H-Diplo Article Review Forum 932 Keller. “The Revolution Will be Teletyped: Cuba’s Prensa Latina News Agency and the Cold War Contest over Information.”

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H-Diplo Article Review Forum 932

28 February 2020

Renata Keller.  “The Revolution Will be Teletyped:  Cuba’s Prensa Latina News Agency and the Cold War Contest over Information.”  Special Issue of International Journal 73:4 (2018):  501-608.

https://hdiplo.org/to/AR932
Article Review Editors: Michael E. Neagle, William Whitworth, & Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Introduction by Michael E. Neagle, Nichols College

Over the last two decades, English-language scholars of Latin America have paid much closer attention to the Cold War. Aided by deeper immersion in foreign language archives and perspectives, many researchers have looked to de-center the United States and Soviet Union in the conflict. Path-breaking volumes such as In from the Cold (2008) and A Century of Revolution (2010) are among the most notable examples.[1] These studies shed light not only on the Cold War’s devastating effects on the region but also on regional actors’ impact on the superpower rivalry.

Renata Keller has been at the forefront of this trend. She has written about Mexico’s interactions with Cuba’s revolutionary government as well as Latin American leaders’ attempts to leverage the Cuban Missile Crisis to their advantage.[2] In this article, she examines Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency—founded shortly after the triumph of the revolution—that was in charge of producing and distributing news for a broader Latin American audience. As the first in-depth study of the organization in English, Keller argues that “Prensa Latina played a major role in promoting and sustaining the Cuban revolution.” (89) It both informed Cubans about the wider world while providing Cuban perspectives to the wider world.

Reviewers Michael Bustamante and Asa McKercher have a favorable view of Keller’s work. In particular, they credit her for spotlighting a heretofore understudied aspect of the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War—and doing so with sufficient balance and nuance. Although Prensa Latina (PL) was not necessarily a propaganda arm of the Cuban government as U.S. critics charged, it also was not completely apolitical. In the words of one PL reporter, some of its correspondents did things that were “not very journalistic.” (109) Both McKercher and Bustamante appreciate the deftness with which Keller handles this complexity.

Keller’s work in U.S. and Cuban sources—lauded by each reviewer—compelled Bustamante to consider two broader questions. The first concerns whether Keller could access Prensa Latina’s records and what more this might have revealed about the organization. The second is a question of PL’s reception and the degree to which “actual audiences in Cuba, Latin America, the United States, and beyond interpreted, or internalized, what they were reading and hearing.” Regardless, he notes that Keller’s article could be a good starting point for further studies of Cuban media, like Radio Habana Cuba and cable channels such as Telesur, as well as competing broadcasts by the Cuban exile community including that of the U.S.-backed Radio Martí.

Participants:

Renata Keller is an Assistant Professor of Latin American history at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She is currently working on her second book, a hemispheric history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Michael J. Bustamante, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He is co-editor of The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980, published by Duke University Press in 2019. He has published scholarly articles in Journal of American Ethnic History, Latino Studies, and Cuban Studies, among other publications. He serves on the editorial board of Cuban Studies.

Asa McKercher is assistant professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author, most recently, of Canada and the World since 1867 (Bloomsbury, 2019) and, with Catherine Krull, Entangled Terrains and Identities in Cuba: Memories of Guantánamo (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

 

 

Review by Michael J. Bustamante, Florida International University

Renata Keller is part of a group of scholars who are revolutionizing—pardon the pun—the study of Cuban foreign relations history. Together, books by Keller, Tanya Harmer, Jonathan Brown, and, before them, Piero Gleijeses have significantly nuanced the standard view of Havana’s external influence as either a straightforward story of anti-imperialist solidarity or a nefarious tale of communist meddling.[3] So, too, have these historians pushed past the exclusive focus among many others on Cuba’s bilateral conflict with the United States. In Keller’s case, her 2015 monograph, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, traced a complex diplomatic triangle, as revolutionary leaders in Havana were sympathetic to Mexican critics of the entrenched rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but were also at pains to not overly antagonize the one government in the region that did not break off relations with the island by the mid-1960s.[4] (Despite public protests to the contrary, Washington had reason to secretly welcome the preservation of a Mexico-Cuba relationship: it served as an intelligence-gathering channel.) Crucially, Keller’s study benefited from access to newly available files from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, just as the monographs by the other authors mentioned above relied on declassified materials to flesh out our understanding of Cuba’s role in Allende’s Chile, Latin America as a whole, and the African continent, respectively. Simply put, this new source material has permitted a level of insight into Cuban foreign policy interests and decision-making that was not previously possible.[5]

Keller’s new article, “The Revolution Will be Teletyped: Cuba’s Prensa Latina News Agency and the Cold War Contest over Information,” is firmly in the spirit of this work, albeit with two differences. For one thing, the focus is not so much on government-to-government relations, or Cuba’s support for oppositional actors in the Third World, but rather on Havana’s participation in the information wars that constituted one of the Cold War’s other major fronts. Second, this study’s exploration of Prensa Latina, an international news agency founded in Havana in 1959 and backed by the Cuban government to this day, does not draw principally from Cuban government records. Instead, Keller relies on press reports and declassified U.S. intelligence files to narrate, chiefly, the agency’s first decade of activities. One wonders whether records pertaining to Prensa Latina in Cuba are simply not available. Regardless, potential blind spots in U.S. documentation do not impede Keller from telling a riveting, multilayered story. The U.S. government not only closely followed Prensa Latina and often worked to impede its operations, but also begrudgingly acknowledged the accuracy of much of its reporting.

It is tempting but insufficient, Keller shows, to label Prensa Latina merely a Cuban propaganda tool and end the story there. The idea for the agency emerged in the Sierra Maestra in 1958, when guerilla leaders discussed the need to found a wire service that reflected Latin American perspectives and priorities. Among their interlocutors was a little-known Argentine, Jorge Masetti, one of several foreign journalists to have embedded with the rebels for a time. That said, the goal of challenging biases in the U.S.- and corporate-dominated newswire industry harkened back to an earlier effort in Masetti’s home country under populist leader Juan Perón, the short-lived Agencia Latina de Noticias, for which both Masetti and another Argentine, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, had worked briefly. It also became particularly urgent when Cuba’s new leaders took issue with the unfavorable international coverage of early revolutionary tribunals following their rise to power in 1959. As a result, when Prensa Latina was officially born in June, with Masetti as founding director, it sought to cultivate a distinctly hemispheric voice in covering Latin American and global affairs, notwithstanding its organic link to and sponsorship by the emerging Cuban revolutionary state.

Agency founders were insistent on this point. Subsequent attempts by members of Cuba’s historic Communist party (the Partido Socialista Popular, or PSP) to make Prensa Latina little more than a relay station for TASS or other Eastern bloc wire services were met with firm resistance. Masetti resigned his position in 1961 in protest over such pressures. Not for nothing did Prensa Latina initially attract writers of considerable renown from around the region: Argentine Rodolfo Walsh, American Carleton Beals, and Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, to name but a few. And while many of these individuals also stepped down when the agency temporarily fell under the control of a more pro-Soviet Communist faction on the island, by 1962 Prensa Latina had pivoted back to its earlier, more autonomous approach after certain pro-PSP elements in the Cuban government were purged.

But that does not mean that the agency was an apolitical, publicly funded entity functioning strictly independently. While agency staff in bureaus around the world expressed a commitment to reporting the news “objectively,” they also saw themselves as defenders of the Cuban Revolution that was just coming into being. “We are objective, but not impartial” (94), Masetti stated, adding “We were born in Cuba because the Latin American revolution was born in Cuba” (95). Ironically, while the U.S. Information Agency would later publicly call Prensa Latina an “unreliable propaganda voice,” State Department officials occasionally relied on it for information, and the CIA privately appreciated its achievements (103). “Prensa Latina’s coverage of Latin American news is far better than any other service,” one early internal report recognized in 1960. “However,” it continued, “PL’s anti-American slant is shown by the selection of news”—that is, which events and statements it chose to emphasize—“rather than by editorializing or distorting” (95). Of course, selectivity was arguably tantamount to distortion, as Cuban and other Latin American critics of the dominant Western media had also alleged in the other direction. Perhaps that is why the agency found a large enough market for its stories, not only (and predictably) in the increasingly state-controlled press on the island, but also in many newspapers in the Western Hemisphere. It was filling problematic silences in international coverage, albeit in ways that reflected positively on Havana’s positions.

Keller is thus clear-eyed about the symbiosis that made Prensa Latina an important fixture of the Cuban Revolution’s public diplomacy arsenal. She also devotes considerable attention to evidence that agency personnel did become enmeshed in diplomatic and covert Cuban intelligence activities, as U.S. and Cuban exile actors (including some defectors from the Cuban diplomatic services) frequently alleged. This is hardly surprising, especially when one considers that Masetti was close to Cuban intelligence chief Manuel Piñeiro, or that he hung up his teletype definitely in 1962 to plan for and then lead a failed, Cuban-sponsored guerilla front in Argentina. Moreover, by the mid-1960s, Prensa Latina offices were often the only open link to Cuba remaining in a region whose governments (again with the exception of Mexico’s) had largely fallen in line behind U.S. demands to break diplomatic ties. In this context, it stands to reason that agency personnel could serve as attractive channels of communication between regional actors and Havana, or for gathering intelligence. Testimonial evidence suggests that some Prensa Latina reporters received training as members of Cuba’s elite espionage unit, the G2.

All the same, Keller argues convincingly that the differences between this activity and U.S. involvement with the news media during the Cold War were ones of degree not kind. In the early 1970s, the CIA disclosed that it had hired many journalists in private media to work as informants or intelligence agents. Keller also reminds us that the CIA copped to planting stories in the European and Latin American press as part of its efforts to undermine the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. One need not turn to such findings of the Church Committee in 1975 or subsequent investigative journalists, as Keller does, to make this point. Radio Swan, a covert radio station set up by the CIA in the 1960s to broadcast anti-communist messages to Cuba, or the radio broadcasts that accompanied operation PBSUCCESS in 1954, precipitating the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, offer equally damning proof.[6]

There is an argument to be made that Prensa Latina was at least more forthright in its associations with the Cuban government, if not its function as an intelligence front, than many U.S. government efforts to influence the press. In the context of the print media, it was and remains more analogous to a Cuban Voice of America than to a Radio Swan. Prensa Latina never denied its basic linkage to the Cuban state. To do so would have defied reason, even when during the agency’s earliest years the degree of its actual operational dependence on Cuban government revenue was the subject of internal U.S. government debate. In a recent blog post, veteran journalist and FOIA-expert Tracey Eaton published a comprehensive list of Cuba-related filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) during the 1960s.[7] For the year 1962, “Prensa Latina, Agencia Informativa Latino-Americana, Sociedad Anónima” appears. Why the agency’s U.S. bureau elected to register openly as an agent of a foreign government in the United States for that year alone remains a mystery. But the move is revealing. Could the FARA filing have been a defensive effort on the part of Prensa Latina to shield itself against U.S. pressure, or was it in response to a violent burglary of its New York offices by Cuban exiles that spring, as Keller relates? What stopped the United States from shutting the office down completely?

Without a doubt, Keller’s article is a welcome addition to the literature on Cuban foreign policy and the Cuban Revolution writ large. Moving forward, other aspects of Cuba’s Cold War and ‘post’-Cold War information wars are worthy of exploration too. If the Prensa Latina case was previously understudied, so is that of Radio Habana Cuba, a station that still broadcasts pro-Cuba news and messaging across the world. In more recent years, the Cuban government has participated or invested in the international cable channels Telesur and Cubavisión Internacional, though there is reason to doubt the audience size of the latter. More research should be done on Cuban exile broadcasts and media dating to the 1960s, continuing through the launch of U.S.-backed Radio Martí in the 1980s.[8] This is especially the case since such outlets were meant to undermine the kinds of broadcasts and stories generated by state media and news agencies on the island, both for island citizens and for publics abroad. The latter point, however, brings us to a more difficult research challenge. It is one thing to track the efforts of government or non-governmental actors to shape the media landscape favorably to their own political interests. It is another to document how actual audiences in Cuba, Latin America, the United States, and beyond interpreted, or internalized, what they were reading and hearing. The latter task in many ways remains pending.[9]

 

 

Review by Asa McKercher, Royal Military College of Canada

Over the past decade and a half, the study of the Cold War in Latin America has moved beyond a U.S.-centric focus and the use of almost exclusively American sources to a truly international history grounded in multi-national, multi-archival research that has firmly established Latin Americans’ agency in their own history. With her work on the inter-American response to the Cuban revolution, particularly the reaction in Mexico, Renata Keller has been at the forefront of this movement.[10] This article, examining Cuba’s Prensa Latina press agency and part of a special issue of Journal of Cold War Studies on Latin America, is another exceptional work contributing to the history of U.S. and Cuban foreign relations, intelligence and national security studies, and communications history. Crisp and well-written, with a joke or two thrown in, it is also a pleasure to read.

Press agencies have been a focus of recent attention by international historians, and Keller’s piece fits squarely within this scholarship emphasizing the rather obvious but often overlooked importance of who produces the news and how the struggle over news production reflects wider trends in international relations.[11] In her examination of Prensa Latina, she shows how the formation and activities of this Cuban news agency touch on the wider dispute between Cuba and the United States, inter-American relations, and Third World countries’ challenges to Western economic power. As Keller notes, the effort to construct a New International Economic Order was matched by a New World Information and Communication Order that saw the developing world object to the dominance of Western news media. Prensa Latina thus provides a focal point for wider issues, but this detailed look at Cuba’s press agency is also rewarding in itself.

Drawing on an impressive source base, Keller’s article shows the breadth of Prensa Latina’s impact on international affairs in the 1960s and 1970s. Her story begins in January 1959, when, after less than a month in power, Fidel Castro announced plans to create a news agency serving Latin America, part of his wider effort to limit reliance on foreign influence. Yet Castro was not the sole driver of events, and Keller covers the role of other actors, notably Jorge Ricardo Masetti, an Argentine journalist, who became Prensa Latina’s founding director. In outlining a history of the organization, Keller notes that within Cuba, the agency became a major source of international news, challenging the hold of the Associated Press and Western European outlets. Importantly, the agency had this same effect abroad. While many mainstream press outlets tended to ignore the new wire service, Prensa Latina’s reports were featured largely in left-wing publications and broadcasts and its reach gradually became global. Prensa Latina opened bureaus around the world, part of the Cuban government’s efforts to expand its presence beyond North America.

Prensa Latina’s expansion was a cause of concern for anti-Communist forces, for its activities could not be divorced from Cuba’s revolutionary image. Keller gives considerable coverage to how American government and media figures reacted to Prensa Latina’s operations Also, she traces efforts by the United States and other governments, primarily in Latin America, to monitor and shut down Prensa Latina operations out of fear that the agency was acting as an arm of Cuban intelligence and fomenting subversion. Counter-revolutionary Cuban terrorists also targeted the wire service. Yet, Keller points out that national security officials were right to be concerned, because there were indeed links between Prensa Latina and Cuba’s intelligence services.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the article is Keller’s coverage of the intelligence angle. Here, she provides a balanced assessment, emphasizing that while some Prensa Latina officials were engaged in espionage and subversion, American journalists were hardly innocent of cooperating with their own country’s intelligence officials. Although the United States features prominently in this article, it is refreshing to see examinations of the U.S.-Cuba clash that goes beyond the October Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs/Playa Girón incidents. Overall, this is an excellent contribution to the international history of the Cold War and inter-American relations.

 

 

Response by Renata Keller, University of Nevada, Reno

I would like to begin by thanking Michael Neagle and the H-Diplo editors for organizing this forum on my article, and Michael Bustamante and Asa McKercher for their generous and thought-provoking reviews. Their comments come at a particularly helpful time as I consider whether and how to expand my research on Prensa Latina into a book.

I initially came across Prensa Latina as I was researching my first book.[12] While combing through Mexican intelligence files for evidence of the impact of the Cuban Revolution, I found a long report about a new Cuban wire service. Intrigued, I photographed the report and started a new file in my notes for anything else I might come across about Prensa Latina. As I wrapped up my first book and started researching my second, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, my file on Prensa Latina eventually grew so large that I decided that the wire service’s story deserved more attention than the few paragraphs I could devote to it in Mexico’s Cold War. I compiled the results of that research into “The Revolution Will be Teletyped.” All of this is to confess, in part, that the story of Prensa Latina has so far been a side project for me, albeit one that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

Even as a side project, however, one of the greatest benefits to me of my research into Prensa Latina is that it has made me more attuned to the sources of my sources. It reminds me to ask questions that all historians, especially those who use or study media, should keep in mind: Are the news stories that I’m quoting repackaged wire service reports, or are they written by local journalists? Whose interpretations of historical events am I using, and where and how did they get their information? As I wrote in the article, the story of “whose news gets used” is sometimes just as important as the news itself (90).

Bustamante recommends further research on Prensa Latina’s sources and reception. He is absolutely correct to ask whether records pertaining to the wire service are available in Cuba—I myself have often wondered the same thing (and mentally kicked myself for not taking a brief break from the Foreign Ministry’s Mexico files to seek out the Prensa Latina offices). I have consoled myself by tentatively planning another trip to Havana to explore whether a Prensa Latina archive exists and is open to researchers, as such records would be essential to writing a balanced and fully developed book-length treatment of the agency’s history. As Bustamante and Jennifer Lambe have shown in their recent edited volume, Cuban archival sources—especially non-governmental ones—are increasingly available and necessary to writing histories of the Cuban Revolution.[13] In an ideal world, a Prensa Latina archive might contain letters from readers or other similar records that might help scholars to get at the issue of public reception. Although this may sound like a researcher’s pipe dream, I found a collection of such letters in the Cuban Foreign Ministry archive that gave me a window into how everyday Mexicans interpreted and responded to the Cuban Revolution. Lambe found an equally intriguing collection of letters in the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, in which Cuban listeners of a medical radio program conveyed their interpretations of the “therapeutic culture” of early revolutionary Cuba.[14]

As Bustamante and McKercher point out, the history of Prensa Latina raises many intriguing broader questions about Cuban foreign relations, public diplomacy, intelligence operations, the Cold War, and the connections between media and politics. Where and how should we draw the line between collecting and using information for ‘journalistic’ versus political purposes? How and why have different governments and individuals used the media to promote various policies, programs, or ideologies? How have changing political, social, economic, and technological contexts shaped those efforts? How successful have those efforts been, and why? We need to learn more about how wire services, radio, newspapers, television, and, increasingly, the internet, have determined what the public knows and how the media has shaped people’s understandings of their world and its possibilities. As is apparent in recent events, such as the Russian intelligence campaign to use social media to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, the processes of knowledge production and dissemination continue to have incredibly important consequences.

 

Notes

[1] Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counter-Insurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[2] Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Renata Keller, “The Latin American Missile Crisis,” Diplomatic History 39:2 (2015): 195-222.

[3] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Jonathan Brown, Cuba’s Revolutionary World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017); Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[4] Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[5] For example, Jorge Domínguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution: Cuban Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[6] On Radio Swan, see Don Bohning, The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations against Cuba, 1959-1965 (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2005), 143. On the use of radio during PBSUCCESS, see Nancy Updike, “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear on the Radio,” This American Life, episode 200, 30 November 2001, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/200/hearts-and-minds/act-one-0.

[7] Tracey Eaton, “Paper Trail Reveals Foreign Influence Operations,” Cuba Money Project (blog), 2 November 2019, http://cubamoneyproject.com/2019/11/02/paper-trail-reveals-foreign-influence-operations/.

[8] For a journalistic rather than scholarly account of the latter, see Daniel C. Walsh, An Air War with Cuba: the United States Radio Campaign Against Cuba (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2012).

[9] For an exception, see Jennifer Lambe’s creative use of letters received from Cuba by the host of the Cuban exile radio program “El médico y usted” in “Drug Wars: Revolution, Embargo, and the Politics of Scarcity in Cuba, 1959-1964, Journal of Latin American Studies 49:3 (August 2017): 489-516. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X16001851.

[10] Renata Keller, “The Latin American Missile Crisis,” Diplomatic History 39:2 (2015): 195-222; Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[11] See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[12] Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[13] Michael Bustamante and Jennifer Lambe, eds., The Revolution from Within: Cuba, 1959-1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

[14] Renata Keller, “Fan Mail to Fidel: The Cuban Revolution and Mexican Solidarity,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 33:1 (February 2017): 6-31; Jennifer Lambe, “Drug Wars: Revolution, Embargo, and the Politics of Scarcity in Cuba, 1959-1964, Journal of Latin American Studies 49:3 (August 2017): 489-516, 491.

Header Correction:

Renata Keller.  “The Revolution Will be Teletyped:  Cuba’s Prensa Latina News Agency and the Cold War Contest over Information.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 21:3 (2019):  88-113.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_00895.