Just Tell Us When You Get Bored

An ageless philosophical question: If a tree falls in a deserted forest, does it make a noise? How about a brain teaser with a local angle: If Miami's only daily newspaper invites a Cuban official to town and doesn't report the visit, is it still news?

Barbara Gutierrez, editor of El Nuevo Herald, says she doesn't understand why anyone would care that the Herald paid for the plane ticket of Jose Luis Ponce, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., who flew to Miami two weeks ago to discuss the possibility of granting more visas to Herald reporters and opening a Herald bureau in Havana. Ponce's sojourn here didn't find its way into the pages of the Herald until this past Sunday, when executive editor Doug Clifton offered an apologia at the end of a column about Haiti.

"Top editors meet with folks all the time," Gutierrez complains. "El Nuevo has not been granted a visa since the Pan American games, and that was in 1991. We are very interested in covering Cuba as we should, and very concerned to hear what Ponce's view of [the paper] was and why we were not being considered for visas at all."

But what seemed to Herald editors like a straightforward arrangement took on cryptic significance when the news leaked to the local Cuban exile community. "There were so many horrible rumors that we had sold out the paper's editorial policy in exchange for permission to open a bureau, that Cuba had agreed to let us open a bureau in exchange for a free ticket to Miami," admits a bemused Juan Tamayo, the foreign editor who was largely responsible for arranging the trip.

Tamayo finally took to the Spanish-language airwaves last Monday, nearly a week after Ponce's March 21 arrival, and in an hourlong appearance explained the purpose of the visit to listeners of WQBA-AM (1140). But nothing was written about it in either the Herald or its Spanish-language sister, an omission that rankled some employees who believed the visit could be perceived as a conflict of interest at best, and evidence of the Herald kowtowing to Fidel Castro at worst.

"This is a very delicate matter because Ponce is in the middle of a campaign to gather support from the American press to oppose the Helms project," fumes one staffer who asked not to be identified. (Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina recently proposed legislation known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, the purpose of which is to penalize nations, individuals, and international lending institutions whose activities support the Cuban economy. Supporters hope the sanctions will increase pressure to hold U.S.-approved elections on the island.) "Why did the Herald pay?" the staffer continues. "What is the interest of the Herald? And the third question to me as a journalist is: Why hasn't the Herald published any information? Are they hiding something?"

Tamayo attributes the logistics of the trip to corporate bean counting: It simply was a lot cheaper for the Herald to fly Ponce down to Miami than to fly a dozen editors and reporters up to Washington. "We didn't report it because we didn't think it to be a newsworthy event A we have all kinds of people who come to see us on working visits that don't get any press," Tamayo adds, pointing out that Cesar Gaviria, secretary- general of the Organization of American States, hobnobbed with Herald editors last month without getting any ink.

Ponce spent the first few days of his visit touring the Herald newsroom and powwowing with editors and reporters from both the Herald and El Nuevo Herald. Although he stayed at the Miami Airport Hilton & Towers, the Herald did not pay for his hotel room, according to Tamayo. Ponce went back to Washington March 25.

"We felt there was a great deal of information that we wanted to pass on to him," Tamayo explains. "He is the press spokesman for the country we cover most in this newspaper. Cuba is our top beat, our most important story. It would seem a given that we would talk to these people." Tamayo allows that there was some concern about the propriety of hosting a Cuban official, and says that the paper went so far as to contact specialists in journalistic ethics before issuing the invitation.

Although the Cuban diplomat spent some of his time meeting with Miami-based foreign correspondents for various national publications, Tamayo emphasizes that "Ponce was not here to lobby anyone on the embargo."

Ponce himself describes the trip -- his first visit to the Magic City, as a chance "to familiarize myself with Miami and to meet various journalists that I have had contact with only on the telephone." He says he discussed the Helms proposal only with journalists who raised the issue. "I don't want to give the meetings with the Herald the connotation that some people would like," Ponce grumbles. "What are they afraid of? That I'll go down there and tell the truth about Cuba -- a truth that they're trying to cover up on a daily basis?"

The diplomat also downplays his discussions with the Herald, remarking only that more visas might be forthcoming "as long as articles are objective and balanced." As far as a bureau, he says that the Herald, along with other U.S. newspapers, will have to wait until the U.S. grants Cuba permission to open a bureau in this country. Neither nation has allowed the other to maintain foreign news bureaus since 1969, when a reporter from the Associated Press was booted out of Cuba, prompting the expulsion of a Cuban reporter from the United States.

"I believe that American journalists have a much easier time covering Cuba than Cuban journalists have covering the United States," Ponce asserts. "I know a Cuban journalist who asked for permission to cover the 1992 elections. Well, the president has been in power for two years and he's still waiting for a visa."

According to the U.S. State Department, Cuban journalists only began receiving visas in significant numbers last year, when 43 nonimmigrant visas were granted to members of the Cuban media. That represents a huge increase from 1991 (one visa), 1992 (three visas), and 1993 (fifteen visas).

In fact, the Cuban score on visas is so dismal that possibly only the Miami Herald can top it. During the past three and a half years, Herald reporters have received a grand total of two visas to enter the island officially. All other trips were made clandestinely through third nations, under the guise of tourism.

Tamayo says the Cuban government's apparent hostility to the Herald was one of the factors that prompted him to invite Ponce to Miami. "We had been talking back and forth and back and forth. The Cubans wanted to know, who is the Miami Herald? What is the Miami Herald's interest in covering Cuba? There was a lot for them to learn. We always feel that to present our case for things like bureaus and visas, the best thing to do is jawbone with the Cuban government. So we're keeping our fingers crossed.


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