A Wolf in Journalist’s Clothing

Cuba has a new hero. He’s Manuel David Orrio, who penetrated the counterrevolution by passing himself off as an “independent journalist” and for years suffered the contempt not merely of neighbors but of his own family. When at last the truth could be told, when Orrio could stand in a courtroom last month and reveal true enemies of the state, newspapers hailed his patriotism.

“In Havana, on returning to familiar Requena Street in the Principe popular council,” reported the Communist Party’s Diario Granma, “Manuel David Orrio–the agent Miguel–receives the applause and affection of astonished neighbors. Eleven years before, he left them to become a paid mercenary of SINA [the Spanish acronym for the American Interests Section, the U.S. government’s office in Havana]. For more than a decade he infiltrated ‘laboratory dissidents,’ journalists who never truly were, and ‘diplomats’ dedicated to espionage and internal subversion.”

Orrio was asked what was most difficult about those 11 years. “Not being able to be myself,” he replied. “You put yourself in the skin of this character until you believe it to be true.” And what was hardest about his return?

“To explain the truth to my son,” said Orrio. “I asked him what he had thought of me. He remained silent. But finally he confessed that he believed I was a worm. ‘What do you think now?’ I insisted. And he started to cry, like I am doing now.”

Before Diario Granma cheered him, Orrio was a hero in the Chicago Tribune. On March 24 Havana correspondent Gary Marx published a profile of Orrio headlined “Reporter fears the worst as Cuba silences opposition voices.” The story began, “As one of Cuba’s 100 or so independent journalists, Manuel David Orrio is used to being harassed by government authorities. During his seven-year career, Orrio said he has been briefly detained, watched by state security, kicked out of his local community organization, denounced in public by a group of neighbors and criticized by Cuban President Fidel Castro on television for being counterrevolutionary.”

Marx wrote that Orrio, the 49-year-old head of the Federation of Cuban Journalists, was lying low at the moment, in response to a crackdown that had seen the recent arrests of some 75 opposition figures, among them two dozen journalists. “Orrio’s work is not published in Cuba,” Marx explained. “Instead it is posted on CubaNet.org, a Web site in Miami that is funded by the U.S. government. Cuban authorities block access to the site on the island.”

The picture that accompanied the article was taken by Marx at Orrio’s desk. It shows a slight man with a sweet, elfin face, curly hair, and the wry, ironic smile of the eternally wary. An espresso cup sits on the desk next to a lighter, a notepad, and an ancient typewriter. “He has hidden some tools of his trade for fear of police raids,” the caption observes. “‘Anything that is against the government you can’t see here,’ he says of his work.”

It’s not shocking that Orrio managed to deceive a Chicago reporter. He deceived any number of Cuban dissidents over several years. I E-mailed Marx in Havana the other day and asked how it happened. He was reluctant to go into detail, largely because he was writing his own account for the Tribune, but he told me this: “The bottom line is I was first introduced to Orrio at a gathering at the home of the top U.S. diplomat here last fall. I forgot about him until the roundups began last month. I called a prominent human rights official and asked him who knew the most about the independent journalists who were being arrested. He immediately told me to call Orrio. I called him. We spoke several times. I checked him out. And then I decided to do the profile of him.

“That human rights official was recently sentenced to many years in prison. This is a very sad and difficult story to tell.”

The top U.S. diplomat in Havana is James Cason, chief of mission of the American Interests Section since last September. Cason aggressively championed the dissidents. As Marx reported in his profile of Orrio: “In addition to funding CubaNet, U.S. officials have distributed tape recorders, cameras and other equipment to independent reporters, along with offering them Internet access at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Orrio and his colleagues recently held a workshop at [Cason’s] home….The workshop infuriated Cuban officials, who say it was an attempt to undermine the government.”

The importance the Cuban government placed on disrupting–or at least exploiting–the relationship between the American Interests Section and Cuban dissidents is suggested by its willingness to expose the identities of its own agents. Orrio was revealed as a spy when he testified early this month at the trial of Raul Rivero, a prominent poet and journalist. Rivero was convicted of treason and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But Orrio wasn’t the only one. Also testifying against Rivero was “Agent Octavio”–independent journalist Nestor Baguer, chairman of the Cuban Independent Press Association. And “Agent Tania”–Odilia Collazo, leader of Cuba’s Pro Human Rights Party. And “Agent Vilma”–Aleida Godinez, the secretary to Martha Beatriz Roque, a dissident economist sentenced to 20 years in prison for treason.

Videotaped trial testimony of Baguer and Collazo was played for Cuban and foreign reporters April 9, when Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque held a press conference to denounce the “mercenaries” who’d been rounded up.

“Were you at an event on March 14?” the prosecutor asked Baguer. The event was a meeting of 34 dissident journalists Orrio had organized.

Baguer said he was. “It was in the dining room at Mr. Cason’s residence–in his home, that is. Then it split up. We were split into three groups. One, the journalism ethics group, was chaired by me…”

“Can you tell us anything about Raul Rivero and his involvement in activities of this kind?” said the prosecutor.

“He’s an alcoholic, and alcoholism has pushed him over the edge,” Baguer began. He said that Rivero got in touch with exiled Cuban journalists and American journalists and began working for them.

“Do they pay Raul for the information he offers?” the prosecutor asked.

“Of course,” said Baguer. “And very well paid he is.”

“How does that work?”

“They pay him in the U.S. The money goes to his daughter who lives in the United States.”

Collazo testified that she was a frequent visitor to the American Interests Section “to deliver reports on human rights violations and other reports.” She had “free access” to the section. “I’ve had an open pass since 1991.”

The prosecutor asked if conditions changed when Cason replaced Vicky Huddleston as head of the section.

“The change was obvious to everyone,” Collazo replied. “Vicky and her predecessors…never offered us their houses, or the Interests Section, or their residence to hold our meetings. When James Cason came…he told us that the doors of his home were open to us.”

After showing these trial videotapes to the press, foreign minister Perez Roque gloated. “[Cason] should be advised that no one in Cuba is a fool, that we have only revealed a small part of what we know,” he said. “He should know that there are no stupid people here, and that while he got here only a short time ago, he has to consider the task he has undertaken. Or we will have to continue organizing his meetings and attending the cocktail parties he throws.”

Gary Marx was in Colombia on assignment when the story broke in Cuba that Orrio had been working for the government. The day after Marx returned to Havana he wrote a piece analyzing the crackdown. Besides gutting the opposition movement, the Cuban government had undermined what remained of it by arresting some dissidents but not others–“encouraging suspicions that those who remain free are Cuban spies, experts said. The recent convictions were based in part on the testimony of Cuban agents who had penetrated the dissident movement.”

Marx didn’t mention that one of these agents had been the subject of a flattering Tribune profile he’d written himself a few weeks before. But this wasn’t something Marx hoped no one would remember. “I immediately called my editor from Bogota,” he E-mailed me, “and we agreed that I needed to write a story. The question is what format to use. We felt that it’s not really a news story but a more personal one that deals with the complex reality of life in Cuba. And by making it personal we felt that we could better tackle the issue head on.”

As the relationship between Cuba and the United States is popularly understood, everything that recently happened makes perfect sense. A diplomatic thaw serves no one’s purposes. Castro benefits from our hostility because it lets him explain away Cuba’s miseries. The White House benefits from Castro’s hostility because it makes it easy to curry the favor of Florida’s millions of Cuban-Americans. By ostentatiously doting on dissidents, Cason grandstanded, as did Castro when he persecuted them. But America’s showmanship is only meddling, Castro’s tyranny.

“The conventional wisdom runs you into conclusions that are too easy,” warns Colin McMahon, the Tribune’s foreign editor. But, he continues, “This case with Orrio is just something else. It really shows the lengths they will go to–as well as the abilities to do it–to infiltrate these groups.”

Says former Cuban journalist Jorge Mota, “I never thought that any single dissident movement in Cuba was autocreated. I always thought it was created by the government. That’s the kind of paranoia you live with day by day. That’s one of the reasons I jumped in the water.”

Mota, a former writer for Cuba’s state radio, escaped by boat in 1994. He’s now a reporter for Telemundo, the Spanish-language network that owns Channel 44 in Chicago. “When I grew up in Cuba,” he says, “one of the things you heard from the old days was how in the 60s they did the same. When the revolution started they created dissident cells to find out who was against the government and put them in jail or killed them. After you hear the stories you can’t trust anybody anymore.”

Charles Madigan edits Perspective, where Marx’s piece is likely to appear. From 1976 to ’78 Madigan reported from the USSR for UPI. “When this was mentioned to me, I thought, ‘Well, that’s Soviet’–that’s exactly what they did. They had characters all over Moscow who were nominally poets and journalists, and you’d find out in time they were cooperating with the KGB and the foreign ministry. Since the Cuban intelligence network is essentially a clone of the Soviet intelligence network, it didn’t surprise me at all that this sort of thing would happen, and it didn’t surprise me it happened effectively.”

Some informers had always worked undercover. Others had once been who they still claimed to be, but they’d been leaned on, compromised, turned. “You’d think, ‘No! It can’t be,'” says Madigan. “But you’d realize later the person was threatened, or their family was threatened, until they had no choice.”

Orrio told the Cuban press he’d been at a low point in his life, working as a night watchman, when the opportunity came to join state security. He hesitated, thought about the future of his country and of his son, and accepted.

“The Russians were supremely sophisticated,” Madigan goes on, “to the point where our assumption had to be that no one, no matter how close you get to them, no matter how friendly you get, is trustworthy. Now that was at the height of the cold war.”

News Bites

It’s page-one news when a major public official decides to call it a day–not only in the paper that gets the scoop but in the opposition. On Tuesday, April 15, the Tribune broke the news that Senator Peter Fitzgerald wasn’t going to run for reelection. “There was an itty-bitty, teeny-weeny tiny item in a Hill newspaper,” says metro editor Hanke Gratteau, “and one of my reporters spotted it–a very vague hint that Peter might be thinking about this. So we launched Rick Pearson and Mike Dorning and Diane Rado on it full-tilt boogie at four o’clock in the afternoon and had it nailed by deadline.”

Starting just above the fold, the Tribune story crawled down the far-left column of the front page and disappeared inside. A day later the Sun-Times splashed “FITZ: THAT’S IT” across page one. If you had only the layouts to go by, you’d guess the Sun-Times got the story first.

Last Friday the Sun-Times front page shouted, “HILLARD CALLS IT QUITS.” This time the Sun-Times had the exclusive. “This is something I’ve been on for months,” says City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, recalling a couple of pieces she wrote last February, just before and after Mayor Daley’s reelection, predicting that early in his next term he’d have to deal with the resignations of police superintendent Terry Hillard and fire commissioner James Joyce.

“Anybody reading those would have been advised to keep checking,” she says. She did. “You know how I do things. I work my sources constantly. I was checking every day. Everybody I know I call. And it finally came to fruition. He’d been playing cat and mouse and denying he was leaving. I don’t think any superintendent wants to be viewed as a lame duck. But at a certain point they have to tell the boss they’re going. And in fact he told Daley on Wednesday, and I found out about it on Thursday.”

Hillard not only came clean, he kept quiet a day and protected her scoop. (From other media, at least. Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, who’s close to Hillard, wrote about his resignation in the same Friday paper. Sneed was tipped that Hillard was quitting, that he’d talk to her, and that she should call him immediately because Spielman would also have the story.) The Tribune played catch-up on its front page Saturday and followed up with a big profile of Hillard in Sunday’s Metro section.

One of the givens at the Tribune is that the Sun-Times has a leg up on certain stories because law enforcement officials don’t like the Tribune. “[Editors] pretty much set me down and told me that,” says David Heinzmann, the Tribune’s police reporter since last September. “There’s a good deal of antipathy to Steve Mills and Maury Possley, and I’d be dealing with that.”

So as for Spielman’s scoop, “Nobody’s surprised here by it,” Heinzmann continued, “and I didn’t catch much guff at all. We’re willing to take a hit on a story like that if it’s the cost for our investigative reporters here doing more critical work.”

Says Spielman, “When you work a story day after day after day you don’t need anybody’s help or bias.”

Heinzmann knew as well as Spielman that Hillard might be about to retire. “It was on our radar screen like it was on everybody’s radar screen,” he told me. “We had been talking about it for a couple of weeks, but I had not really been humping on it in the days right before it happened.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-World Wide Photos.