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Megaphone for a Dictator

CNN's Coverage of Fidel Castro's Cuba, 1997-2002

Conclusion: CNN's Sugarcoated Dictatorship

On February 4, 2000, CNN’s Newsstand devoted an entire story to the contents of Fidel Castro’s office, part of a recurring segment called “Cool Digs” on the workplaces of famous people. “When was the last time you saw a cup full of pencils on the boss’s desk?” asked CNN anchor Steven Frazier. “And, they do get used — look at how worn down the erasers are.... Years ago, our host worked as an attorney, defending poor people....He’s Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader since 1959, who has been making waves lately in his fight for the return of young Elian Gonzalez.”29

It is very hard to imagine CNN producing a segment like that a few years ago about Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet or the late President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. But some of the coverage Castro received promoted the idea that he was more of a celebrity than a tyrant. In 1999, on Castro’s 73rd birthday, CNN noted the occasion: “State-run media marked the day with images of his life from a student radical to communist leader,” anchor Jim Moret related. “Castro has been in power 40 years now, a distinction that has earned him a spot in Madame Tussaud’s famed wax museum in London.”30

Apart from the handful of stories documenting the arrest or imprisonment of peaceful dissidents, CNN usually presented Castro’s communist dictatorship as benign, and occasionally as a marvel of efficiency. After a large rally demanding that the U.S. send Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, Lucia Newman gave the dictator a compliment, of sorts: “Even President Castro’s staunchest critics have to give him credit for being able to organize such a large rally on short notice, a feat made possible by the fact that nearly every Cuban belongs to some sort of organization and every organization answers to the Cuban communist party and the state.”31 Ah, the political efficiency of the totalitarian state.

Too often, CNN chose to avert its gaze from the truth of Castro’s dictatorship. CNN could have used its unique bureau to add to the American public’s knowledge of the only totalitarian state in the Western Hemisphere. But instead of enlightening the public about the regime’s repression, CNN’s Havana office has mainly provided Castro and his subordinates with a megaphone to defend their dictatorship and denigrate their democratic opponents.