"Miami's WSCV-Channel 51 is riding high these days, with the biggest scoop in the Spanish-language station's seven-year history being picked up by the New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Associated Press, and the major TV networks."
So began a November 12 Miami Herald article about the bizarre saga of double agent Francisco Avila, a self-confessed spy for both Castro and the FBI, whose exploits garnered national attention after Channel 51 broadcast a five-part series revealing Avila's secret life. The Herald story, by reporter David Hancock, went on to ask: "Why is it a big story? Because although many people talk about Castro agents spying on the exile community, actual proof is hard to come by."
Big scoops are also hard to come by, unless they're dropped in your lap. Which is what happened to Herald executive editor Doug Clifton when Channel 51 offered him the opportunity to share the spy story. Weeks before the explosive series aired, Jose Cancela, WSCV's general manager, called Clifton to ask if the Herald would be interested in teaming up with Channel 51's news department to work on the strange tale of the double agent. Clifton says he reacted with caution because Cancela was short on details.
Also troubling to Clifton was the Herald's past experience with the television station. Just two weeks before proposing the joint project, Cancela, in a pair of on-air editorials, had blasted the newspaper for allegedly being a divisive force in the community. Clifton wondered if Channel 51 might be trying to set him up with a phony story in order to embarrass the Herald. "It was not beyond the realm of possibility," he says. "I'm leery of any competitor who suddenly wants to cooperate, when there hasn't been a history of cooperation. And in fact the most recent history I had had with Channel 51 was their editorializing against us. I said to Jose, `Why is it that you want to join forces with this force for evil in the community?' I said it in the nature of a joke, and he apologized for his remarks."
Despite Cancela's conciliatory tone, Clifton still wasn't eager to make any commitments, and left it up to station officials to persuade him. "I said I need more details, but that I don't have a closed mind on it," he recalls. "He said his news director would give me a call soon. And she just never called back. So it never went anywhere."
Not so, says Telemundo 51 news director Josie Goytisolo. "I spoke to him and ran the story by him and told him I would call him back with more details," Goytisolo asserts. "I gave him highlights and, quite frankly, I just had so much work to do on the story I never called him back." No one from the Herald, she says, tried calling her.
Clifton acknowledges he could have contacted the station to obtain more information but decided not to. "I put it in the realm of something that if it was going to happen, it would happen," he says. Indeed it happened, but without the participation of the Herald.
The extraordinary tale began in late August, when Avila approached Tomas Regalado, news director of Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM). Regalado knew Avila from programs his station had broadcast regarding Alpha 66. "When he came to see me, he said he had a friend who is a double agent who wanted to go public," Regalado recalls. "I immediately said, `Look, don't put me on, you're the guy, right?'"
Avila confessed that yes, he in fact was the spy. Regalado then asked him three questions. "Has anybody been killed in Cuba because of you?" Avila answered no. "Does Andres know?" (Andres Nazario Sargenis, the leader of Alpha 66. "I know Andres very well," Regalado explained, "and I didn't want to work behind his back.") Yes, Avila said, Andres knows. And finally, "Do you think you can meet with a Cuban diplomat so we could photograph that meeting?" Avila again answered yes. "From my office he called the Cuban mission [to the United Nations] and I was on the extension," Regalado says. "He talked to one of his contacts there. That's how I knew he was legitimate."
Regalado had two ideas in mind: the need for visual documentation that only a television station could provide, and the advisability of waiting to break the story until after the November presidential election. "My thoughts were that we were going to have a new administration," says Regalado. "There were people who were suggesting rapprochement with Cuba, and now we could present another case."
So Regalado went to Channel 51 with what he knew was a big story. What he didn't know was that the station would then propose a joint effort with the Miami Herald. "I didn't know about that," Regalado says, "but I thought it was dumb on their part because they had everything. I guess some people look at the Herald as the major news outlet here. I don't look at them that way. I think we can produce news of our own. Sometimes I am upset with the Herald because they tend to patronize the Cuban media." (In the end, Regalado beat Channel 51 -- by three hours. He aired Avila's story Monday at 3:00 p.m.; the first installment of the television program began at 6:00 p.m.)
Even after Channel 51 broadcast its series, the Herald's Clifton remained uncertain of Cancela's true motives in seeking collaboration. "I think that from his perspective, frankly, he thought he would have gotten some credibility, more credibility, with the Miami Herald's name attached to it," Clifton speculates. "And he would have automatically gotten a wider audience."
Cancela was out of town last week and could not be reached for this story, but Telemundo news director Josie Goytisolo says it wasn't a matter of credibility but rather a simple matter of manpower. "The Herald has incredible resources," she notes. "We're a small news organization."
When Channel 51 was ready with the spy story, the station promoted its efforts by purchasing a two-page advertisement that ran across the center section of El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister paper, the day before the series began. "What would you say if you knew that a leader of an important Cuban exile organization is in reality an infiltrator from Castro's security forces?" read the headline. (The ad did not run in the Miami Herald.)
Broadcast November 9 through November 13, the expose detailed Avila's complex life as head of military operations for the venerable paramilitary group Alpha 66, and his activities while pretending to spy for Castro while allegedly passing information to the FBI. Channel 51's hidden cameras also videotaped Avila meeting with a Cuban diplomat in New York, discussing everything from upcoming raids on the island to the U.S. presidential elections.
While the series immediately began causing an uproar in Miami's vast exile community, Clifton's earlier reluctance was reflected in the Herald's subsequent coverage of the story. On Monday, November 9, El Nuevo Herald published an article on the front page of its local section previewing the series and offering a partial transcript of the spy's conversation with his Cuban control agent, though without identifying Avila by name.
The Miami Herald published nothing.
On Tuesday El Nuevo ran a lengthy story on its front page about the United States demanding the expulsion of Avila's contact, a diplomat assigned to the Cuban mission at the United Nations.
The Miami Herald slashed El Nuevo's article to about one-fifth its length and buried the abbreviated version on the second page of its local section.
Wednesday El Nuevo published another story revealing that the FBI had allegedly tried without success to convince Avila's control agent to defect. The paper's editors again displayed it prominently on the front page.
Despite the fact that a Miami Herald reporter coauthored that article, Herald editors chose to run it on page A-7, in the section devoted to news from Latin America.
It wasn't until Thursday, the day after the New York Times published at the top of its national news section an article about the controversy and Channel 51's coup, that the Herald finally put the Avila story on its front page.
"I thought this was an important story from day one," says Carlos Verdecia, editor of El Nuevo Herald. "We knew from the beginning it was going to be a big deal. Avila's story had front page written all over it. It was an interesting story nationwide, not just for Cubans."
Though Verdecia is reluctant to criticize the judgment of his counterparts at the Herald, he admits, "I would have played it differently if I were the editor of the other newspaper, but that doesn't mean I would be right. The important thing is that they eventually realized this was a major story."
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(Though slow to react, the Herald, to its credit, did publish a significant story on Tuesday, November 17, when staff writer Joan Fleischman reported that Avila had been the key informant who broke the infamous River Cops case, in which Miami police officers were ripping off drug dealers. The story provided the first independently corroborated evidence that Avila had been working for the FBI.)
Does Clifton have any regrets about not taking the opportunity to work with Channel 51 from the outset? "Yes and no," he replies. "I'm still not sure who the hell this guy Avila is. I'm still not sure this guy is certifiably a double agent. I'm still not sure who he worked for. In my mind, there is still an awful lot of murkiness.
"So when I sit down and I think about just what are the possibilities in this affair, and just where does the truth ultimately lie, and what was our ability to get to that ultimate truth, I say to myself, `Ehh, I don't have that big a problem that we didn't have it.'"
"The Herald missed out because they had to follow the story through Channel 51," chuckles Radio Mambi's Tomas Regalado. "And it was a major story.