Posted on Sunday, 10.18.09
MIAMI HERALD OMBUDSMAN
Charges against columnist don’t add up
What does a newspaper do if one of its regular op-ed contributors has
been accused of being of a Cuban spy?
This is the case confronting The Miami Herald over Marifeli
Pérez-Stable, a professor at Florida International University who since
2002 has been writing a column every two weeks that focuses mostly on
Cuba and Latin America.
The spy charges are old, but have been raised again in online campaigns
since the arrest and charging this summer of a former State Department
senior intelligence analyst and his wife for being Cuban agents.
In an op-ed column in the Washington Times, Armando Valladares, the
former Cuban political prisoner and United States ambassador to the
United Nations Human Rights Commission, called on the government to
detain and interrogate Pérez-Stable, too.
Last year, a retired Defense Intelligence Agency officer, Chris Simmons,
made the rounds of the Miami media and accused Pérez-Stable and others
of being Cuban “agents of influence.”
Is she a spy or a secret Cuban propagandist using her column to
influence American opinion? Has she ever been? Does it make any difference?
The Cuban emigré world in South Florida has evolved greatly since the
1960s when pro-Castro suspects were attacked with bombs. Still, exile
politics are volatile, and any suspicion of spying is especially sensitive.
Cuban spies do exist; dozens have been convicted over the years. Among
them are the “Cuba Five” that the Cuban dictators, Fidel and Raúl
Castro, demand be released. Two FIU colleagues of Pérez-Stable, Carlos
Alvarez and his wife, Elsa Prieto Alvarez, pleaded guilty in 2006.
Until now, there has been no full, clear public response from
Pérez-Stable about the charges against her. In Herald stories,
Pérez-Stable has dismissed them as “McCarthyite,” and she refers
people wanting more information to her website, but her responses in
both the stories and the site have been allusive and raise as many
questions as they answer.
Joe Oglesby, who last year retired as Editorial Page editor, told me
that twice he asked her in private if she ever had been a Cuban agent,
and she denied it both times. He said that he didn’t think the charges
were credible enough to pursue further or to say something publicly
that, in the hothouse of Miami émigré politics, might further fuel the fire.
After the latest round of accusations, Executive Editor Anders
Gyllenhaal and Editorial Page Editor Myriam Marquez asked me to look at
the charges and report to readers as I saw fit. Pérez-Stable is not an
employee of The Herald, but the newspaper still has responsibility to
insure that readers know when an outside columnist has an interested
motive — political or economic — behind her opinion.
After reviewing the case against Pérez-Stable and speaking with her, I
agree with Oglesby: The charges are not sufficiently credible to warrant
a full scale investigation by the paper or to stop publishing her.
Unless her critics can come up with something firm, their accusations
border on paranoia and slander.
Pérez-Stable has long openly admitted to having been pro-Castro earlier
in life. Born in Havana, she came to the U.S. at the age of 12 and was
raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she developed very different thoughts
from those prevalent in South Florida. She fell into radical politics
and traveled frequently to Cuba. She was a founder in 1978 of the
Antonio Maceo Brigade, a pro-Castro organization made up of the children
of Cuban exiles and named after a Cuban independence hero. She also was
an editor of a pro-Castro magazine, Areíto.
“I am neither regretful nor apologetic of that period in my life,” she
writes on her website. But by the late 1980s she changed, she says:
“First-hand knowledge allowed me to come to terms with the waning of
revolution and the failure of socialism. Letting go of my illusions was
hard. Since 1991, I haven’t been able to travel to Cuba; officials there
consider me persona non grata.”
Most of the suspicions about her grow out of that earlier period. They
are based on research by Antonio de la Cova, a meticulous former Indiana
University professor who has made a cottage industry out of tormenting
the FIU professor. De la Cova is so anti-Castro that he spent six years
in a U.S. prison in relation to the attempted bombing of a bookstore
owned by a suspected Castro sympathizer.
Valladares, Simmons and most other accusers of Pérez-Stable rely heavily
on de la Cova’s research.
De la Cova on his website claims to have a copy of the FBI debriefing
report from 1983 of a Cuban intelligence defector, Capt. Jesús Pérez
Méndez. In it, the defector says that Pérez-Stable was “controlled” by
Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) and was “placed” in
charge of the Círculo de Cultura Cubana.
A problem, however, is that the alleged FBI debriefing report was
hand-copied by de la Cova from files that he says were shown to him by
Puerto Rican police. There are no other public copies of the report. The
defector, Pérez Méndez, meanwhile, is in hiding in a witness protection
program; he can’t be found to be interviewed. The report, of course,
could still exist, and the information from the defector could still be
Both Areíto magazine and the Antonio Maceo Brigade have been said by
U.S. and Florida officials to be funded and controlled by Cuban
intelligence, much like many former Soviet and East German cultural
organizations were intelligence-controlled. The CIA, in turn, has
sponsored media outlets overseas and used American cultural
organizations as cover.
De la Cova suggests that Pérez-Stable may have received Cuban government
money back then for her propaganda work and that she never reported it
to the IRS. He doubts her conversion against the Castro regime and says
she may still be a “mole” today, waiting to be activated as a spy. He
offers no additional reason to suspect that, however.
De la Cova also distributes photographs of a young Pérez-Stable
alongside known Cuban intelligence officers René Rodriguez Cruz and Raúl
Alzaga. But the events were public and the officers were there in their
supposed cultural or diplomatic roles. The photos prove nothing.
`I WAS NEVER A SPY’
“I was never a spy nor am I one,” Pérez-Stable declared flatly in a
series of email exchanges with me over the specific charges. “I only
went on the first Antonio Maceo Brigade (trip to Cuba). We paid for our
way to/from Cuba; the Cuban government hosted us once we arrived there.”
In another email, she wrote, “In the late 1970s and early 1980s I
directed Círculo de Cultura Cubana which published Areíto magazine.
After 1979, Cuban Americans began traveling to Cuba for family reasons,
and Marazul Charters was one of the companies authorized to fly them to
Havana. Círculo de Cultura Cubana organized cultural trips and was paid
commissions by Marazul. I was never paid these commissions directly. At
the time, I worked for the Círculo and received a modest salary.
“I reconnected with Cuba, I made long-lasting friendships, I met
cultural and government officials, some of whom are no longer on the
island,” she said. “I talked with many people there, especially
regarding the trips I was organizing and the U.S. embargo. Then I wanted
to end the embargo and see normal U.S.-Cuba relations in recognition of
the revolution. Today I want the same thing as a regime opponent. I’ve
spent more years as a regime opponent than I did supporting it.”
Pérez-Stable continues to attend conferences where Cuban officials are
present. She also publicly has hosted in her home a former Cuban
official, Mercedes Arce, who de la Cova says was a Cuban intelligence
handler of Carlos Alvarez, the convicted FIU.
Pérez-Stable told me that she does not know if Arce worked for Cuban
intelligence, but doubts she does now.
“Mercedes Arce is a friend,” Pérez-Stable says. “I met her as a
(foreign ministry) funcionaria and then she headed a center at the
University of Havana. She was `tronada’ in 1992, fell out of grace for
being too liberal. She’s been living in Mexico for nearly a decade. Yes,
she stayed at my home.”
In defense of Pérez-Stable, read a recent New Yorker article by Nicholas
Lemann based on two recent books: Spies: The Rise and Fall of the K.G.B.
in America, by Alexander Vassiliev and others, and Treachery: Betrayals,
Blunders and Cover-Ups — Six Decades of Espionage Against America and
Great Britain, by Chapman Pincher.
Relying on personal testimony and opened Soviet archives, the books show
how Soviet spies, posing as cultural or other officials, courted Western
journalists and academics for information. These Western contacts were
recorded in the archives as “agents,” without money ever having
changed hands. In turn, the academics and journalists courted these
“officials” in a reverse search for information. I have done the same
myself as a journalist.
ASSOCIATION IS NOT GUILT
Association is not guilt, in other words, and Pérez-Stable doesn’t deny
the associations. The U.S. government has brought no charges against
her. Some of her critics say the fact that she hasn’t sued them suggests
she is hiding something that might come out in court. But that is like
saying you are guilty until proven innocent.
In addition to teaching sociology at FIU, Pérez-Stable is a senior
researcher on democratic governance issues at the Inter-American
Dialogue in Washington, a non-partisan, centrist think tank.
I asked Peter Hakim, president of the Dialogue and a longtime critic of
the Castros, how his organization is treating the Pérez-Stable issue.
“There has to be a formal charge, as opposed to a smear by someone,”
he said. “I haven’t seen reason enough in these accusations to do
I have read many of Pérez-Stable’s Herald columns. In them, she supports
U.S. engagement with Cuba as a way to bridge the differences between the
two countries and encourage democratic change on the island.
Can that view be surreptitiously doing the Castros a favor? In so far as
it may restrain the U.S. from being aggressive against Cuba, you can say
But the Castros have made it clear in word and deed that they don’t want
to engage on the human rights and democracy grounds that Pérez-Stable
proposes, so, no, she isn’t doing them a favor.
To avoid the appearance of a conflict, this column was edited by
freelance editor William Greer.
Charges against columnist don’t add up – Edward Schumacher-Matos –
MiamiHerald.com (18 October 2009)