious list, including authors Matthew Lasar, Ed Herman and Robert McChesney, countered Landau with a letter calling the strikers' action "appropriate" and part of a true "grassroots effort." Nevertheless, the respectful tone and lack of political invective in the exchange marked an important turn.

One station manager estimates that the year of crisis has cost the network as much as $500,000, depleting its reserves. In February Berry tried to move beyond the impasse. After standing by Chadwick for months, Berry announced that Chadwick would be replaced by Washington station manager Bessie Wash. Berry also said that she would step down when her term as chairwoman expires in September. In an interview, however, her language was less than conciliatory. "I'm so disappointed, because if these people are the left, the left is in bad shape," Berry said. "The elitism, the paranoia, is boundless. Worse, they use the mantra of free speech as a cover to protect their own little playpen."

She said she now regrets getting involved, and that KPFA activists and even some dissidents on her own national board, whom she called "wackos," used her national stature to generate media attention. "If they could, they would destroy me," she said. "They said I was a fascist, a CIA agent, a black bitch. They said I was going to sell Pacifica and buy some black stations in the South. Because that's what black people do." While acknowledging some errors, she says her tough stance was necessary: "We paid the price. We bore the brunt of it," she said, adding, "But it was contained enough so someone else can come in and heal it."

However, Bensky, the fired national correspondent, framed Berry's tenure as uniformly negative. Berry and Chadwick were guilty of "wholesale abandonment of Pacifica's principles and practices," he said, summarizing those as community control, free-speech radio and Pacifica's role as a provider of alternative political information. Bensky said KPFA, together with its sister station WBAI, is resisting such a top-down takeover of its programming. Another KPFA activist, Aaron Glantz, who helped organize the stringer strike against PNN, added a touch of hyperbole: "They have dreams of world domination. That's what this is all about."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.