The Howitzer and the Flea

Wayne Smith is no friend of the Cuban American National Foundation. For many years -- at least since he left the foreign service after serving as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982 -- he has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. That point of view is going to put him at odds with the foundation's confrontational approach to the Castro regime. But as with so many things Cuban, this difference of opinion runs much deeper than a polite debate among policy wonks.

As a professor at Johns Hopkins University, a Washington think-tank analyst, and a high-profile media source, Smith over the years has expressed his disdain for those who would refuse to engage in dialogue with the Cuban government. Not surprisingly, the Cuban American National Foundation's hardball approach -- squeeze at the throat till blue in the face -- has made it a favorite target. One classic soundbite: "If the perception of the Cuban people is that their choice is one between Fidel Castro and...the Cuban American National Foundation, they will fight to the death for the present system."

Now, however, it's payback time for leaders of the foundation. Now it's Wayne Smith they've got by the throat, and you can almost see them grinning as they grip. Smith is in court in Miami this week, the defendant in a defamation lawsuit brought against him by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

It is rare that such lawsuits actually go to trial; they are almost always resolved out of court. The CANF action against Smith is unusual in another way as well. Commonly when a person files a defamation lawsuit, he sues not just the person who committed the offense, but also the publisher or broadcaster, sometimes even editors or producers. Casting a wide net is thought to increase the chances of recovering damages.

Not so in this strange case. Wayne Smith is the lone defendant. His humble finances have forced him to rely upon a friend to defend him without charge. While a defense fund ran dry many months ago after a few buddies chipped in somewhere between $5000 and $6000, CANF has bankrolled an aggressive legal team of at least three attorneys who are going after their prey with a vengeance. Smith, they claim, has singlehandedly done serious and costly harm to CANF. And this he managed to accomplish in about twenty seconds.

The alleged defamation took place nearly four years ago during an hourlong television documentary that included an interview with Smith. This is what he said:

"It's interesting that the National Endowment for Democracy has contributed to the Cuban American National Foundation and it in turn, through its own organization, through its PAC [political action committee], has contributed to the campaign funds of many congressmen, including some who have been involved with the National Endowment for Democracy, from whence they got the money in the first place, including Dante Fascell."

The documentary, called Campaign for Cuba, was produced by the University of West Florida in Pensacola and was aired October 14, 1992, by the Public Broadcasting System. In South Florida, it ran on WPBT-TV (Channel 2). Campaign for Cuba examined CANF and its chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, and the influence they have had over U.S. policy toward Cuba. It also raised questions about alleged efforts by Mas and CANF to silence those in the exile community who disagree with their political positions.

A couple of weeks before it was scheduled to run on PBS stations across the nation, CANF officials obtained a copy of the documentary, and what they saw they did not like. According to court documents, they thought the program was hopelessly biased against CANF generally and Mas in particular. But what they decided they could not tolerate was Smith's one-sentence comment, which they believe imputed criminal activity.

Smith, who says he never believed and never said that any criminal activity had taken place, remains convinced that his statement was essentially true. Regardless, it can be attacked for being imprecise, and in its imprecision lies the potential for misunderstanding. The federally funded Endowment has not "contributed" to CANF's coffers but rather has issued "pass through" grants (which CANF has forwarded to a European human rights organization headed by Armando Valladares). The Free Cuba PAC has indeed contributed to many politicians, some of whom, such as Dante Fascell, voted on Endowment matters pertaining to CANF. But the Free Cuba PAC is not formally associated with CANF other than sharing membership.

Inelegantly spoken, perhaps, but probably more accurate than inaccurate.
CANF moved into high gear in an effort to block broadcast of the program, or at the very least to have the "Smith statement," as it's now known, expunged. Jorge Mas Canosa himself contacted the CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who viewed the documentary and concluded that Smith's comment constituted "an allegation of criminality." A CANF attorney faxed a passel of letters threatening legal action. In addition to Smith, those receiving the letters included executives of PBS, the president of the University of West Florida, and individual television stations in New York, Washington, and Miami.

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