Sunday, August 22, 2010

Facts about Cuba often not easy to ferret out

Posted on Sunday, 08.22.10
`Facts' about Cuba often not easy to ferret out

Reporting and writing on Cuba under the Castro brothers is like The
Perils of Pauline. Dangers abound. Make a mistake, and the train might
run you over.

The basic challenge is that information is often unreliable and sources
are hard to find.

In the past two weeks, the damsel in distress has been Juan Tamayo, who,
if not quite grizzled, is about as veteran a reporter as you will find
from the days when reporters were mostly scuffed-shoe males.

In two major front-page articles in The Herald and El Nuevo Herald, he
reported on the divisions between Fidel and Raúl Castro in one and, in
the other, about apparent plans in the Obama administration to lift some
travel restrictions to the island.

Careful readers will note that the articles rely largely on sources who
are either unnamed in Washington or once-removed from decision makers in

For some information, Tamayo went swimming in the turbulent waters of
the Cuban exile community, where there are many informed experts, and
also many axes to grind, too.

Can we trust the articles? The question takes on particular weight
because The Herald is the country's leading mainstream media source on
Cuba, and both stories dealt with major matters.

Here is the top of one: A clearly revived Fidel Castro marks his 84th
birthday Friday, officially out of government yet holding veto power
over brother Raúl's plans for economic reforms and hopes for improved
U.S. relations.

That much is pretty certain, said analysts in Cuba and abroad who have
watched Fidel make a dozen unusually public appearances after a
near-fatal health crisis in 2006 that forced him out of the limelight.

What remains less clear is the balance of power between Fidel and Raúl,
amid reports of tensions between the brothers and hints that the
succession from the older to the younger Castro is far from settled.

Here is the beginning of the other: The Obama administration will soon
ease some restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and other sanctions
following Havana's promise to free political prisoners, according to
people close to the administration.

Two people told El Nuevo Herald on Friday the decision has been made and
will be announced in the next two weeks. Another said he has heard the
reports but cautioned they could be trial balloons.

Who are these ``analysts in Cuba and abroad'' who know about the
mysterious power relations between Fidel and Raúl? Quite possibly, only
the two brothers know.

Tamayo named five sources. One was Vladimiro Roca, a dissident in Havana
itself and son of a founder of the Cuban Communist Party. The report
cited statements by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega to The Washington Post,
plus an unnamed ``Cuba analyst who asked for anonymity to protect his
sources'' about what the cardinal told U.S. officials in a recent visit
to Washington.

Armando F. Mastrapa, a blogger on Cuba's political-military affairs, was
quoted. So was Domingo Amuchastegui, a former foreign policy analyst
with Cuba's Interior Ministry now living in Miami. Norberto Fuentes, a
former member of the Castro brothers' inner circle who now lives in
Miami, was the last of the analysts.

I don't know any of them, and I suspect few readers do either. We are
asked to take Tamayo at his word that these named sources -- and one
unnamed one -- have reliable, informed insights.

The American democratic government is more open than the Cuban
dictatorship, yet Tamayo used all unnamed sources for the Washington
revelation. He wrote, moreover, that the sources were ``close to the
administration,'' not even in it. He added: ``All asked for anonymity
because they did not want to be seen as preempting a White House

Tamayo did get an administration statement, from Mike Hammer, spokesman
for the White House's National Security Council, but it neither
confirmed nor denied Tamayo's information. Tamayo also got a number of
on-the-record responses from political and other leaders. His exclusive
story later was copied by other news outlets.

We will know in a few weeks if the administration will indeed ease
travel restrictions to Cuba. Tamayo was careful to pass on the caution
from one source who said some of the information might be a ``trial
balloon'' to test what the political reaction might be.

We may not know about the relation between the elderly Castro brothers
until after they die, if then.

But we as readers want to know what we can now. The Castro government
usually refuses to allow Herald reporters into the country, and so they
regularly sneak in.

Tamayo told me that he has been covering Cuba off and on since 1978. He
said that every day, concerning Cuba, he reads some five to 10
unsolicited reports, a half dozen blogs, Granma, Juventud Rebelde and
mainstream news sources. He has built up a string of sources he trusts
in both countries. He said he is careful to vet that they are not simply
circulating rumors among themselves. Tamayo said that he sat on some of
the information concerning the brothers for months until he got enough

``Cuba is one of most opaque countries in the world,'' Tamayo said, but
``the Straits of Florida are not an insurmountable barrier.''

``There is much more of a flow of information than one imagines,'' he
said. ``Are my sources always right? Probably not, but at least you get
a sense of what is being talked about in the country.''

Tamayo, who has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Herald,
is now a reporter at El Nuevo Herald whose work appears in both papers.

``We have always strived for on-the-record sourcing,'' Manny Garcia,
executive editor of El Nuevo, told me. ``We know it's a matter of
credibility. There are certain beats -- in this case Cuba -- where
getting people on the record on the island is harder. The same holds
true with the long-standing battle of the Beltway to get D.C. sources to
speak for the record.''

Garcia said that reporters and editors are extra cautious on Cuba
stories because Herald readers analyze them ``line by line.''

``The advantage we have is that Juan has decades of experience dealing
with these thorny stories,'' Garcia said. ``He reports to City Editor
Andres Reynaldo, who also is a Cubanologist so to speak, as are our desk

This will get me in trouble with the journalism establishment and some
readers, but I think that Tamayo and The Herald bent over further than
needed to explain their use of anonymous sources. It doesn't help me to
know that some unnamed source didn't want to upstage the White House,
for example.

Such explanations have become de rigueur in recent years as a way to
build trust with readers, but they are as formulaic as the old ``sources

The Herald is right to avoid anonymous sources, but I trust Tamayo's
stories because he tells me what he doesn't know as much as what he
does, with an evident sense of honesty, deep information and
intelligence that leads me to trust him.

Some gurus says that the future of the news business is one in which
reporters, not companies, will be brands. These two stories support that

No comments:

Post a Comment