Whitewashing Castro’s Crimes

by | Apr 14, 2000 | Cuba & Castro, WORLD

One day Castro's brutality will end. But that end will not be hastened by the Western press, which cannot seem to shed its esteem for Fidelismo

It’s an old, old story. Lincoln Steffens, one of the best-known journalists of his day, went to the Soviet Union in 1919 — when the Red Terror was butchering people by the tens of thousands — and reported: “I have seen the future, and it works!” He was the first in a long line of journalists to whitewash the crimes of communist tyrants and minimize the anguish of their victims.

Two days before Elián Gonzalez’s father arrived in the United States last week, NBC aired a preview of the boy’s future if he is taken back to Cuba.

From Havana, reporter Jim Avila began with the “exclusive neighborhood” where Elián’s father lives and the “good jobs in the local government” held by members of his family. (Juan Miguel Gonzalez is a hotel cashier.) “If and when Elián returns,” Avila said, “he will become a 4-foot-tall deity in a country that officially does not believe in God…. His home, a two-bedroom converted garage that has been repainted and improved by the government, is comfortable. Here he has his own room, a luxury in housing-short Cuba.”

That was just the warm-up.

“Elián’s future here is likely to be the Cuban good life lived by Communist Party elite,” Avila gushed, “with perks like five free gallons of gasoline a month for the family, and a Cuban tradition called `La Jaba’ — the bag — which includes extra rice, beans, cooking oil, and sundries like deodorant, shampoo, razors, and shaving cream; about $15 a month worth of basics. Plus, invitations reserved for the party elite to cultural events, sports, discos, and restaurants, access to the best medicine, expensive drugs … not available to everyone in Cuba.”

As Brent Baker of the Media Research Center — whose treasure-trove of a Web site, www.mrc.org, transcribed much of Avila’s report — acidly comments: “Wow. How could anyone resist the promise of $15 worth of shampoo, deodorant, and rice in a bag?”

It is a strange kind of journalism that describes a converted garage and a bag of groceries as “perks” of the “good life” enjoyed by the “elite.” Strange — but familiar.

Forty years of communism have turned Cuba into a tropical hellhole, a land where life is so miserable that each year thousands of people risk everything to escape. Half of them meet the fate that befell 11 of the 13 refugees who were in the boat with Elián last fall. Yet time and again, journalists paint a glowing picture of Cuban society.

In 1988, Kathleen Sullivan of CBS spent two days broadcasting from Cuba. The lack of freedom or democracy on the island she mentioned only in passing; her reports were filled instead with upbeat paeans to Fidel Castro’s supposed achievements.

“This is a clinic,” she enthused in one segment. “It is the heart of a health care system which has been called a ‘revolution within a revolution.’ Of all the promises made by Fidel Castro in 1959, perhaps the boldest was to provide quality health care free for every citizen.”

The island’s young people, Sullivan declared, “all have benefited from Castro’s Cuba.” She interviewed only supporters of the regime, such as Sandra Levinson of the Center for Cuban Studies, who groused that “there are a lot of young people who simply cannot appreciate … what the revolution has given them.”

That was nothing next to the sugar-coating that Giselle Fernandez, also of CBS, gave Cuba a few years later.

“Welcome to Fidel Castro’s playground, Cuba’s Caribbean paradise,” she rhapsodized. “Cuba and its sultry beaches have become a major vacation hot spot.”

Fernandez didn’t note that human rights organizations identify the Castro regime as one of the world’s most repressive, or explain how the state uses prostitution to attract hard currency. She did reveal, though, that “along Havana’s famous seafront, a proud tradition of honoring a revolutionary hero is passed on to a new generation of Cubans. They sing songs of socialism, songs of tribute to Fidel Castro.”

This journalistic swoon for Castro has a flip side. If the Bearded One’s rule is romantic and admirable, those who oppose him must be crude and distasteful. Which pretty much sums up the way Castro’s fervent opponents — especially those in Florida — have been described throughout the Elián affair.

Some suggest “that it’s wrong to expect Elián Gonzalez to live in a place that tolerates no dissent or freedom of political expression,” a sarcastic Katie Couric opened NBC’s “Today” show one day last week. “They were talking about Miami.” Over on ABC, John Quinones complained that in Miami “everything is colored by a hatred of communism and Fidel Castro. It’s a community with very little tolerance for those who might disagree.”

On “Crossfire,” Bill Press compared the mayor of Miami — who said the city’s police would refuse to drag Elián from his relatives’ home — to Orval Faubus and George Wallace, two segregationist governors of the Jim Crow South. Time magazine’s Tim Padgett reached for the ultimate anti-communist bogeyman; the Miami relatives’ spokesman, he wrote, has “a heavy touch of Joe McCarthy in him.”

It’s an old, old story. Lincoln Steffens, one of the best-known journalists of his day, went to the Soviet Union in 1919 — when the Red Terror was butchering people by the tens of thousands — and reported: “I have seen the future, and it works!” He was the first in a long line of journalists to whitewash the crimes of communist tyrants and minimize the anguish of their victims.

One day Castro’s brutality will end. But that end will not be hastened by the Western press, which cannot seem to shed its esteem for Fidelismo.

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Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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