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When Liz Balmaseda described Gloria Estefan's late-August trip to the Guantanamo Naval Base as "a most personal journey," the Miami Herald columnist was in a good position to judge. Balmaseda was at Estefan's side as she toured the camp, close enough to see the tears welling up in the singer's eyes. She was at the dressing-room door as Estefan prepared to perform for the crowd of 11,000 refugees, close enough to overhear Emilio Estefan tell his wife, "If your father had been alive tonight, what a special night it would be for him."
It was the sort of proximity every journalist craves, and Balmaseda had it all to herself. No other journalist in the United States was permitted to get that close. In fact, no other stateside reporter was permitted to attend the concert. According to Master Sgt. Sandra Pishner, public affairs spokeswoman for the Guantanamo Naval Base, Gloria Estefan had specifically requested that no members of the media be allowed to come along. "She didn't want media attention to overshadow what her real purpose in being there was," Pishner says.
But in the end the issue wasn't privacy; it was control. The Estefans were so intent that their "real purpose" be accurately conveyed that Estefan Enterprises brought along its own covey of photographers (two still photographers and several video crews) and handpicked the images -- including concert footage released to news organizations that wished to broadcast news of the event. (A spokesman for Estefan Enterprises did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
Estefan Enterprises chose Balmaseda, too. "I knew she didn't want any other press there," says Balmaseda, who has written glowingly of the Estefans in the past. "I knew I was going to be the only press allowed to go." The exclusivity, the columnist theorizes, stems from her long-time friendship with the singer. "I know Gloria very well," Balmaseda acknowledges. "I'd like to think she likes me and admires me."
The same almost certainly cannot be said of U.S. Navy Lt. Jeff Breslau, the public affairs officer for the Pentagon's Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Because the concert took place on a U.S. military base, the ultimate decision as to whether journalists would be allowed fell to the Atlantic Command, not Estefan Enterprises.
Breslau, who was in charge of handling press arrangements for the trip, says he was told the Estefans didn't want any members of the media to be present. "We decided to honor that request," Breslau recounts, noting that numerous members of the press corps were turned down as a result. (Besides the Herald, Guantanamo's own newspapers and radio stations were the only news organizations allowed to cover the event.)
A few days before the concert, Breslau saw a list of the guests who would be traveling with the Estefans. Right in there with actor Andy Garcia and bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez were Liz Balmaseda and David Lawrence, Jr.
Baffled that the Miami Herald's publisher and one of its Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists seemed to be slated to attend an event that was closed to the media, Breslau took the matter to Maj. Gen. John Sams, the officer in charge of planning and policies for the entire Atlantic Command. Breslau says he pointed out to the general that it seemed to him unfair for the military to nix all media requests, only to sign off on what amounted to a Miami Herald exclusive. And according to the lieutenant, General Sams agreed. (Sams could not be reached for comment for this story.) In fact, Breslau says, he was in Sams's office at the time the call was made and was privy to the general's side of the ensuing conversation. "He made it very clear that if they were going down, they could not go down as members of the press," Breslau recalls. "And they could not write about it down there or afterward, otherwise we would have to let it be open to all of the press."
Breslau says the general told him Lawrence had agreed to those conditions. The lieutenant felt the matter was settled, until August 30, when he flew to Miami to meet the military transport plane that would fly the Estefans, their band, and all guests to the naval base. When he saw Liz Balmaseda, Breslau recalls, he reminded her she wasn't allowed to write anything about the concert. He claims that Balmaseda informed him she knew nothing about any such arrangement and had every intention of filing a story, whereupon he went to speak to Lawrence. "He said he understood [the agreement]," Breslau says.
Balmaseda filed two columns about the outing. Lawrence himself devoted a few paragraphs to the trip in his regular Sunday column. "Those stories were a violation of the ground rules," Breslau says. "I'm concerned by it because it was my word and the credibility of our command that was violated."
Balmaseda, who recalls the confrontation with Breslau, says she simply ignored him, adding that she had written a letter several days before to the Atlantic Command's public affairs office explaining that she was going to Guantanamo as a journalist. As far as she was concerned, she says, her request was approved.
Breslau says he saw the request and that it was denied.
Herald publisher David Lawrence denies having made any no-coverage agreement with General Sams or Lieutenant Breslau. "Liz Balmaseda was always going to cover the event," asserts Lawrence, going on to say that he has spoken with the general since the trip and Sams has not expressed any concern about the Herald's having published stories about the concert. "There hasn't been even the slightest whisper to me that anyone was upset by this," Lawrence says.
The publisher recalls a conversation with Breslau before the plane took off for Cuba, but his account differs from the lieutenant's: Lawrence says he told Breslau the Herald would indeed be writing about the concert. "I in fact told him I respected the fact that he had his job, but that we had our jobs to do as well," Lawrence remembers.