Get Me Rewrite!

Nowhere is the vitriol between Cuban exiles in Miami and supporters of Fidel Castro on the island more palpable than in the Spanish-language media. Radio stations and newspapers here regularly refer to Castro as "El Verdugo," the executioner. Granma, the official Communist Party daily newspaper, refers to exiles as "the negligent," "the corrupt," and "parasites." Lost in the vacuum in between are Cuban moderates, who scoff at the bellicosity and preach patience to both sides. Last month an unsuspecting reporter got caught in the cat fight when an article she penned was published in translation in the Spanish-language Miami daily Diario las Americas - with subtle editorial changes that appeared to tug on the Cuban leader's beard.

In late July, Anne-Marie O'Connor, the Miami-based Latin American and Caribbean correspondent for Cox Newspapers, traveled to Havana to report on the Pan American Games. To open her coverage of the games, she filed a story that contrasted Castro's wooing of affluent tourists with the economic crisis facing the island's socialist system. The article, as O'Connor recalls, was no big deal, something she put together in a couple of hours, filed to Cox's Washington bureau, and promptly forgot about. A few days later, however, a Cuban government press official phoned her at her Havana hotel and said he wanted to talk about the story. When O'Connor met with the man, he handed her a photocopy of the July 31 translated story from Diario under the headline, "Castro hides the misery of the people." (The same story's English version in the Atlanta Constitution, a Cox newspaper, was headlined, "Cuba preparing for invasion of athletes.")

When foreign correspondents for Cox Newspapers file a story to the Washington bureau, it is edited and offered to the chain's newspapers. Most stories also are offered to the New York Times News Service, which sends them out to its clients. One of those clients is Diario. Although the Times News Service includes a Spanish-language branch that offers already translated articles, Diario editors receive the stories in English and write their own translations.

On the photocopy of the Diario version, the Cuban press official had underlined nearly every sentence, as well as the headline and O'Connor's name. He criticized the use of "socialist regime" to describe Castro's government. O'Connor informed him she'd actually written "socialist system." But what really riled the official was Castro's title. In the original story sent to the Cox bureau, O'Connor had used the neutral term "Cuban leader," in referring to Castro. In the Atlanta Constitution version, it appeared as "Cuban president," his official title and the one used by many U.S. newspapers. The Diario translation dubbed Castro "El Dictador" - the dictator.

"I told him that this was not what I wrote," says O'Connor. "I told them that was not our style and that I was unsure of how this had happened." O'Connor did acknowledge, however, she had written some of what the official objected to. Although she says her explanation seemed to placate him, the Cubans assigned O'Connor a foreign-ministry official (or what journalists commonly refer to as a "minder"), a person who ostensibly helps make appointments with government officials and other sources but who many reporters believe also keeps an eye on them. The Cuban government had assigned O'Connor a "minder" only on the first of her eight visits to Cuba since 1989. "I spoke with this guy twice and he asked if he could help with any appointments, but I never saw him again. After that it seemed to blow over," says O'Connor.

Luis Mario, managing editor of Diario, said the changes were the result of translating mistakes rather than intentional efforts to twist a standard news report for editorial or propaganda purposes. Diario normally uses presidente or gobernante, which translates to "ruler," although many of the newspaper's readers and even some of its staff writers would like to see dictador. "I am Cuban, and in my personal opinion he is a dictator," Mario says. "But it is not our style to use that in news stories, and certainly not by changing a [wire] story. We are very clear on that point. As a journalist it would be improper to do that or change a story we received from someone else. It would be like if the president of a country killed some people, we don't call him a killer, we just say he killed somebody. In this case it looks like it was human error." If asked, Mario says, the paper will run a correction and apologize to O'Connor.

The newspaper might also be sternly reprimanded by letter or phone, says Pat Vance, associate editor of the New York Times News Service. "This is not done," he says. "You cannot change the sense of a story or jeopardize [a reporter] by doing this sort of thing." Still, O'Connor and other members of the foreign press corps wonder if corrections and reprimands will help convince Cuban officials. "This potentially could compromise our effectiveness in covering Cuba," says Andrew Alexander, foreign editor for Cox Newspapers and O'Connor's boss. "The Cubans are very sensitive to this. We report accurately and thoroughly, but when our words are changed to convey a meaning we didn't intend it can obviously cause problems.

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William Labbee