By Gloria La Riva
May 5, 2011
In 1998, five Cuban men were arrested by the U.S. government and tried in Miami on charges of conspiring to commit espionage on the United States.
The five men’s mission was to stop terrorism, keeping watch on Miami’s ultra-right extremists to prevent their violent attacks against Cuba. “The Cuban Five,” as they are now known, were convicted after repeated denials by the judge to move the trial venue out of Miami. The U.S. government insisted that they be tried in Miami.
What the Cuban Five and their attorneys did not know during trial was that the U.S. government—through its official propaganda agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors—was covertly paying prominent Miami journalists who, at the same time as the government conducted its prosecution, saturated the Miami media with reports that were highly inflammatory and prejudicial to the Cuban Five.
The presence of Miami journalists on the U.S. government payroll, who purported to report as “independent” press, goes to the heart of the unjust conviction of the Five. The Five were not only victims of a politically-motivated prosecution, but a government-funded propaganda operation as well.
Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for Colin Powell when he was Secretary State from 2001 to 2005, commented about the inability of the Cuban Five to receive a fair trial in Miami:
When the case came to trial, a change of venue was warranted and asked for because no Miami court was going to give the Cuban Five a fair trial, since the city is largely in the hands of some of the very Cuban-Americans and their supporters who've allegedly perpetrated these atrocities on the Cuban people and are prepared to invade the island. But the change of venue motion was denied. And of course the five were convicted.
Wilkerson has called for the release of the Cuban Five.
So, too, has former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who stated:
I believe that there is no reason to keep the Cuban Five imprisoned, there were doubts in the U.S. courts and also among human rights organizations in the world. Now, they have been in prison 12 years and I hope that in the near future they will be released to return home.
Digging up the truth
A multi-year effort by the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, the civil rights legal organization the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and, most recently, Liberation newspaper, has uncovered thousands of pages of previously unreleased materials exposing this government operation.
More than 2,200 pages of contracts between Miami journalists and Radio and TV Martí—released thus far to Liberation newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petition—expose the fallacy of an independent press in Miami.
This is the first in a series of articles about these new disclosures.
The BBG and its Office of Cuba Broadcasting have operated Radio Martí since 1985 and TV Martí since 1990. They broadcast into Cuba with the intent to destabilize the government. They also broadcast directly into Miami.
The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 regulating U.S. “public diplomacy” abroad—Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio and TV Martí, etc.—prohibits the U.S. government from funding activities to influence and propagandize domestic public opinion, see 22 U.S.C. § 1461.
The U.S. government has funneled nearly half a billion dollars into the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Miami. With an annual budget nearing $35 million, the OCB and BBG put on their payroll domestic journalists to broadcast the same message inside and outside the United States on Cuba-related issues, effectively violating the law against domestic dissemination of U.S. propaganda.
The earliest documents obtained thus far from the BBG go back to Nov. 1, 1999. Despite the FOIA petition request for data on the journalists going back to the date of the shoot-down in 1996—which also covers the date of the Five’s 1998 arrest—the BBG has so far refused to comply, claiming that contracts and other documents have been destroyed.
These contracts evidence the U.S. government’s payments to journalists in Miami whose reports constituted a sustained effort to create an atmosphere of hysteria and bias against Cuba and the Cuban Five. Three of the Cuban Five—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino—have filed habeas corpus appeals arguing that their constitutional rights to due process were grossly undermined by the government’s media operation in Miami and payments to the Miami reporters.
The reportage of these journalists and their contracts with the government demonstrate a close partnership between Washington and right-wing Cuban exile reporters. Prominent journalists who churn out biased anti-Cuba themes in the Miami media are richly rewarded with contracts from the BBG.
Headquartered in Miami, Radio and TV Martí are the only U.S. propaganda stations that operate outside of the Washington, D.C., area. Moving to Miami in 1997, they were able to recruit a stable of virulent anti-Cuba reporters.
Those contracted by the U.S. government also served as guests, hosts, regular commentators and writers of shows such as “Actualidad Mundial” (“World Update”), “Mesa Redonda” (“Roundtable”) and regular daily newscasts. In other words, they directed and shaped the message. At the same time that they are employed by the U.S. government, these journalists also hold themselves out as independent reporters covering U.S.-Cuban affairs in other media.
Such is the case with Pablo Alfonso and Ariel Remos.
Reporters condemn the Five before trial
Pablo Alfonso was a longtime reporter for El Nuevo Herald. The contracts released by the Liberation newspaper FOIA show that Alfonso received BBG payments of $58,600 during the Cuban Five’s trial during the period between Nov. 1, 1999 and Dec. 31, 2001. His total payments were $252,325 through Aug. 22, 2007.
Ariel Remos is a longtime reporter and commentator for Diario Las Américas. Remos received BBG payments of $11,750 during the Five’s trial from Nov. 1, 1999 to Dec. 12, 2001—roughly the same time span as Alfonso. His total pay was $24,350 through Nov. 20, 2006.
During the Cuban Five’s prosecution, both Alfonso and Remos wrote incendiary articles that were placed in the Miami media accusing the Cuba government of murder.
Brothers to the Rescue had repeatedly sent planes to invade Cuban airspace in 1995 and early 1996, including buzzing Havana buildings and dropping thousands of leaflets over the city. With the Brothers to the Rescue’s public announcement that they would once again fly into Cuban territory on Feb. 24, Cuba warned that it would take direct action if the planes invaded again. When the planes crossed into Cuban airspace, they were shot down.
Virtual hysteria and demand for vengeance became pervasive in the Miami media in the aftermath of the shoot-down.
Despite being in Miami, not Cuba, and playing no role whatsoever in Cuba’s action to defend its territory, Hernández became a scapegoat. Seven months after the Five were arrested, Hernández was charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Although trial judge Joan Lenard later claimed that the non-sequestered jury was sufficiently shielded from the media with her instructions that they should not follow the news during the trial, the Miami community had already been inundated with inflammatory coverage on the shoot-down for almost five years before the jury was selected.
Alfonso and Remos pounded a steady drumbeat to condemn Fidel Castro for the plane shoot-down, and interviewed others who demanded his arrest for “murder.” Their articles were inflammatory and sensationalist.
In 1999, while under contract with the U.S. government, Remos interviewed Tampa attorney Ralph Fernández—the legal representative of José Basulto, the president of Brothers to the Rescue.
The article by Remos, dated Nov. 28, 1999, states:
… [I]n the case of U.S. v. Gerardo Hernández, in which Caroline Heck-Miler has been serving as the prosecutor and where the chain of command and cause for the death of the four members of Brothers to the Rescue – three of them citizens of the US and one resident – supposedly begins with Fidel Castro.
Castro, therefore, is in the referenced case accused of murder and under investigation for murder; and if he sets foot on United States territory he can be arrested and brought before the justice of this country. That is the opinion of attorney Fernández, and that is how he just told it to DIARIO LAS AMERICAS.
The harm created by the partnership between the government and its paid journalists was reinforced during the trial itself.
The trial began in November 2000 and concluded in June 2001.
Three months into the trial, an article by Ariel Remos appeared in Diario las Americas (Feb. 27, 2001) under the headline “Jeane Kirkpatrick Asks Ashcroft to Prosecute Cuban Officials for International Terrorism.” The article reveals a letter to the new Bush administration attorney general, John Ashcroft, written by Kirkpatrick, the neo-conservative U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration.
The article highlights the claim made in the letter to Ashcroft that “in the upcoming trial of five Cuban officials in Florida, evidence has come forward that the murders [of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots] were premeditated,” as well as the complaint that the “highest authorities who approved this act of state terrorism, have still not been charged.”
On its face, the “arrangement” between the government and the journalists covering Cuba and the Cuban Five prosecution clearly impacts—or rather negates—the possibility of a fair trial in Miami. But the government, in its April 25, 2011, “Response in Opposition” to a motion filed by Gerardo Hernández that appeals his double life sentence, puts forth a simple “you can’t ever catch me” defense.
The government’s recent response, filed by the Obama administration’s Justice Department attorneys, argues that the articles written by the government’s paid journalists could have no possible impact either because A) they were published before the trial started; or B) they were published after the trial started and the jury was empanelled and admonished by the judge not to be influenced by the media.
Thus, hostile and inflammatory media coverage could never be harmful to the defendants. According to the government, its pumping millions of dollars into the so-called “independent” media in Miami is of no significance or impropriety.
However, the U.S. prosecutors knew that the judge’s instructions were insufficient to protect the trial process from undue media influence, as demonstrated by the government's motion filed by prosecutor Caroline Heck-Miller in December 2000 seeking a gag order to prohibit the press from quoting potential witnesses – out of concern that those witnesses would help the defense.
The motion was filed after one potential witness, Richard Nuccio, had expressed disgust at learning that the FBI was aware that the shoot-down might occur before it had taken place.
The government's motion stated: “…the jury in this trial has been strictly instructed not to read press accounts of the case, and there is no reason to believe that they have disregarded their instruction. Nonetheless, unbridled comment by persons who are designated witnesses in this matter, contrary to the Court’s clear directives, poses risks to the process that none of the parties should have to endure.” (emphasis added)
The government knew and admitted the media could influence the jury. And it continued to pay reporters who were doing just that. It continued to simultaneously prosecute the Cuban Five in Miami in the midst of press-generated anti-Cuba hysteria that it generously funded.
Creating a climate of hysteria
Some of the journalists on the government payroll as of the date of the earliest 1999 documents released by the FOIA request were writing prejudicial articles about the Five immediately after their arrest.
The coverage went far beyond regular news reporting on a breaking story of the arrests to create the specter of a supposed threat that the just-arrested defendants and Cuba held for the United States.
On Sept. 16, 1998, four days after the arrest of the Five, Pablo Alfonso published a highly-inflammatory and unsubstantiated charge of a link of Cuba and its agents with terrorism. It appeared in El Nuevo Herald, titled “Possible Alliance with Terrorism.”
As evidenced by documents released to the National Committee, Alfonso received over $250,000 in BBG contracts between 1999 and 2007.
The surprising offensive against an alleged network of Cuban spies in Miami, may be an action aimed at preventing a possible collaboration between the Cuban government and countries involved in terrorist actions against the United States, according to military and intelligence experts who expressed this to El Nuevo Herald.
In his article, Alfonso quotes Orestes Lorenzo, an ex-major of the Cuban Air Force who deserted to the United States in 1991:
“It’s ridiculous to assume that the Cuban army can do something serious to the powerful US military”, Lorenzo indicated. “However, if we think in terms of services provided to terrorist groups or nations like Libya, Iran or the like, things change.”
Lorenzo said that he isn’t surprised Fidel Castro’s regime is “lending or selling its intelligence services” to Islamic terrorist groups or powerful nations that are interested in carrying out terrorist acts on U.S. territory.
Alfonso’s unsubstantiated story ends by turning the speculation of Cuba’s link to “Islamic” terrorists into a fact.
This type of reporting contributed the political context and climate facing the Cuban Five following their arrest and all the way through their trial, jury deliberations and ultimate conviction. Cuba was painted as a terrorist entity by the Miami media, including by the inflammatory reports of anti-Castro journalists who wrote during the same period that the U.S. government was prosecuting the Cuban Five in Miami and who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government.
Wilfredo Cancio Isla, according to contracts published by Liberation newspaper, received $4,725 from Sept. 30, 2000, to Dec. 3, 2001—dates within the period of the Five’s prosecution. His contract P109-1036 with Radio Martí committed him to weekly “debate” participation on the station through Sept. 30, 2001. His total pay was $21,800 through Nov. 20, 2006.
During this same period, Cancio published the unsubstantiated U.S. government accusations in El Nuevo Herald that the jury was not permitted to hear in the courtroom. Yet those charges would appear in the press for all to read, including the unsequestered jury.
On June 4, 2001, the day the jury was to begin deliberations, a Cancio article appeared in El Nuevo Herald with the headline “Cuba Used Hallucinogens to Train its Spies.”
This inflammatory article—supposedly based on information from an anonymous “Cuban spy defector”—claimed that Cuba gave LSD and other hallucinogens for “behavior modification” for the purposes of “intelligence and counter-intelligence.”
The supposed “anonymous” ex-spy defector given two pseudonyms—Alex and José—conveniently links the drug accusation with the Cuban Five. Cancio writes:
Cuba experimented with hypnosis techniques and hallucinogens to "modify the behavior" of numerous agents who were sent abroad ... "Among these hallucinogens were psilocybin and LSD. ..." [as described by his source, Alex]
“I can assure you that the Wasp Network (broken up in September 1998) is just a part of the espionage work that was conceived to infiltrate the United States on a long-term basis,” said Alex, who now lives in southern Florida. [The Wasp Network is a reference to the Cuban Five.]
It is clear that the Cuban Five political prisoners were victims of vicious anti-Cuba propaganda by reporters on the payroll of their very accusers, the U.S. government.
The Reporters for Hire website will soon be publishing other articles and releasing additional documents obtained from the BBG exposing this illegal government propaganda operation and manipulation of the justice system.
Click here to be notified by email as analysis and documents are released on www.ReportersForHire.org.
Contributing to this article was Ben Becker, editor of Liberation newspaper.