I recently found this transparency in my files. I shot it for a St. Petersburg Times story that ran on Sunday, March 29, 1992.
NOT JUST A WAR OF WORDS
St. Petersburg Times - Sunday, March 29, 1992
by RICK BRAGG
The vandals didn't care about the money inside the bright yellow newspaper boxes, only the words.
They painted communista on several of them and jammed the coin slots with glue and gum. They made sure the news stories and editorial opinions of the Miami Herald were sealed in their steel boxes.
To some Cuban -Americans in Miami, it is where the newspaper belongs unread, discredited and unbelieved.
They say the Herald ignores them, that it favors other Cuban -Americans with tamer politics. They say it is soft on Fidel Castro, the dictator they hate like poison. They even say the Herald is a tool of Castro's communist government.
In other cities, people cancel subscriptions and write letters to the editor. But in Miami, where an opinion can get you killed, a debate between the Herald and a powerful Cuban -American group has turned bitter, mean and ugly.
It is politics. It is personal.
It is war, to influence or control the way a newspaper reports the news.
One man launched it.
Jorge L. Mas Canosa, millionaire head of the Cuban American National Foundation and the exile leader most often mentioned as the post-Castro president of Cuba, is leading a methodical campaign against the Herald and its Spanish-language sister, El Nuevo Herald .
He fiercely attacked the papers on Spanish-language radio, urged people to cancel subscriptions, wrote hundreds of letters to local leaders and even called for some Cuban -American executives to resign from the papers.
In a tirade against the paper on Radio Mambi, reprinted in the Herald , Mas said: "The Miami Herald is the most powerful institution in the state of Florida. These are unscrupulous people, people who chop off heads, destroy people, families, put people in jail . . ."
In his column, Herald publisher David Lawrence wrote: "All the billboards in America, all the national TV that he can buy . . . all the huffing and bluster he can muster, still won't give him control of this newspaper. Ever."
As the fight heated up, someone sent death threats to Herald executives, including two Cuban -Americans. Someone phoned a bomb threat to the paper's downtown office.
Mas' organization has vehemently denied doing anything illegal, and says the vandalism of newspaper boxes and threats are not part of its campaign. Francisco Hernandez, foundation president, said his organization even bought radio ads calling for calm and condemning violence.
Miami's Cuban -American mayor, Xavier Suarez, personally asked the 51-year-old Mas last week to refrain from attacking the Herald for several days. Hernandez said Mas agreed.
In Miami, reaction to any deeply emotional issue cannot always be controlled.
"Accusing any institution in this city of being a tool of the Castro government is inciting to violence," said Bill Williamson, executive director of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).
The editors and publishers who make up the IAPA were alarmed enough over the death threats and vandalism to send a mission into Miami last week. The delegation concluded that the threat was real.
"We urge the authorities to investigate them thoroughly and to prosecute those responsible," the IAPA concluded. "We also consider the tension in Miami between the Herald and some Cuban exile groups as a warning flag for all newspapers whose communities are undergoing major demographic change."
Such delegations are regularly sent to Latin America to investigate attacks on freedom of the press.
It was the first delegation ever sent to a newspaper in the United States.
It is emblazoned on the backside of 60 city buses. In black letters against a sunny yellow background are the words: "I DON'T BELIEVE THE MIAMI HERALD."
Some of the signs, matching bumper stickers, and a billboard busy Flagler street are in Spanish: "Yo no creo en el Herald."
It started Jan. 18, when the Herald published an editorial against a congressional bill to tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The foundation ardently supports the bill, believing it would help destroy Castro. The Herald said it would hurt the Cuban people.
On the same day, a columnist in El Nuevo Herald skewered unnamed "impostors, opportunists and gigolos who have made their modus vivendi out of anti-Castroism."
That was it.
Mas went on the radio, saying the Herald manipulated the news, comparing it to Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party.
In a letter to publisher Lawrence, he wrote: "For over two years, your paper tried to discredit my good name. . . . The Herald does not report facts or news. It reports gossip, innuendo and hearsay."
Lawrence wrote two columns responding to Mas, and the newspaper published a 4,000-word piece signed by Mas and titled 'Freedom of Expression Belongs to All of Us, Mr. Lawrence.'
Some of Mas' specific complaints are: The Herald failed to cover foundation leaders' meetings with foreign presidents; the Herald claimed he played a role in a criminal investigation of one of his rivals; the Herald was late in reporting the January arrest of pro-foundation dissidents in Cuba.
"Jorge Mas and the Herald can never agree because Mr. Mas will never agree with any news medium that is not willing to kill negative stories about him," said Mestre of the Herald .
The escalating feud with Mas has had an effect on the day-to-day coverage of the foundation. Although reporters and editors say they are not knuckling under to pressure, they say that higher ranking editors are showing a lot more interest in the stories.
"Prior to the campaign, the perception of Jorge Mas was of this blowhard who did not represent anyone in the Cuban community. I think he sensed that and has come out with guns blazing," said a Herald reporter who covers Hispanics.
The Herald has written favorably of Mas and the hard-line anti-Castro Cubans. In a 1990 column, Lawrence wrote of a hard-working family man, a patriot, the man behind the tough-guy image.
"I think (David Lawrence) has good intentions. He has to have them, because the Cuban community is a big market," said Ninoska Perez, director of the foundation's radio station that broadcasts to Cuba.
The Herald has lost fewer than 60 subscribers to Mas' campaign, Lawrence said. It has lost several hundred in street sales, partly because of the boxes.
Meanwhile, ordinary people are fighting it out in the cafes of Calle Ocho and the letters section of the Miami Herald .
"As a member of the Cuban community, I am embarrassed and disgusted by this anti-Herald campaign," Maria Garcia Stevens wrote in a letter to the newspaper. "Most Cuban-Americans have viewed Mr. Mas' tactics as an embarrassment. . . ."
But on the streets of Little Havana, nine of 15 people asked about the controversy say they "don't believe the Herald."
Cuban -Americans have been feuding with the Herald since the 1959 Cuban revolution, when they were only a tiny minority.
"The Herald for the longest time neglected to cover the Cuban community adequately," said Mestre, the member of the Herald's editorial board.
In 1976, angry that the Herald had disregarded a massacre inside Cuba's notorious Boniato prison, Mestre and several others chained themselves to the doors of the paper's building to protest. They later went on a hunger strike.
Miami has long since turned the corner from old Southern city to the international capital of Latin America.
The newspaper had to change with it.
To adapt, the Herald infused its staff with Cuban -Americans and other Hispanics, began a separate Spanish-language edition and began shifting its focus south, to the homelands of its fast-changing readership. In the past year it closed bureaus in New York, Atlanta and China and opened two in Latin America.
Some Anglo readers have complained that the Herald has gone too far, that it has pandered to Mas. Lawrence said the paper's changing focus is to serve the whole readership, not just Hispanics. What happens to the south is important to all Miamians, he said.
Liz Balmaseda, a Cuban -American columnist at the paper, said people like Mas don't represent all Cuban -Americans:
"They wrap themselves in words like 'Cuban exiles want this, Cuban exiles want that,' when what they are doing is presenting their own political agenda. We ( Cuban -Americans) are no monolithic group. About the only thing we have in common is that we all hate Fidel Castro."
She imagines a Cuba headed by men like Mas.
"To get a visa," she said, ". . . you would have to go through the minister of propaganda."