Fidel’s Flatterers: The U.S. Media’s Decades of Cheering Castro’s Communism

November 26th, 2016 9:10 AM

While every other country in the Western Hemisphere moved towards democracy, Cuba remained a one-party state under dictator Fidel Castro, who held power without free elections from 1959 until health problems forced him to step aside in 2006. Castro’s communist regime executed hundreds of political opponents and drove tens of thousands more into exile; hundreds of dissidents today languish in Cuban prisons. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all listed Castro’s Cuba as among the worst violators of human rights on the planet, while the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the harassment and imprisonment of journalists.

Yet liberals in the U.S. media — who rightly condemned such abuses when perpetrated by dictators such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet — inexplicably remain enchanted with Castro and his socialist revolution. For more than five decades, positive profiles of Castro have appeared in U.S. papers. Back on January 18, 1959, New York Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews exulted in Castro’s seizure of Cuba: “Everybody here seems agreed that Dr. Castro is one of the most extraordinary figures ever to appear on the Latin-American scene. He is by any standards a man of destiny.

For almost 30 years, the Media Research Center has documented the liberal media’s infatuation with Fidel Castro and Cuba’s communism. The most laudatory coverage of Castro and his communist revolution’s “achievements” have come when an American news network decides to visit Cuba for an in-depth examination. Invariably, the U.S. networks granted access to Cuba have rewarded the communist government with promotional coverage of both Fidel Castro and the supposed achievements of his revolution:

■ In February 1988, just weeks after the State Department named communist Cuba one of the worst human rights oppressors in the world, NBC’s Today program sent its cameras to the island to investigate. NBC’s conciliatory approach allowed Castro to spew lies about his drug connections and the wonderful achievements of the Cuban revolution. Anchor Maria Shriver gushed: “The level of public services was remarkable: free education, medicine and heavily subsidized housing,” while reporter Ed Rabel was equally promotional: “There is, in Cuba, government intrusion into everyone’s life, from the moment he is born until the day he dies. The reasoning is that the government wants to better the lives of its citizens and keep them from exploiting or hurting one another....On a sunny day in a park in the old city of Havana it is difficult to see anything that is sinister.”

■ In December 1988, CBS This Morning spent two days reporting from Cuba. CBS all but ignored the totalitarian nature of the Cuban regime, only alluding in passing to the human rights violations, the lack of civil liberties, and the disastrous economic condition brought on by the communist system. Co-host Kathleen Sullivan was enthusiastic about the benefits of Castro’s revolution: “Half of the Cuban population is under the age of 25, mostly Spanish speaking, and all have benefitted from Castro’s Cuba, where their health and their education are priorities.” In a second report, she touted Cuba’s socialized medicine: “Of all the promises made by Fidel Castro in 1959, perhaps the boldest was to provide quality health care free for every citizen. Did he deliver? In many ways the answer is yes!”
■ In April 1989, ABC anchor Peter Jennings went to Cuba and provided his own optimistic report card on Cuban communism: “Castro has delivered the most to those who had the least,” declared Jennings on the April 3 World News Tonight, “and for much of the Third World, Cuba is actually a model of development.” Jennings also fell for the state’s line on health care: “Medical care was once for the privileged few. Today it is available to every Cuban and it is free. Some of Cuba’s health care is world class. In heart disease, for example, in brain surgery. Health and education are the revolution’s great success stories.” Jennings concluded by repeating the words of a Cuban woman: “For me, he [Castro] is God. I love him very much.”


■ On the April 1, 1990 NBC Nightly News, Ed Rabel extolled the “benevolence” Cuba’s dictators bestowed on Cuba’s youth: “They are the healthiest and most educated young people in Cuba’s history. For that, many of them say they have Castro and his socialist revolution to thank....If they long for the sweeping changes occurring in Eastern Europe, they are not saying so publicly....To the extent he can, Castro has been rewarding young people. For example, on their return home [from Angola], the 300,000 Cubans sent to Africa were first in line for housing, jobs, and education. Such benevolence breeds dedication, some young people say.”

■ For two years, PBS refused to air Nobody Listened, a documentary account of the harsh treatment of Cuba’s political prisoners. In August 1990, PBS finally capitulated but “balanced” the damning expose of Castro’s prisons with the explicitly pro-communist film, The Uncompromising Revolution by Saul Landau, Senior Fellow at the radical Institute for Policy Studies. Landau followed Castro around the countryside, describing how the “force of nature” gave Cuba “action-packed decades of experiments in collective survival and socialist living.” Landau tingled his way through the hour like an overaged groupie: “Fidel touched this young machine adjuster and the man enjoyed a mild ecstasy. I know the feeling.” To PBS, “balance” meant giving a pro-Castro propagandist equal time with the dictator’s victims.


■ In an April 28, 1991 “Outlook” article, Washington Post Assistant Foreign Editor Don Podesta claimed: “If nothing else, the Cuban revolution has eliminated abject need. The cost may be generalized poverty and zero political pluralism, but, even with shortages, there is no starvation here. Education and medical care are assured for all. And, unlike in most of Latin America, you don’t see naked or even shoeless children in the streets. When Castro speaks of the need to defend the gains of revolution, he means a level of social welfare rare in the underdeveloped world.”

■ In April 1991, Ted Turner’s TBS station ran a two-hour homage, Portrait of Castro’s Cuba. Narrator James Earl Jones read a gushing, pro-Castro script: “Incessantly involved in affairs around the globe, this island nation has won the respect, sometimes grudgingly, of countries twenty times its size. Castro’s Cuba stands tall in the ranks of nations....Today is a passionate display of national pride. These men [Cuban soldiers returning from Angola] are symbols of all that Castro’s Cuba has aspired to be: A nation to be reckoned with. A major player on the world stage. Defiant, spirited, free.” To show how the Cuban people feel about Fidel, the program quoted an armed militia member: “We want Fidel, he is our father, he is the father of our people. The Revolution is our mother and we feel proud.”

■ In March 1993, ABC’s Diane Sawyer traveled to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro for Prime Time Live, but only once did she raise the issue of human rights abuses and political prisoners. Upon the dictator’s denial, she dropped the matter completely. The remainder of the interview had the coziness of a People magazine profile: “He grew up a first-rate baseball player and lawyer who married once, divorced. But was mainly driven by his burning desire to crush Cuba’s American-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista. It began with a daredevil attack on the military barracks. Jail. His exile. Then a death-defying two-year fight in the mountains of the Sierra Maestre. He and his small band of soldiers endured and won only because of Castro’s invincible certainty of their destiny.”


■ In November 1993, CBS This Morning reporter Giselle Fernandez spent three days in Cuba delivering what she admitted was a “pretty postcard” view of the communist island: “Welcome to Fidel Castro’s playground, Cuba’s Caribbean paradise few have seen, a Cuba the commandante is now inviting the world to enjoy. It’s the promised land Cuba is hoping will guarantee a promising future. In the last two years alone, Cuba and its sultry island beaches has become a major vacation hot spot...While tourism may be changing the landscape of Cuba’s Caribbean shores, Fidel Castro is banking on it to save his workers’ paradise from becoming a paradise lost.” In three days of live reports, Fernandez devoted exactly one sentence to Castro’s human rights abuses.     

■ In July 1996, CBS’s Dan Rather traveled to Cuba for a CBS Reports prime time documentary, The Last Revolutionary. Rather and Castro hiked together in the mountains where Castro plotted to overthrow the Cuban government. “We walked the paths he’d walked before,” Rather announced. “This is the Cuban Revolution’s holy land. From these mountains, Castro’s guerrilla army took a dream and gave it life, made it known in every village, made it real in every home across Cuba.” Rather gushed about Cuban schools: “The educational system is a jewel in the society his revolution has built....It’s a source of great pride for the President, as is Cuba’s literacy rate — virtually 100 percent.” But he also confronted Castro about his wretched record of oppression: “There are people in my country who say to me, ‘Dan Rather, you’re being fooled,’ that when the history of Fidel Castro is written it will be like Stalin was in the Soviet Union.” Castro said there was “zero possibility” of history rendering such a judgment.


■ In January 1998 on CNN’s The World Today, Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman even managed to put a positive spin on Castro’s rigged one-party elections: “Cuban President Fidel Castro cast his vote in Sunday’s national and provincial assembly elections with enthusiasm. No dubious campaign spending here, no mud slinging, and even less doubt about the outcome in elections where there is no competition. That is because there are as many candidates as seats to be filled, all of them by supporters of the Communist government — a system President Castro boasts is the most democratic and cleanest in the world.”     


■ In late 1999 and 2000, the media became fixated on the story of Elian Gonzalez, a six-year old boy rescued from the ocean after his mother and nine others died trying to flee Castro’s dictatorship. The episode highlighted the media’s longstanding approach to Cuba, as reporters took the stark contrast between American liberty and Cuban tyranny and muddled it to the point where life in Cuba was presented as no different, or even better, than life in the United States. On the April 8, 2000 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Jim Avila, for example, blamed Elian’s mother for her attempt to flee the “good life” he asserted she had in Cuba: “Why did she do it? What was she escaping? By all accounts this quiet, serious young woman, who loved to dance the salsa, was living the good life, as good as it gets for a citizen in Cuba....An extended family destroyed by a mother’s decision to start a new life.”

■ That same day on The McLaughlin Group, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift suggested living under a communist dictatorship was just another lifestyle choice: “To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously.”


Some more highlights of the media’s pronouncements about Castro’s dedication to the children of Cuba and the quality of life under his regime:

■ “Elian might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami....The education and health-care systems, both built since the revolution, are among the best in the Americas, despite chronic shortages of supplies....The boy will nestle again in a more peaceable society that treasures its children.”
— Brook Larmer and John Leland in Newsweek, April 17, 2000.

■ “While Fidel Castro, and certainly justified on his record, is widely criticized for a lot of things, there is no question that Castro feels a very deep and abiding connection to those Cubans who are still in Cuba. And, I recognize this might be controversial, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Fidel Castro was sincere when he said, ‘listen, we really want this child back here.’”
— Dan Rather, live on CBS the morning of the Elian raid, April 22, 2000.


■ “Elian will almost certainly rejoin the Pioneers as almost all Cuban children do. It’s very much like the Cub Scouts, camping trips and all, but with a socialist flavor and a revolutionary spin. But besides politics, what will he learn? Cubans boast about their universal free education....”
— Keith Morrison from Cuba, previewing Elian’s new life, June 28, 2000 Dateline NBC.

■ In June 2001, Cuba granted NBC’s Andrea Mitchell an exclusive follow-up on Elian Gonzalez one year after the Clinton administration sent the young boy back to the Communist-controlled island. Reporting for the NBC Nightly News and Today, Mitchell mentioned none of the drawbacks to life in the socialist dictatorship, instead, painting Elian’s hometown in quaint Rockwellian colors: “Cardenas, a small fishing village two hours from Havana, where people still get around by horse and carriage.” Granted a three-hour interview with Castro for Today, Mitchell allowed the dictator to brag about how his resting pulse rate is like that of a professional athlete: “Approaching his 75th birthday this August, the world’s longest surviving leader also believes he is politically strong, partly as a result of that struggle over a seven-year-old boy.”

■ In May 2002, CNN sent correspondent Kate Snow to anchor an hour-long prime time Live From Havana, timed to the visit of ex-President Jimmy Carter. Snow fretted about the “hard line” policies and views of President Bush and exiled Cubans in Miami while hoping Carter’s visit might “moderate” the Cuban-Americans. She also touted the “successes” of life under Fidel Castro, admiring how, “according to a United Nations study, Cuba’s regular schools rank at the top in Latin America” and how “every Cuban has a primary care physician” who gets “to know their patients and even make house calls.” She conceded that “Cuba may not have the nicest facilities or equipment,” but she noted in praising the socialist ideals, “everyone has access and the concept of paying is completely foreign.”


■ In October 2002, ABC’s Barbara Walters traveled to Cuba for an exclusive 20/20 interview with Castro. She fawned, “For Castro, freedom starts with education. And if literacy alone were the yardstick, Cuba would rank as one of the freest nations on Earth.”


■ “There’s a good chance that Fidel Castro, who marks his 78th birthday today, could keep going for another 40 years, the Cuban leader’s personal physician says....Cuban officials say the same revolutionary zeal that has driven nearly five decades of socialism can overcome the ravages of time....At least 40 different Cuban research groups are said to be at work unlocking the secrets of aging. The research ranges from studying special diets to basic research on genetics.”
— Reporter Eric Sabo in an August 13, 2004 USA Today story headlined, “Cuba pursues a 120-year-old future.”

■ In 2006, after Fidel Castro’s declining health forced him to turn power over to his brother Raul, many members of the U.S. media fell over themselves in describing the dictator in poetic terms. On Fox News’s Geraldo At Large, host Geraldo Rivera went overboard in a commentary about Castro’s legacy, using flowery descriptions such as “the iron man of revolutionary rhetoric,” “romantic revolutionary,” and even “charismatic commie.” An awe-struck Rivera recalled: “He is a towering historic figure, and meeting and interviewing him was one of the most memorable experiences of a young reporter’s life.”

■ “When outsiders think of Cuba, it’s often the lack of political freedoms and economic power that comes to mind. Cubans who have chosen to stay on the island, however, are quick to point out the positives: safe streets, a rich and accessible cultural life, a leisurely lifestyle to enjoy with family and friends....For all its flaws, life in Castro’s Cuba has its comforts, and unknown alternatives are not automatically more attractive....Many foreigners consider it propaganda when Castro’s government enumerates its accomplishments, but many Cubans take pride in their free education system, high literacy rates and top-notch doctors. Ardent Castro supporters say life in the United States, in contrast, seems selfish, superficial, and — despite its riches — ultimately unsatisfying.”
— Associated Press writer Vanessa Arrington in an August 4, 2006 dispatch, “Some Cubans enjoy comforts of communism.”