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What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation

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What's Going On at Pacifica?

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After a year of conflict, Pacifica is hardly a place of dreams, grandiose or otherwise. The network's national staff has all but disintegrated. In January national operations were moved from Berkeley to Arlington, Virginia, where they were run for two months out of a borrowed office crowded with unopened file boxes. Then they were moved again, to WPFW's offices in Washington, where Bessie Wash will double as station manager and Pacifica's executive director. Wash made no public statements but signaled privately that she would try to bring peace. Her good-natured style is reflected in her station's laid-back on-air sound, and she is credited with putting the station in the black for the first time and with nearly doubling its audience. In early March, Wash (whose office declined an interview request) visited all the stations. At KPFA she impressed some staffers with her warmth and openness to their concerns, and she left behind some guarded optimism.

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...

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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
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 Pacifica activists were not so easily mollified. Websites and e-mail lists noted, accurately, that Wash's station was the most energetic in its application of the gag rule and that she had canceled a media-criticism program, Counterspin, whose spin was one-sidedly anti-Pacifica board. Other appointments were also suspect in the eyes of Pacifica dissidents. The chairman-elect, David Acosta, was linked to the discussions about selling stations. One appointee, John Murdock, was identified as a lawyer in a firm whose specialties included management representation in labor disputes. Berry's appointment of Ganter as interim program director was described by one KPFA program host as "giving us the finger" because of Ganter's role in taking the station off the air and locking out the staff last year.

On the sidelines, one important constituency, the station managers of Pacifica's sixty affiliate stations, was growing increasingly impatient and expressed concern that the seemingly endless dispute is causing the deterioration of the national programming that is most important to their stations. Pacifica provides the affiliates with a satellite distribution service and Pacifica programs at fees far below those of NPR. (In a move unrelated to the dispute, Jerry Brown, the gadfly former California governor, ended his popular talk show when he ran for mayor of Oakland. Bensky's daily show was cut back to Sunday only, at his request, and has aired only on KPFA since he was fired. Neither program was replaced, leaving Democracy Now! and PNN as Pacifica's only national offerings.)

Rob Lorei, news director of community station WMNF in Tampa, Florida, says Pacifica "shares our values--written in our station's mission statement--of social justice, peace and equality." He added, "We see ourselves as balancing the bias in the mainstream media, and that includes NPR." But, said Lorei, the turmoil, especially the perception of censorship, has gravely hurt Pacifica's credibility at his station. "Before, Pacifica was as good as gold to our listeners. But now we are hearing from listeners who say they don't trust Pacifica. They want to know if there is an alternative. And our listeners aren't political types like you have in New York and California." Lorei and other affiliates say that Pacifica's energies have been misplaced in internal struggles at the expense of moving forward to implement technological changes, such as expanding quickly into online webcasting and direct broadcast from satellites. "Pacifica will become an artifact or a dinosaur," Lorei said. "What's happening in media is passing them by--wireless Internet, satellite radio. They aren't there."

Richard Towne, who runs station KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which caters to a mix of progressive communities, with special emphasis on programming for Native Americans, joined a one-day boycott of Pacifica programs last October because he wanted "to send a message to the [Pacifica national] board that they aren't doing their job." Still, he said, he applauds the board for trying to move the network in the direction of building up national programming.

What can finally be said to make sense of so conflicted a tale? Pacifica has survived many quarrels, although it is hard to find one so long-lasting and bitter as this one. The network, in its 50s, has still not tapped out the reservoir of political commitment, affection and good feeling it earned in its early decades. There are no problems at Pacifica that cannot be fixed.

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