The Guardian 8 June, 2005
Reporters Without Borders unmasked
When Robert Menard founded Reporters Without Borders 20 years ago, he gave his group a name which evokes another French organisation respected worldwide for its humanitarian work and which maintains a strict neutrality in political conflicts — Doctors Without Borders. But RSF (Reporters Sans Frontières) has been anything but non-partisan and objective in its approach to Latin America and to Cuba in particular.
From the beginning, RSF has made Cuba its number one target. Allegedly founded to advocate freedom of the press around the world and to help journalists under attack, the organisation has called Cuba "the world's biggest prison for journalists". It even gives the country a lower ranking on its press freedom index than countries where journalists routinely have been killed, such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico.
RSF has waged campaigns aimed at discouraging Europeans from vacationing in Cuba and the European Union from doing business there — its only campaign worldwide intended to damage a country's economy.
The above is not a matter of chance because it turns out that RSF is on the payroll of the US State Department and has close ties to Helms-Burton-funded Cuban exile groups.
As a majority of members of the US Congress work toward normalising trade and travel with Cuba, the extremist anti-Castro groups that have dictated US Cuba policy for 40 years continue working tirelessly to maintain an economic stranglehold on the island. Their support for RSF is part of this overall strategy.
Jean-Guy Allard, a journalist with Granma International, wrote a book about RSF's leader (El expediente Robert Ménard: Por qué Reporteros sin Fronteras se ensaña con Cuba, Quebec: Lanctôt, 2005) which lays out the pieces of the puzzle regarding Menard's activities, associations and sources of funding in an attempt to explain what he calls Menard's "obsession" with Cuba.
On April 27 this year the pieces began to come together: Thierry Meyssan, president of the Paris daily, Red Voltaire, published an article in which he claimed Menard had negotiated a contract with Otto Reich and the Centre for a Free Cuba (CFC) in 2001.
Reich was a trustee of the centre, which receives the bulk of its funding from the US Agency for International Development. The contract, according to Meyssan, was signed in 2002 around the time Reich was appointed Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the Secretary of State. The initial payment for RSF's services was approximately 24,970 euros in 2002 (US$25,000), which went up to 59,201 euros in 2003 (US$50,000).
Lucie Morillon, RSF's Washington representative, confirmed in an interview on April 29 that they are indeed receiving payments from the Centre for a Free Cuba (CFC), and that the contract with Reich requires them to inform Europeans about the repression against journalists in Cuba and to support the families of journalists in prison. Morillon also said they received US$50,000 from the CFC in 2004 and that this amount was consistent from year to year.
RSF's emphasis on tourism is the key to understanding its role. 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" began. 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 its oil and 80 percent of its machinery and spare parts from the same sources.
Suddenly 85 percent of Cuba's foreign trade vanished. Deprived of petroleum, Cuban industries and transportation ground to a halt. The Miami extreme right, led by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), began to draw up plans to work with sympathetic government agencies toward that end. "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, 2002).
But Cuba disappointed the plotters by surviving. A centrepiece of the island's economic recovery was the government's decision in 1992 to develop the tourism industry, to replace the desperately needed foreign exchange the country had lost. Consequently, it came as no surprise that those wishing to see Cuba starve would want to damage its tourism-based economy through every conceivable form of sabotage.
On the extreme end, Miami terrorists began to infiltrate the island to attack hotels and other tourist targets. Terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who recently sought asylum in the US, organised a string of bombings of hotels in 1997 in which an Italian tourist died. Not only did Posada admit this to The New York Times in 1998, 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. Terrorist Orlando Bosch is also suspected of playing a major role in these attacks.
Another project for bringing about the downfall of Cuba's revolution was the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Title IV allows the US to impose sanctions against foreign investors in Cuba whose investments allegedly involve properties expropriated from Cubans who are now US nationals.
This law, which was intended to impede foreign companies and countries to refrain from doing business with Cuba, was written by leaders of the CANF, Bacardi lawyers and Otto Reich. Helms- Burton also provided additional funding to support Cuban dissidents with the intent of destabilising the government. Organisations outside Cuba would be in charge of these funds, and this has developed into a lucrative business for them. USAID alone has distributed more than US$34 million in funds related to Cuba since 1996, including its support of Otto Reich's CFC.
Support of dissidents
In an interview with Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina (Calvo and Declercq, The Cuban Exile Movement, Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2000), Menard said his group had been supporting dissidents in Cuba since September 1995 and has always considered Cuba "the priority in Latin America." Coincidentally or not, the Helms-Burton Act was already making its way through Congress in January 1995.
In September 1998, Menard travelled to Havana to recruit people 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."
Although she admitted RSF was receiving money from Reich, Lucie Morillon denied that the government funding the group receives in any way affects its activities.
She pointed out that RSF's US$50,000 payments from the CFC and a January grant of US$40,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy only constitute a fraction of the organisation's budget. This is true, but Menard has other rich rightist friends in Europe and the US, including CFC director Manuel Cutillas, head of Bacardi. CFC's executive director is Frank Calzon, a former CIA special agent.
Like Cutillas and others at the centre, Calzon is a former director of CANF, and it has also been alleged he was a leader of the National Liberation Front of Cuba, which claimed credit for a host of bombings and murders worldwide beginning in 1972 (Hernando Calvo Ospina, Bacardi: The Hidden War).
According to a January 20, 2004 article in El Nuevo Herald ("Reporters Without Borders Announces Campaign to Democratise Cuba"), Menard visited Miami that week and received a hero's welcome.
In the media he announced that RSF would be holding a meeting on March 18 with European political leaders in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, to promote democratisation in Cuba.
So loyal is Robert Menard to his patrons at the State Department that he wrote an open letter to the European Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel, on the eve of the diplomat's visit to Cuba this March.
The European Union had decided to adopt a more constructive position with respect to Cuba, suspending economic sanctions that were imposed in June 2003 at the urging of Bush ally, former Spanish President Jose Maria Asnar. The State Department's Richard Boucher condemned the decision to suspend sanctions on Cuba, as long as "objectives haven't been reached", and in his letter to Michel, Menard likewise urged the European Union to keep the pressure on Cuba.
In addition to its other sources of funding, RSF receives free publicity from Saatchi and Saatchi, the third pillar of the world's fourth-largest marketing and public relations conglomerate, Publicis Groupe. Publicis enjoys a near-monopoly on French advertising and as a result, slick RSF propaganda is featured at no cost to the organisation in Parisian dailies and supermarkets.
It also enjoys free printing of the books it sells by Vivendi Universal Publishing. All of these services have to be factored into RSF's budget. Although the reason for Publicis Groupe's astounding generosity is not known, it is worth noting that a major Publicis client is Bacardi, whose 2001 advertising budget was just under US$50 million.
Diana Barahona is a freelance journalists and a member of the Northern California Media Guild. She has been an election observer in Venezuela and El Salvador and written other articles on RSF for the Guild Reporter (http://www.newsguild.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.