Is the US media softening its line on Cuba?

Summer 2015

The Miami Five believe there has been a positive shift in the US media’s reporting on Cuba since the decision of the two countries to re-establish relations in December. This is also the view of journalist Keith Bolender who recently interviewed the Five on the subject for his new book

The Miami Five have first-hand experience of the negative consequences of US propaganda against their country following their unfair and politically charged trial in Miami 16 years ago.

Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González were in agreement that there has been a perceptible change in the coverage of Cuba by the United States’ mainstream media since President Obama changed the political dynamics between the two countries.

As Gerardo noted, he has seen specific examples that indicate a new attitude. “In the Miami Herald there was an article recently and they called us the ‘Cuban heroes’, that was the first time they used that term. They previously always called us ‘Cuban spies’. And the Herald is usually anti-Cuban so you know there is something happening when they change their style.”

Gerardo pointed to the New York Times helping to lead the way in this new approach to Cuba. “Cuba used to be evil, and now we’re having good relations. The New York Times ran a series of stories prior to Obama’s announcement, positive articles. So the mainstream media in the Unites States prepares the people, and now they are preparing them for normal relations with Cuba.”

Of the five Cuban heroes unjustly imprisoned for their attempts to infiltrate anti-revolutionary terrorist organisations in Florida, Gerardo faced the longest punishment of two life sentences plus 15 years, with the least hope of ever returning to Cuba.  His release, along with the other two still in jail, (Antonio and Ramón), came as a satisfying resolution to those fighting for their freedom. And the people of Cuba have been doing their best to show how important that freedom means.

Gerardo admits he has been “amazed at the reaction I have received since coming back home. I’m doing my best to give back all the love I’ve received. Sometimes it’s difficult, overwhelming, all the demands on my time. When I go out, the people all want to hug me, to touch me, you know how the Cubans are. And it’s hard for me sometimes because in prison you don’t get close, you erect a barrier around yourself, for protection. That’s been an adjustment.  But it has been so wonderful.”

He laughed at the fame he is now receiving. “Many people ask for my autograph, I have to keep a pen with me all the time.” And he keeps his new daughter Gema just as close. “Gema is beautiful and fine, she is a quiet baby, sleeps all night, she is a joy.”

Fernando González, the second of the Five to be released after serving their full sentence, pointed out that the American media is a powerful force in shaping the general public’s often negative opinion about his country. Nowhere was that more evident in how the local media covered the trial of the Five.

The media certainly had a negative effect on our trial, we didn’t have a chance of being treated fairly, the coverage was so bad we were convicted before the trial began.”

He remembered the judge at one point did issue a gag order against coverage of the trial, “but it was mostly directed at the defence, who were demonstrating that what we were doing was not spying, but trying to stop terrorism. So the gag was mostly to make sure the real information didn’t get out; but it didn’t stop all the negative articles that convicted us and turned the community against us before the trial started.”

While Fernando notes that the coverage of Cuba since the Revolution has been consistently anti-revolutionary, “particularly in South Florida which promotes that hostility” there is a new approach in some sections of the media. “The intent to establish relations has helped in better coverage, more balanced but there are still the pre-conceived attitudes about Cuba – that the new relationship will change Cuba, help bring down the Revolution because of American ideas, that the Cubans are desperate for the Americans to come with their culture and economy and democracy, as they define it. That won’t happen; the Revolution will grow and strengthen once we have normal relations.”

If the Americans want to bring “freedom to Cuba,” Fernando smiles, “we already have it.  I wasn’t a free man till I arrived in Cuba on the day of my release. And wasn’t free till all the Five were free.”

He also pointed to the New York Times series of articles that were published before the announcement as preparing the American public for a new relationship with Cuba. “I think they perceived something would be changing and it helped establish the acceptance of the normalisation process. It’s hard to believe it was just a co-incidence the Times ran these stories when they did, just before the announcement. The Times represents the power establishments of the United States, and they don’t do anything without co-ordinating it with the White House.”

The interviews of the Five will be part of the new book by Canadian author, Keith Bolender, examining the influence the US media has had on creating the misconceptions and myths about the Cuban Revolution in support of their hostile policy of regime change against Cuba. It is expected out next year.

While the American media stance on Cuba might be perceived as a little softer, the way the Five were treated is a stark example of how anti-Cuban propaganda has been the mainstay for the past 50 years.

Antonio Guerrero well remembers how the case was entirely misreported in order to present the agents in the worst possible light.

“The media consistently said I had access to top secret documents, because I worked in the military air base. I never at any time had got top secret documents,   didn’t know what top secret means. You do this with a clear heart to protect the people. We all knew the history of terrorism against our country, and I wanted to help prevent it. But I never at any time compromised any secret documents or the security of the United States.”

Antonio stresses the prosecution and the media, knew “what I was doing at Boca Chica and I did nothing, they knew I wouldn’t do anything that would harm the US. I was naïve, they thought I could do something bad? I was told if I see some movement at the base, if the movement was not normal then you report it. But that was an open base, anyone could see movement, you didn’t have to be working there. Cuba didn’t want any conflict with US, but we had to know if there were more terrorist acts being planned.”

After Antonio’s life sentence one of the hardest things he had to face was the knowledge he’d be sent to a maximum security penitentiary. “I knew I was going to go to a place that’s a tough place. I saw lots of violence there and then I said if I have to die here I’ll die happy. I can’t let it affect me, my heart was clean. In prison I became a poet, teacher, painter and I was ready to die.” Antonio’s sentence was reduced on appeal and he was scheduled for release in 2017.

Gerardo explained that the media treated the case of the Five in various ways.

“It went through stages of coverage. At first they always called us spies, we explained we were not spies, but it didn’t matter they always called us spies. So we had no chance right from the start. Then for a long time the mainstream media didn’t address the case at all; even though this had everything – terrorism, politics, Cuba-US relations, intelligence agents. But they ignored it because there were too many things the media didn’t want the public to know about, the history of terrorism, and why we were there.  Except in the media in Miami, and that coverage was awful.

“We found out later that some journalists in Miami, about five, were paid by the US government,” Gerardo said. “The press there would reproduce comments from the prosecutor, who said we were ‘bent on the destruction of the United States’ – can you imagine that? How ridiculous. The corporate media coverage was bad, but it was so much worse in Miami.  The radio stations, TV stations, they’d spend 24 hours a day about anti-Cuban things. And then they’d spend 24 hours a day about us, all negative of course. I heard once on the radio that ‘give them to us and we’ll hang them.’ It was amazing.”

Despite the irregularities in the trial, and the negative press coverage, the Five maintained, “Our dignity, we never begged, and we knew what they were going to give us but we never wavered in our position that what we were doing was in order to protect our people from terrorism,” Gerardo said.

René González remembered that the Five’s dignified stance even provoked the media to come up with such outlandish claims that the Cuban government trained their agents to use hallucinogenic drugs in order to maintain their appearance.

While the case of the Five can be considered one of the worst examples of American media coverage of Cuba, it is one of many throughout the past five decades. Incidents include the coverage of Alan Gross, the American contractor convicted of bringing in illegal high-tech communications equipment to Cuba, covered in the American media as a tourist arrested for bringing telephones into the country. And while the American media has often portrayed Cuba in the worst possible light, they have also done an effective job in keeping the US public ignorant of America’s long history of terrorism against Cuban civilians – the reason why the Five were needed in Florida.

That mainstream media blackout extends to the most infamous act of terrorism against Cuba, the bombing of Cubana Airlines in 1976. It was that incident that continues to influence the collective memory of the Cuban people, and helped convince those such as Ramón Labañino to do whatever necessary to prevent other acts of terrorism.

“Everyone remembers where they were when it happened, and the million people at the memorial at Revolutionary Square. It had such an impact, and remains so much unknown outside of Cuba because the international media often ignores it.” Ramon, who infiltrated many of the worst elements of the anti-revolutionary terrorist groups in Florida, stated it was something he felt had to be done to prevent further deaths in Cuba. “The United States has supported terrorism and we have had to live under it for many years. We have had to defend ourselves against all these different actions. You have to be conscious against these actions, against your country.  We are a small island but we have the right to defend ourselves and the Revolution.”

Keith Bolender is a lecturer in journalism and the award winning  author of two books on Cuba – ‘Voices From the Other Side;: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba’, and’ Cuba Under Siege;:American Policy, the Revolution and its People’.  He will be speaking at Cuban Futures 2015 on Saturday 3 October, and in Glasgow, Liverpool, Derby, Birmingham, Northampton, Canterbury and London as part of a speaking tour.

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