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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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Pacifica will always be political radio, but its future is obscured when the language of the debate is limited to political rhetoric. Yes, it comes down to speaking truth to power. But it is also a matter of magnifying the power to speak: Will Pacifica, with the political power of a nationwide radio network, with a potential audience almost as large as NPR's, make a serious effort to broadcast to an audience of millions, or will it be content to narrowcast to its current small core of listeners?

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.

It is a timid political vision that assumes that high-quality, progressive radio cannot be designed for a mass audience. Why is it a political sellout to design political programming that will appeal to significant numbers of the American people? Isn't it deeply defeatist to assume that Pacifica can only appeal to the small crowd of faithful who already listen? I think Marx, and certainly Gramsci, would roll over in their graves at that kind of leftist thinking.

At its heart, the debate inside Pacifica is not a political debate, even though it is cast in political terms. It is a debate over differing visions for the future of the network.

No, the KPFA staff are not ultraleft-overs from the sixties. They are serious journalists with serious concerns about maintaining their independence. Their vision is portrayed in general terms of local control and Pacifica's free-speech tradition, but in concrete terms it amounts to keeping things the way they are. It is a vision that resists putting more money into national programming--the one thing most likely to increase audience. Nor are Mary Francis Berry and her allies cryptofascists or Clinton clones. They want to push Pacifica in the direction of that larger national audience. But for the past year, they have failed to make a convincing case--or any case at all--that their controversial actions were part of a coherent strategy to achieve their legitimate vision. Firing people--for perceived insubordination and violation of a capriciously applied dirty-laundry rule--was hardly a tactic likely to win over already deeply suspicious staff members to the new vision for a growing national audience.

Some quiet progress in this direction has been made, however. The three "reformed" stations--Los Angeles, Houston and Washington--have greatly increased their audience numbers by doing a few simple things that make sense in radio terms. KPFA and WBAI have lagged behind, but they cannot be cut loose or cashed in--not without destroying Pacifica as we know it. The two largest stations have been the creative and journalistic heart of the network and are indispensable to any effort to revitalize its news and public-information programs. Without them, the stations with smaller staffs would face diminishing audience returns--forced to resort to folk music and jazz to continue audience growth.

NPR's success has already demonstrated that it is not music but news and serious public-affairs programming that build loyalty among the kind of people who listen to both NPR and Pacifica--concerned, socially active, racially diverse, educated and, yes, left-of-center citizens. But Pacifica does not have to become like NPR to gain its share of that audience. NPR went for and won the franchise for mainstream, straight journalism on radio. That leaves Pacifica free to reinvigorate the franchise it already owns: smart, in-your-face, contrarian coverage of the news with a preference for the progressive agenda. That is what Pacifica's sixty affiliates are clamoring for--even though of late they have become wearily skeptical that they will ever get it.

It is no mystery to anyone that the fighting must end for that to be accomplished. The mutual demonization must stop. Tension between national organizations and their local affiliates is inherent in the relationship--no matter what the organization or its politics. Consensus-building always works better than hierarchical decision-making. Pacifica's national leadership must lead the way out of the impasse. Two changes--call them concessions if you want--would help. One, the Pacifica board must rebuild its lost authority by creating a national governance structure that reconciles the stations' local community connections with the ability to implement national programming strategy. Second, let the journalists make the journalistic decisions. That simple principle was advocated in interviews with journalists on both sides of the conflict, including Larry Bensky and Mark Mericle of KPFA and Mark Bevis and Don Rush of Pacifica Network News. It is an approach that must include dumping the unworkable dirty-laundry rule and allowing Pacifica's news editors to formulate consistent editorial policies on how to cover news about Pacifica itself.

Pacifica has risen and then lost its way in perfect harmony with the waves of vitality and confusion in the American left. Perhaps Pacifica's next golden radio moments must await a new generation and the refocusing of the progressive movement itself.

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