Reporters Without Borders unmasked: Its well-financed private arrangement with Otto Reich to destroy Cuba’s economy

By DIANA BARAHONA*, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

  • Media-CulpaRobert Ménard, founder of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), is out to bring down Castro rather than protect journalists.
  • Tens of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars go to finance an organization that critically misuses its calculated similarity to the name of a highly regarded group, Doctors without Borders (MSF).
  • Rather than a bona fide NGO, RSF is an extremist anti-Castro shock brigade.
  • Ménard is a propagandist extraordinaire and committed zealot on taxpayer funds.
  • Saatchi and Saatchi teams up with Bacardi in an attempt to trash the Cuba tourist industry.
  • Vivendi Universal provides hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of in-kind resources to Ménard.
  • Concern about journalists is an afterthought.

(May 17, 2005) – When Robert Ménard founded Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 1979, he gave his group a moniker which evokes another French organization respected worldwide for its humanitarian work and which maintains a strict neutrality in political conflicts – Doctors Without Borders. But RSF has been anything but nonpartisan and objective in its approach. In fact, when it comes to Latin America and to Cuba in particular, it has been blatantly overt in its single-minded neo-con crusade against the Castro regime.

From the beginning of its institutional life, the RSF has made Cuba its number one target, with embattled journalists serving as a prop for its machinations. Allegedly established to advocate freedom of the press around the world and to help journalists under siege, the organization has called Cuba “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” It totally distorts reality by awarding Havana an even lower ranking on its press freedom index than countries where journalists routinely have been murdered, such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico. The rights of journalists are far-more threatened in those countries than is the case in Cuba, although the group of 75 sentenced to long jail terms by Cuban authorities for their allegedly illicit accepting of funds from the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, included some who described themselves as journalists. RSF has waged aggressive campaigns aimed at discouraging Europeans from vacationing in Cuba and the European Union from doing business there – its only campaign world-wide that is specifically intended to damage a given country’s economy. Cuba is not only the bull’s-eye for the RSF; it is its raison d’être, its other targets are largely potted plants meant to fill out the room to give the illusion that one is at a full-service hotel.

The work of RSF

The RSF’s work is not a matter of chance nor is it being done for free. It turns out that RSF is on the payroll of the U.S. State Department and has been working tirelessly with the various alumni of the former rightwing militant Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). The RSF also has directly benefited from ties to Helms-Burton-funded Cuban exile leaders, who have also regularly collected subventions from U.S. taxpayers, courtesy of the anti-Castro Dade County congressional delegation.

As a majority of members of Congress work toward normalizing rational trade and travel with Cuba, the taxpayer-funded and rabidly anti-Castro groups that have dictated U.S.-Cuba policy for almost half a century continue to work indefatigably to maintain a cordon-sanitaire around the island. Their regular funding of RSF is part of this overall strategy.

In his book on RSF’s titanic struggle with the Cuban regime (El expediente Robert Ménard: Por qué Reporteros sin Fronteras se ensaña con Cuba, Quebec: Lanctôt.), Havana-based journalist Jean-Guy Allard examined the pieces of the puzzle regarding Ménard’s activities, associations and sources of funding, as part of the explanation of what he calls Ménard’s “obsession” with Cuba. On March 27 of last year, the pieces began to come together:

Thierry Meyssan, president of the Paris daily, Red Voltaire, published an article in which he claimed Ménard had negotiated a contract with Otto Reich and the Center for a Free Cuba (CFC) in 2001. Reich was a trustee of the center, which is a hardcore group of anti-Castro exiles, who have fattened themselves as a result of White House funding. In fact, this group received much of their funding from U.S. taxpayers awarded under Helms-Burton legislation and disbursed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as through the equally rightwing National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The contract, according to Meyssan, was finally signed in 2002 around the time Reich was serving as an acting Assistant Secretary of State on a recess appointment, after failing to win confirmation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The initial payment for RSF’s services was approximately $25,000 in 2002, and was doubled by 2003.

Working for the Yankee dollar in France

The CFC is funded by the USAID. Lucie Morillon, RSF’s Washington representative, confirmed in an interview on April 29 that the organization indeed is receiving payments from the CFC, and that the contract with Reich requires RSF to inform Europeans fully about the extent of the repression of journalists in Cuba and to support the families of those who have been sentenced to excessive prison terms. But she denied that the anti-Cuba declarations on radio and television, full-page ads in Parisian dailies, posters and leafletting at airports and an April 2003 occupation of the local Cuban tourism office were aimed at discouraging tourism to the island, a charge that is persistently made by Ménard’s legion of Cuba critics. Morillon also disclosed that RSF received $50,000 from the CFC in 2004. In effect, RSF was receiving funds from public sources to proselytize and inflame, as well as to disseminate political propaganda at the behest of its sponsors. RSF failed to meet its basic goal of conducting research, which combined with its political involvement, raises significant questions about its nonprofit tax status.

RSF’s emphasis on cutting off Cuban tourism could not be more dangerous to the island. After the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc support for Cuba’s economy soon came to a halt and what Cubans call the “special period” (a time of great privation and shortages, which only recently ended) had begun. Almost all of Cuba’s sugar harvest had been sold to the communist bloc throughout the Cold War era and in return the island imported two-thirds of its food supply, nearly all of its oil and 80 per cent of its machinery and spare parts from the same sources. Suddenly, 85 per cent of Cuba’s foreign trade vanished. Deprived of petroleum, Cuban industries, power generation and transportation capability ground to a halt. For the first time in many years, malnutrition on the island began to reappear, as rations were reduced to little more than rice and beans.

Washington saw the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies in 1989 and a subsequent series of natural disasters that slammed into the island, as devastating losses to an already prostrate economy. The U.S. also saw these occurrences as a chance to deal a deathblow to the Castro regime. The Miami extreme right, then led by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), began to draw up plans to work with a White House that itself was slavishly pursuing the loose pockets of Miami’s prosperous exile leadership for major campaign donations. “Nothing nor no one will make us falter. We do not wish it, but if blood has to flow, it will flow,” wrote CANF chair Jorge Mas Canosa (Hernando Calvo Ospina, Bacardi: The Hidden War, London: Pluto Press).

But Cuba disappointed the plotters by surviving. A centerpiece of the island’s economic recovery strategy was the government’s decision in 1992 to develop the tourism industry, which since has gone a long way to replace the desperately needed foreign exchange the country had lost when the Soviet bloc disappeared. Consequently, it came as no surprise that those wishing to see Cuba starve would want to impede its tourism-based economy through every conceivable form of violent as well as non-violent sabotage. On the extremist end, Miami terrorists groups such as Alpha 66, Commando L and others began to contract ex-members of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries to disrupt the Cuban hotel industry. Through the use of such contract terrorists, the notorious Luis Posada Carriles, who is now seeking asylum in the U.S., organized a string of hotel bombings in 1997 in which an Italian tourist died. Not only did Posada admit to the New York Times in 1998 that he led this effort, but he acknowledged that the leaders of CANF had bankrolled his operations and that Mas Canosa was personally in charge of overseeing the flow of funds and logistical support to carry out the operations. Super terrorist Orlando Bosch, who was pardoned by President Bush’s father and currently lives in Miami, is suspected of masterminding the ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in order to undermine the ability of the Cuban economy to survive – let alone flourish.

Another project for encouraging the downfall of the Cuban regime was the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Title IV allows the U.S. to impose sanctions against foreign investors in Cuba whose holdings allegedly involve properties expropriated from those who are Americans today but were not U.S. nationals, but Cuban citizens, when their properties had been seized by the regime. This law, which was intended to discourage foreign companies and countries from doing business with Cuba, was drafted by leaders of the CANF, Bacardi lawyers and Otto Reich, who was then a Bacardi lobbyist. Helms-Burton also provided additional resources which were used to support island-based dissidents with the intent of destabilizing the government – an aspect of the highest interest to exile groups. Anti-Castro bands outside of Cuba would be in charge of channeling these funds, after taking their overhead, providing an attractive arrangement for those being funded by the U.S. government, while carrying out actions that at times have violated the law. USAID alone has distributed more than $34 million in funds related to anti-Castro activities since 1996, including its significant support of U.S.-based anti-Havana groups, including Otto Reich’s CFC.

In an interview with Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina (Calvo and Declercq, The Cuban Exile Movement, Melbourne: Ocean Press), Ménard said his group had been supporting dissidents in Cuba since September 1995 and has always considered Cuba “the priority in Latin America.” Coincidentally, the Helms-Burton Act was already making its way through Congress in January 1995. After President Clinton signed the bill into law in 1996, he sent a special ambassador to Europe to meet with local NGOs whose work involved anti-Castro affairs, to propose they support Cuba-based dissident movements. According to Calvo, RSF attended one such Paris meeting during this period. RSF was also represented at a gathering called by the arch conservative Dutch group Pax Christi Netherlands at the Hague in order to generate another pressure initiative against Castro’s Cuba and in support of the dissident movement on the island.

In September 1998, Ménard traveled to Havana to recruit anti-Castro activists to write stories for RSF to publish. He later told Calvo in his interview, “We give $50 a month each to around twenty journalists so they can survive and stay in the country.” But one of those who Ménard first recruited in Cuba, journalist Nestor Baguer, disputed that description of the relationship in interviews he gave to the government-controlled Havana newspaper Granma, revealing that in fact he had been working for state security while posing as a dissident journalist.

Baguer maintained that RSF was prepared to pay only for articles turned in, and that they had to portray the Cuban government in a negative manner. Baguer did not consider many of his putative Cuban colleagues to be authentic journalists, as few of them had even written a word for public dissemination nor had received any formal journalistic training. He also told how he was forced to edit severely their almost illegible copy – something he called a “terrible penance.” Baguer recalled the first conversation he had with the RSF head in the back of a rental car: “What he wanted was for it to come straight from here. It seems before he was getting fed from Miami. But he wanted to have his Cuban source so it would be more credible.” Noting the small payments Cubans were being paid for their articles, Baguer speculated Ménard was doing a “great business” (Allard).

Heating up the pot to boil

In May 2004, the State Department issued a report to the president by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a White House-appointed body largely made up of right-wing Miami-based exile sources which was stacked with anti-Castro ideologues. The report recommends $41 million in funding to promote Cuban “civil society” –a euphemism for paid agitation – which specifically would target Cuban tourism. In Chapter I, “Hastening Cuba’s Transition,” part V, headed, “Deny Revenues to the Castro Regime,” there is a subheading, “Undermine Regime-sustaining Tourism,” which goes on to say: “Support efforts by NGOs in selected third countries to highlight human rights abuses in Cuba, as part of a broader effort to discourage [such] tourist travel. This could be modeled after past initiatives, especially those by European NGOs, to boycott tourism to countries where there were broad human rights concerns.”

Ms. Morillon’s denials notwithstanding, it does not take much to figure out which “European NGOs” have been actively preaching the boycotting of tourism to Cuba. RSF is mentioned by name in the report in reference to its support for a jailed journalist whose writings it had published.

RSF’s patron at the CFC, trustee Otto Reich, has a long history as a U.S. hit man in Latin America and today he has been a prime advocate of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the UN. His resume includes helping to spring Bosch, the exile community’s most notorious terrorist, from prison in Venezuela where Reich was then the U.S. ambassador during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. At the time, Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles were serving jail time for blowing up a Cuban civilian passenger airplane with the loss of all on board, including the entire Cuban fencing team, which was returning to Havana after participating in sporting contests abroad. After his recess appointment as the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American affairs in early 2002, Reich found himself helping to soldier the administration’s efforts to pry Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez out of office and aided in the cover up of the February 2004 de facto ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – an event in which RSF enthusiastically participated with a smear campaign against the Haitian leader.

Financing the anti-Castro crusade

Although RSF’s attacks on Castro, Chávez and Aristide were in perfect harmony with State Department policies, and though Morillon admitted that RSF was receiving annual paychecks from Reich, she denied that the Bush administration’s funding of the group in any way affected its activities. She points out that RSF’s $50,000 payments from the CFC and a January grant of $40,000 from the publicly-funded National Endowment for Democracy (which is a Cold War era leftover providing off-the-book financing for overseas rightwing causes) only constituted a fraction of the organization’s budget.

Ménard has many rich conservative friends in Europe and the U.S., including the wealthy head of Bacardi, and rabid anti-Castroite Manuel Cutillas. As for the CFC, its current executive director Frank Calzon, has repeatedly been cited as having a long association with the intelligence bodies in this country. At least one study portrayed Calzon as being affiliated with the National Liberation Front of Cuba, which claimed credit for a host of worldwide bombings beginning in 1972 (Hernando Calvo Ospina, Bacardi: The Hidden War, London: Pluto Press, 2002).

Ménard to the rescue

According to a January 20, 2004 article in El Nuevo Herald (“Reporters Without Borders Announces Campaign to Democratize Cuba”), Ménard visited Miami that week and received a hero’s welcome upon his arrival. He was lionized in the press and honoured by exile leaders at a dinner at Casa Bacardi, met with the Cuban Liberty Council (an even more extremist split-off from the CANF), as well as the editors of the Miami Herald and Mayor Manny Diaz. Ménard was also a guest on a Radio Mambí program hosted by purportedly government-funded exile leader Nancy Pérez Crespo, to whom he reportedly gave handouts aimed at ruining Cuba’s image in Europe as a tourist destination (Allard). Regarding the media, he announced that the RSF would be holding a meeting on March 18 with European political leaders in Brussels, to promote democratization in Cuba.

“In Brussels we want to propose elementary measures which can be applied to Cuba as a country that violates human rights,” Ménard said. “Weren’t the European bank accounts of terrorists frozen? Why can’t that be done in the case of Cuba?” Ménard was on a roll. He then went on to say that the Brussels event would be just the beginning of new RSF campaigns to be carried out by the rightist group in the European media and which would be squarely aimed at denouncing repression in Cuba. On March 18, 2004, Ménard went to the Brussels meeting with the CFC’s Calzon, a fact which has remained undisclosed until now.

In addition to its other sources of funding, RSF receives free publicity from Saatchi and Saatchi, part of the world’s fourth-largest marketing and public relations conglomerate, Publicis Groupe. Publicis enjoys a near-monopoly in the French advertising field and as a result, RSF-spawned propaganda is featured at no cost to the organization in many Parisian dailies and supermarket tabloids. The RSF also enjoys free printing of some of the books it sells, through the courtesy of Vivendi Universal Publishing. All of these in-kind services should be factored into the RSF’s total budget to give some idea of the magnitude of the enterprise. Although the reason for Publicis Groupe’s astounding generosity is not entirely known, it is worth noting that a major Publicis client is Bacardi, whose 2001 local advertising budget was just under $50 million.

*This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow, Diana Barahona. Diana is a member of the Northern California Media Guild. She has written two other articles on RSF for the Guild Reporter (www.newsguild.org).

May 17, 2005

*The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, see its web page at http://www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email coha at coha.org.

1 Comment

Filed under Americas, Media, Journalism & Disinformation, United States

One response to “Reporters Without Borders unmasked: Its well-financed private arrangement with Otto Reich to destroy Cuba’s economy

  1. Pingback: Reporters Without Borders accepts prize from journalist-killing regime | Tony Seed's Weblog

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