Sunday, January 4, 2015

Is Fusion Doing The U.S. Government's Bidding On Cuba?

Journalist Jorge Ramos recently leveled some serious accusations against former Cuban President Fidel Castro, accusing him of amassing a fortune stolen from Cuban taxpayers and engaging in widespread drug trafficking. Ramos, a hugely popular news personality on the Spanish language network Univision and new sister cable network Fusion, eagerly parrots the hearsay of a former Castro bodyguard who is - coincidentally - promoting a new book. With the U.S. government still bent on regime change in Cuba despite the recent announcement of the normalization of relations between the two countries, they must be pleased. The narrative Ramos creates could help lay the groundwork for future U.S. intervention in Cuba, or at least help to discredit a revolutionary hero who remains staunchly opposed to U.S. foreign policy and imperialism.

The source for Ramos's Dec. 23, 2014 column is Reinaldo Sánchez, who allegedly served for 17 years as Castro's bodyguard from 1977-1994. According to Ramos, Sánchez arrived in the United States in 2008 but had not gone public with his accusations until he released his book "Fidel Castro's Hidden Life." One could speculate that without guaranteed housing, food allowance, and health care, as Sánchez enjoyed while he was in Cuba, he may have been under financial pressure once in the States. Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez (no relation) was under similar pressure while living abroad in Switzerland in 2004. Her inability to find work and earn a living forced her to return home in desperation, crying as she begged Cuban immigration officials to let her back into the country.

If Castro's former bodyguard did indeed find himself in need of money in his new country with its large, rabid anti-Castro exile population, a tell-all story would be an easy way to raise cash. If you are going to write a book, you need some juicy details. No publisher would be very interested in a book about Castro immersed in reading at his desk or penning his Reflections columns. If Sánchez's motivation was truly to expose the truth, why not speak with journalists and go public right away?

Whatever his motivations, one should be skeptical about the word of one person who may have political and financial motivations telling tales without any corroborating evidence or documentation. Ramos decides not to be. Instead takes everything Sánchez says at face value. He fails to even mention the possibility that one man's unsubstantiated word might be exaggerated or outright false.

"Due to his closeness to Castro, he said that for years he got to see firsthand how the communist dictator amassed a personal fortune, primarily through Cuban businesses whose profits, Sanchez said, went directly to the dictator," Ramos writes. "Castro also owns many properties in Cuba, according to Sanchez, including Cayo Piedra, two small islands connected by a bridge."

These charges against Castro are nothing new. In 2006, Forbes magazine cited unnamed sources to rank Castro as the 7th wealthiest ruler in the world with a fortune of $900 million.

Castro was quick to challenge anyone to show any proof of his alleged fortune. "If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900 million, with $1 million, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign," he said. "If they prove that I have a single dollar, I'll resign my post ... there will be no need for plans or transitions."

No one has ever been able to offer the slightest bit of proof. Yet eight years later, Ramos provides a platform for a disgruntled former employee to make the same baseless allegations, as if they hadn't already been out there for years.

Sánchez makes another claim in his book that is wildly inconsistent with the documentary record and even the U.S. government's own assessment. He claims that Castro's involvement in drug trafficking contributed to his alleged fortune.

"Sánchez said that in 1989, despite the fact that Castro would forcefully insist in public that the Cuban government had nothing to do with drug trafficking, the bodyguard overheard a private conversation between Castro and José Abrantes, then minister of the interior, that directly implicated Castro in the drug business," Ramos writes.

For Ramos, this is case closed. One person allegedly overheard a conversation. What further proof could you need? Ramos does not question the former bodyguard about the veracity of these claims or provide them with any context.

The U.S. government itself has not turned up any connection between Fidel Castro or any other Cuban official and drug trafficking. In its 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy report, the State Department declares:
Despite its proximity to major transit routes for illegal drugs to the U.S. market, Cuba is not a major consumer, producer, or transit point of illicit narcotics. Cuba's intensive security presence and bilateral interdiction efforts have effectively reduced the available supply of narcotics on the island and prevented traffickers from establishing a foothold... Cuba's domestic drug production and consumption remain negligible as a result of active policing, harsh sentencing for drug offenses, and very low consumer disposable income. Cuba's counternarcotics efforts have prevented illegal narcotics trafficking from having a significant impact on the island.
During the same year Sánchez claims he heard the comments about drug trafficking by Fidel, a high-profile case against senior Cuban military leader General Arnaldo Ochoa was taking place. Ochoa had been the head of the Cuban military mission in Angola for the previous two years. He was arrested on June 12, 1989 and charged with corruption and drug trafficking. He was tried before a military tribunal along with 13 other officers, and they confessed to the charges against them.

"They all told a similar story," writes historian Piero Gleijeses in Visions of Freedom. "The Angolan government had given Ochoa $508,000 to buy 100 field wireless sets. An aide of Ochoa bought them in Panama for $435,000, and Ochoa diverted the difference to a bank account in Panama. Furthermore, on Ochoa's instructions, another aide sold Angolan kwanzas on the black market to buy dollars. That aide told the court, 'We got $61,190 for all these kwanzas.'... The sum total of the money gained from these operations may have approached $200,000."

Ochoa was sentenced to death and executed. Reportedly he asked to die by firing squad, and to give the order to fire. Both requests were granted. Ochoa's actions seem fairly mild - especially when compared to actions of corrupt, U.S. backed regimes - but the Cuban government was acutely sensitive to the potential propaganda value if the U.S. learned of this information. After all, it was only several months later they would invade Panama using drug smuggling by President Manuel Noriega as a pretext to install a pro-business regime amenable to U.S. foreign policy. Having been invaded once by the United States already, the Cuban government was determined not to provide the world's sole superpower, who had long been trying to topple them, with the slightest bit of ammunition.

Gleijeses asks whether it is possible that if Ochoa did this, could other Cuban officials have done the same? Gleijeses says that he read thousands of pages of Cuban documents, interviewed dozens of Angolan officials, and "no one claimed, or hinted, that the Cuban military mission defrauded the Angolan state - beyond the Ochoa episode... In the absence of any indication to the contrary I must conclude that Ochoa's behavior was anomalous."

The historical record suggests Castro and the Cuban government strictly prohibited any corruption, especially drug smuggling, by their officials. They punished such activity to the full extent of the law. It would be hard to think of a weaker claim to the contrary than Sánchez allegedly overhearing a single conversation.

Timothy Alexander Guzman writes, "Fusion is following Washington’s line along with the anti-Castro Cuban-American community to discredit and demonize the Cuban government. Although Cuba is not perfect, it has its principles especially when it comes to illegal drugs. Why would Fidel Castro risk his international reputation as fighter for human rights for the Cuban people by becoming a drug dealer?"

No one should be fooled into thinking that President Obama's moves to normalize relations with Cuba will mean an end to the U.S. policy of covertly supporting regime change. Government agencies such as USAID are still funneling millions of dollars to sympathetic individuals and groups that could help accomplish this. In 2014 alone, several secret programs were discovered to these ends. ZunZuneo, the twitter like network which was to be used to disseminate propaganda to foment political unrest, and an operation to co-opt Cuban hip hop artists were the latest of what The Guardian called "the US government's hapless attempts to unseat Cuba's communist government."

Obama has been aggressive about applying sanctions against countries like Venezuela, Russia and North Korea, whose governments the U.S. would love to overthrow, as they helped do with Ukraine. Just last week Obama announced new sanctions against North Korea for their alleged role in the Sony Hack, despite mounting evidence it was an insider rather than the North Korean government to blame. In July, the Obama administration similarly blamed Russia for the MH17 flight disaster and rushed to impose sanctions before producing any proof. The administration has been silent on the MH17 tragedy for months. Predictably the evidence now points to Ukrainian fighter jets, rather than the Russia government or rebels supporting Russia, downing the civilian plane. But the sanctions remain in place.

The Obama administration must feel like Ramos gave them a Christmas gift with his regurgitation of Sánchez's baseless claims. Obama's rationale for establishing relations with Cuba after 55 years was to "have influence with that government." The implication of Ramos's hit piece is that the U.S. must come riding like a white knight to the rescue of the Cuban people. It is just the message American officials want the U.S. public to hear as they try to use the new opening with Cuba to do what they haven't been able to for the last 55 years - get rid of the Cuban revolution once and for all.