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Posted May 19, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By JOHN J. MILLER | The New York Post | Opinion

IT wasn’t the most sophisticated hijacking ever planned.

In Havana Bay on April 2, a small group of Cubans armed with a pistol and several knives seized control of a 45-foot ferryboat and ordered the pilot to head for Florida.

The Baragua carried 50 passengers, and two Cuban patrol boats pursued it out to sea. Some 30 miles from Havana, in international waters, the ferryboat ran out of gas. The hijackers agreed to be towed back to port, apparently with the hope that they might be allowed to refuel and try again.

But Cuban police stormed the vessel and arrested them. The three ringleaders were given a quick trial; at dawn on April 11, they went before a firing squad. Fidel Castro personally approved their sentences.

Here’s a fact about the executed men that’s gone virtually unnoticed: Lorenzo Copello Castillo, Barbaro Sevilla Garcia, and Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac were black.

“This is very important,” says Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami. Though Castro and his top officials are white, dark-skinned Afro-Caribbeans account for about two-thirds of the island’s population - and many of its leading dissidents.

They are among the most restless of Cuba’s people, in part because they’re the poorest. Afro-Caribbeans don’t receive cash remittances from relatives in Miami, and are blocked from many of the coveted tourist-industry jobs. “By executing them, Castro was sending a clear message to a certain segment of the population,” says Suchlicki. “But nobody’s picked up on this. Certainly not CNN.”

To many Cuban Americans, CNN is the “Castro News Network” - an organization that lends legitimacy to a corrupt regime and sneers at the exile community in Miami. CNN is the only American television network to keep a bureau in Havana, in part because Castro maintains tight control over journalistic access to Cuba.

In a comprehensive report released last year, the Media Research Center concluded, “CNN has allowed itself to become just another component of Fidel Castro’s propaganda machine.” The network certainly hasn’t done much to describe the harsh realities of life in one of the world’s last Communist holdouts.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. “We will pull no punches,” promised chief news executive Eason Jordan when the bureau was opened in 1997. “If we get booted out, we get booted out.” But CNN’s record with ruthless dictators has been less than stellar - as Jordan himself admits. In an April column for The New York Times, he referred to “awful things that could not be reported” by CNN’s Baghdad bureau “because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis.”

That’s a dilemma, to be sure, but CNN didn’t respond by yanking its people out of Baghdad. Instead, it decided to pull some punches. “Now that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment,” wrote Jordan.

He’s right about that: The horror stories are flowing freely - now. But cable news is supposed to work faster than that. Last fall, before the war, Jordan assured The New Republic’s Franklin Foer that CNN’s Baghdad reporting presented a “full picture of the regime.” We now know that it didn’t.

We did not and have not made any journalistic compromises in order to report from Cuba,” says Jordan today. “CNN’s reporting from Cuba has been forthright and tough.” Yet we have every reason to be skeptical. Most Cubans can’t see the network, but Castro has watched it for more than two decades, picking up a signal from South Florida.

In 1982, CNN founder Ted Turner paid a visit, and Castro taped a promotional spot for the network. Turner was smitten. He called Castro “a hell of a guy,” and never looked back.

During an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1986, Turner pulled out a photograph: “Here’s us hunting. Twenty-two attempts on his life by the CIA and I’m sitting next to him with a loaded rifle. Can you believe that? . . . I could’ve shot him in the back.” Turner drew a geopolitical lesson from the experience. “Look, this shows what I’m talking about. People are not all that different - all this killing and arms race is for nothing.”

Years later, Turner was still swooning for the strongman. “Everyone in Cuba likes him,” he told The Washington Post in 2001.

That’s clearly the impression you would get from watching CNN. During the first five years of the Havana bureau’s existence, ordinary Cubans interviewed by the network were six times more likely to express agreement with the regime than they were to disagree with it.

That finding comes from a Media Research Center report examining all 212 prime-time news stories produced by the Havana bureau through the first part of 2002. Other data were just as striking: For instance, Castro and his spokesmen were six times more likely than regime critics to provide soundbites for the network, and only seven of the 212 stories focused on dissidents. (Jordan insists the MRC was “misleading and unfair” because its prime-time figures didn’t include every report CNN has filed from Cuba.)

This comes as no surprise to people who know Lucia Newman, CNN’s Havana bureau chief. “When we heard CNN got a Havana bureau, we knew right away who would be going there,” says Paul Scoskie, a retired ABC News producer who first met Newman in the 1980s, when they both were covering Central America. (Newman started with CNN in 1986, as its bureau chief in Managua.) “We used to watch Lucia file her stories from Nicaragua, just amazed at how she reported some events.”

Adds Peter Collins, a former ABC and CNN foreign correspondent: “There were reporters you could always rely upon to follow the Sandinista line, and she was one of them.”

Newman, however, doesn’t always follow the Castro line. “She really doesn’t like Castro,” says Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald, another veteran reporter who has known Newman for a long time. Yet she does insist on referring to Castro as “president” - as if he were something other than an autocrat.

She also seems to hold Cuba’s revolutionary ideals in high regard. “In Cuba, they adore children. Children roam around freely. There’s fresh air, and [my kids] are going to live in a non-consumer society for a while,” she bubbled to the Herald in 1997, as the Havana bureau was setting up.

Newman’s reports often hold the United States and Cuba in moral equivalence. Stories about economic problems in Cuba will dutifully cite the American trade embargo as a prime cause, with hardly any consideration for the glaring failure of Marxist economics. (Newman also seems not to have noticed that the entire rest of the world does trade with Castro’s regime.)

Even Cuba’s plainly fraudulent elections are treated seriously: Newman once suggested that Castro could teach Americans a thing or two about democracy because his rigged campaigns include “no dubious campaign spending” and “no mud-slinging.”

During the 2000 election deadlock in Florida, CNN gave airtime to an editorial from Granma, Cuba’s state-run newspaper, calling the United States “a banana republic.” It also showed Castro visiting the beach on Election Day, in a public-relations stunt that was meant to highlight low voter turnout. Get it? Americans don’t go to the voting booth, they go to the beach.

When CNN opened its Havana bureau, it became the first U.S. news group to be allowed a permanent presence since the Associated Press was kicked out 28 years earlier. AP has since gone back in, as have the Dallas Morning News and the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

The Miami Herald, whose readership probably cares more about Cuba than any other demographic in the United States, has been locked out. Its reporters occasionally receive temporary visas, but these are rare. Requests for a bureau have been ignored. When Herald writers do go, they’re harassed. “I was once on the island for two weeks and had my tires slashed five times,” says Mimi Whitefield, who covered Cuba in the early 1990s.

The Herald’s Cuba beat now belongs to Nancy San Martin. In two years, she has been allowed to make only one trip. “It’s extremely frustrating,” she says.

Yet not having a bureau may be an advantage. The trouble with a permanent presence in a place like Havana is that reporters are forced to compromise - as CNN’s experience in Baghdad revealed.

Today, CNN covers the Cuba stories that everybody covers, such as the 75 dissidents given long sentences in Castro’s latest crackdown. But it rarely probes deeper questions, such as the racial motivations behind the incarceration and execution of the ferryboat hijackers.

A reporter based in a totalitarian society is under tremendous pressure not to make mistakes that could lead to the loss of an expensive bureau. Getting kicked out of Havana or Baghdad may make you a First Amendment hero for a few days, but it will also mark you, within a media company, as a troublemaker.

The pressure to satisfy several masters inevitably results in a mealy-mouthed journalism that looks tyranny in the face - and flinches.

John J. Miller is a political reporter at National Review. From the June 2 NR.

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