When Robert Menard founded Reporters Without Borders twenty years ago, he gave his group a name which evokes another French organization respected worldwide for its humanitarian work and which maintains a strict neutrality in political conflicts Doctors Without Borders. But RSF (French acronym) has been anything but nonpartisan and objective in its approach to Latin America and to Cuba in particular.
From the beginning, RSF has made Cuba its No. 1 target. Allegedly founded to advocate freedom of the press around the world and to help journalists under attack, the organization has called Cuba “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” It even gives the country a lower ranking on its press freedom index than countries where journalists routinely have been killed, such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico. RSF has waged campaigns aimed at discouraging Europeans from vacationing in Cuba and the European Union from doing business there its only campaigns worldwide intended to damage a country’s economy.
The above is not a matter of chance because it turns out that RSF is on the payroll of the U.S. State Department and has close ties to Helms-Burton-funded Cuban exile groups.
As a majority of members of Congress work toward normalizing trade and travel with Cuba, the extremist anti-Castro groups that have dictated U.S. Cuba policy for 40 years continue working tirelessly to maintain an economic stranglehold on the island. Their support for RSF is part of this overall strategy.
Havana-based journalist Jean-Guy Allard wrote a book about RSF’s leader (El expediente Robert Ménard: Por qué Reporteros sin Fronteras se ensaña con Cuba, Quebec: Lanctôt, 2005) which lays out the pieces of the puzzle regarding Menard’s activities, associations and sources of funding in an attempt to explain what he calls Menard’s “obsession” with Cuba. On April 27 this year the pieces began to come together: Thierry Meyssan, president of the Paris daily, Red Voltaire, published an article in which he claimed Menard had negotiated a contract with Otto Reich and the Center for a Free Cuba (CFC) in 2001. Reich was a trustee of the center, which receives the bulk of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The contract, according to Meyssan, was signed in 2002 around the time Reich was appointed Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the Secretary of State. The initial payment for RSF’s services was approximately 24,970 euros in 2002 ($25,000), which went up to 59,201 euros in 2003 ($50,000).
Lucie Morillon, RSF’s Washington representative, confirmed in an interview on April 29 that they are indeed receiving payments from the Center for a Free Cuba, and that the contract with Reich requires them to inform Europeans about the repression against journalists in Cuba and to support the families of journalists in prison. Morillon also said they received $50,000 from the CFC in 2004 and that this amount was consistent from year to year. But she denied that the anti-Cuba declarations on radio and television, full-page ads in Parisian dailies, posters, leafletting at airports and an April 2003 occupation of the Cuban tourism office in Paris were aimed at discouraging tourism to the island.
RSF’s emphasis on tourism is the key to understanding it’s role. After the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc support for Cuba’s economy soon came to a halt and what Cubans call the “special period” began. Almost all of Cuba’s sugar harvest had been sold to the communist bloc throughout the Cold War era and in return the island imported two-thirds of its food supply, nearly all its oil and 80 percent of its machinery and spare parts from the same sources. Suddenly 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade vanished. Deprived of petroleum, Cuban industries and transportation ground to a halt. For the first time in many years malnutrition on the island began to appear as rations were reduced to little more than rice and beans.
Washington saw the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies in 1989 and subsequent natural disasters that destroyed crops on the island as a chance to deal a deathblow to the Castro regime. The Miami extreme right, led by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), began to draw up plans to work with sympathetic government agencies toward that end. “Nothing nor no one will make us falter. We do not wish it, but if blood has to flow, it will flow,” wrote CANF chair Jorge Mas Canosa (Hernando Calvo Ospina, Bacardi: The Hidden War, London: Pluto Press, 2002).
But Cuba disappointed the plotters by surviving. A centerpiece of the island’s economic recovery was the government’s decision in 1992 to develop the tourism industry, which has gone a long way to replace the desperately needed foreign exchange the country had lost. Consequently, it came as no surprise that those wishing to see Cuba starve would want to damage its tourism-based economy through every conceivable form of sabotage. On the extreme end, Miami terrorists began to infiltrate the island to attack hotels and other tourist targets. Terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who recently sought asylum in the U.S., organized a string of bombings of hotels in 1997 in which an Italian tourist died. Not only did Posada admit this to the New York Times in 1998, but he acknowledged that the leaders of CANF had bankrolled his operations and that Mas Canosa was personally in charge of overseeing the flow of funds and logistical support to carry out the operations. Terrorist Orlando Bosch is also suspected of playing a major role in these attacks.
Another project for bringing about the downfall of Cuba’s revolution was the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Title IV allows the U.S. to impose sanctions against foreign investors in Cuba whose investments allegedly involve properties expropriated from people who are now U.S. nationals. This law, which was intended to force foreign companies and countries to refrain from doing business with Cuba, was written by leaders of the CANF, Bacardi lawyers and Otto Reich. Helms-Burton also provided additional funding to support Cuban dissidents with the intent of destabilizing the government an aspect of great interest to exile groups. Organizations outside Cuba would be in charge of these funds, and this has developed into a lucrative business for them. USAID alone has distributed more than $34 million in funds related to Cuba since 1996, including its support of Otto Reich’s CFC.
In an interview with Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina (Calvo and Declercq, The Cuban Exile Movement, Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2000), Menard said his group had been supporting dissidents in Cuba since September 1995 and has always considered Cuba “the priority in Latin America.” Coincidentally or not, the Helms-Burton Act was already making its way through Congress in January 1995. After Clinton signed the bill into law in 1996, he sent a special ambassador to Europe to meet with NGOs whose work involved Cuba to propose they support the dissident movement. RSF attended one such meeting in Paris in late 1996. RSF was also represented at a meeting called by Pax Christi Netherlands at the Hague to create a pressure group against the Cuban government and support the dissident movement, according to Calvo.
In September 1998 Menard traveled to Havana to recruit people to write stories for RSF to publish. He later told Calvo in his interview, “we give $50 a month each to around twenty journalists so they can survive and stay in the country.” But Menard’s first representative in Cuba, veteran journalist Nestor Baguer, disputed that description of the relationship in interviews he gave to Granma after he revealed that he had been working for state security while posing as a dissident. Baguer maintained that RSF would only pay for articles turned in, and that they had to attack the Cuban government. He did not consider most of the so-called independent journalists to be either independent or journalists; few had received any formal training and he was forced to severely edit their copy something he called a “terrible penance.”
Baguer recalled the first conversation he had with the RSF head in the back of a rental car: “What he wanted was for it to come straight from here. It seems before he was getting fed from Miami. But he wanted to have his Cuban source so it would be more credible.” Noting the small amounts Cubans were paid for their articles, Baguer speculated Menard was doing a “great business” (Allard).
In May 2004 the State Department issued a report to the president by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The report recommends $41 million in funding to promote Cuban “civil society” and specifically targets Cuban tourism. In Chapter I, “Hastening Cuba’s Transition,” part V, headed, “Deny Revenues to the Castro Regime,” there is a subheading, “Undermine Regime-sustaining Tourism,” which says, “Support efforts by NGOs in selected third countries to highlight human rights abuses in Cuba, as part of a broader effort to discourage tourist travel. This could be modeled after past initiatives, especially those by European NGOs, to boycott tourism to countries where there were broad human rights concerns.”
It does not take much to figure out which “European NGOs” have been boycotting tourism to Cuba. RSF is mentioned by name in the report in reference to its support for a jailed journalist whose writings it had published.
RSF’s patron at the CFC, Otto Reich, has a long history as a U.S. hit-man in Latin America. This includes helping to spring Orlando Bosch from prison in Venezuela while Reich was U.S. ambassador to that country under President Bush Sr. Bosch was in prison for blowing up a Cuban civilian passenger airplane, killing 73. His accomplice, Luis Posada Carriles, had already bribed his way out in 1985 and was working for the CIA in El Salvador, supplying the Contras from the Ilopango air base. Otto Reich was a major figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. Under the current Bush administration, Reich helped coordinate repeated attempts to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was transferred to the NSC in November 2002, and while there he oversaw the February 2004 coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide an event in which RSF enthusiastically participated with a smear campaign against the Haitian leader.
Although Reporters without Borders’ attacks on Castro, Chavez and Aristide are perfectly alligned with the State Department’s policies, and though she admitted RSF was receiving money from Reich, Morillon denied that the governmant funding the group receives in any way affects its activities. She pointed out that RSF’s $50,000 payments from the CFC and a January grant of $40,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy only constitute a fraction of the organization’s budget. This is true, but Menard has other rich rightist friends in Europe and the U.S., including CFC director Manuel Cutillas, head of Bacardi. CFC’s executive director is Frank Calzon, another former director of CANF.
According to a January 20, 2004 article in El Nuevo Herald (“Reporters Without Borders Announces Campaign to Democratize Cuba”), Menard visited Miami that week and received a hero’s welcome. He was lionized in the press and honored by exile leaders at a dinner at Casa Bacardi. He met with the Cuban Liberty Council (a split-off from the CANF), the editors of The Miami Herald and Mayor Manny Diaz. Menard was also a guest on a Radio Mambí program hosted by government-funded exile leader Nancy Pérez Crespo, director of Nueva Prensa, a website which posts articles phoned in by Cuban dissidents. In the media he announced that RSF would be holding a meeting on March 18 with European political leaders in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, to promote democratization in Cuba.
“In Brussels we want to propose elementary measures which can be applied to Cuba as a country that violates human rights,” Menard said. “Weren’t the European bank accounts of terrorists frozen? Why can’t that be done in the case of Cuba?” Menard was on a roll. He said the Brussels event would be just the beginning of new campaigns carried out by RSF in the European media to denounce repression in Cuba. Allard alleges Frank Calzon was also present at the meeting in Brussels, but the executive director refused to comment when he was reached by phone at the CFC.
So loyal is Robert Menard to his patrons at the State Department that he wrote an open letter to the European Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel, on the eve of the diplomat’s visit to Cuba this March (www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=12411). The European Union had decided to adopt a more constructive position with respect to Cuba, suspending economic sanctions that were imposed in June 2003 at the urging of Bush ally, former Spanish President Jose Maria Asnar. The State Department’s Richard Boucher condemned the decision to suspend sanctions on Cuba, as long as “objectives haven’t been reached,” and in his letter to Michel, Menard likewise urged the European Union to keep the pressure on Cuba.
In addition to its other sources of funding, RSF receives free publicity from Saatchi and Saatchi, the third pillar of the world’s fourth-largest marketing and public relations conglomerate, Publicis Groupe. Publicis enjoys a near-monopoly on French advertising and as a result, slick RSF propaganda is featured at no cost to the organization in Parisian dailies and supermarkets. It also enjoys free printing of the books it sells by Vivendi Universal Publishing. All of these services have to be factored into RSF’s budget. Although the reason for Publicis Groupe’s astounding generosity is not known, it is worth noting that a major Publicis client is Bacardi, whose 2001 advertising budget was just under $50 million.
DIANA BARAHONA is a freelance journalists and a member of the Northern California Media Guild. She has been an election observer in Venezuela and El Salvador and written other articles on RSF for the Guild Reporter (www.newsguild.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.