‘Facts’ about Cuba often not easy to ferret out

Reporting and writing on Cuba under the Castro brothers is like The Perils of Pauline. Dangers abound. Make a mistake, and the train might run you over.

The basic challenge is that information is often unreliable and sources are hard to find.

In the past two weeks, the damsel in distress has been Juan Tamayo, who, if not quite grizzled, is about as veteran a reporter as you will find from the days when reporters were mostly scuffed-shoe males.

In two major front-page articles in The Herald and El Nuevo Herald, he reported on the divisions between Fidel and Raúl Castro in one and, in the other, about apparent plans in the Obama administration to lift some travel restrictions to the island.

Careful readers will note that the articles rely largely on sources who are either unnamed in Washington or once-removed from decision makers in Havana.

For some information, Tamayo went swimming in the turbulent waters of the Cuban exile community, where there are many informed experts, and also many axes to grind, too.

Can we trust the articles? The question takes on particular weight because The Herald is the country’s leading mainstream media source on Cuba, and both stories dealt with major matters.

Here is the top of one: A clearly revived Fidel Castro marks his 84th birthday Friday, officially out of government yet holding veto power over brother Raúl’s plans for economic reforms and hopes for improved U.S. relations.

That much is pretty certain, said analysts in Cuba and abroad who have watched Fidel make a dozen unusually public appearances after a near-fatal health crisis in 2006 that forced him out of the limelight.

What remains less clear is the balance of power between Fidel and Raúl, amid reports of tensions between the brothers and hints that the succession from the older to the younger Castro is far from settled.

Here is the beginning of the other: The Obama administration will soon ease some restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and other sanctions following Havana’s promise to free political prisoners, according to people close to the administration.

Two people told El Nuevo Herald on Friday the decision has been made and will be announced in the next two weeks. Another said he has heard the reports but cautioned they could be trial balloons.

Who are these “analysts in Cuba and abroad” who know about the mysterious power relations between Fidel and Raúl? Quite possibly, only the two brothers know.

Tamayo named five sources. One was Vladimiro Roca, a dissident in Havana itself and son of a founder of the Cuban Communist Party. The report cited statements by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega to The Washington Post, plus an unnamed “Cuba analyst who asked for anonymity to protect his sources” about what the cardinal told U.S. officials in a recent visit to Washington.

Armando F. Mastrapa, a blogger on Cuba’s political-military affairs, was quoted. So was Domingo Amuchastegui, a former foreign policy analyst with Cuba’s Interior Ministry now living in Miami. Norberto Fuentes, a former member of the Castro brothers’ inner circle who now lives in Miami, was the last of the analysts.

I don’t know any of them, and I suspect few readers do either. We are asked to take Tamayo at his word that these named sources — and one unnamed one — have reliable, informed insights.

The American democratic government is more open than the Cuban dictatorship, yet Tamayo used all unnamed sources for the Washington revelation. He wrote, moreover, that the sources were “close to the administration,” not even in it. He added: “All asked for anonymity because they did not want to be seen as preempting a White House announcement.”

Tamayo did get an administration statement, from Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, but it neither confirmed nor denied Tamayo’s information. Tamayo also got a number of on-the-record responses from political and other leaders. His exclusive story later was copied by other news outlets.

We will know in a few weeks if the administration will indeed ease travel restrictions to Cuba. Tamayo was careful to pass on the caution from one source who said some of the information might be a “trial balloon” to test what the political reaction might be.

We may not know about the relation between the elderly Castro brothers until after they die, if then.

But we as readers want to know what we can now. The Castro government usually refuses to allow Herald reporters into the country, and so they regularly sneak in.

Tamayo told me that he has been covering Cuba off and on since 1978. He said that every day, concerning Cuba, he reads some five to 10 unsolicited reports, a half dozen blogs, Granma, Juventud Rebelde and mainstream news sources. He has built up a string of sources he trusts in both countries. He said he is careful to vet that they are not simply circulating rumors among themselves. Tamayo said that he sat on some of the information concerning the brothers for months until he got enough corroboration.

“Cuba is one of most opaque countries in the world,” Tamayo said, but “the Straits of Florida are not an insurmountable barrier.”

“There is much more of a flow of information than one imagines,” he said. “Are my sources always right? Probably not, but at least you get a sense of what is being talked about in the country.”

Tamayo, who has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Herald, is now a reporter at El Nuevo Herald whose work appears in both papers.

“We have always strived for on-the-record sourcing,” Manny Garcia, executive editor of El Nuevo, told me. “We know it’s a matter of credibility. There are certain beats — in this case Cuba — where getting people on the record on the island is harder. The same holds true with the long-standing battle of the Beltway to get D.C. sources to speak for the record.”

Garcia said that reporters and editors are extra cautious on Cuba stories because Herald readers analyze them “line by line.”

“The advantage we have is that Juan has decades of experience dealing with these thorny stories,” Garcia said. “He reports to City Editor Andres Reynaldo, who also is a Cubanologist so to speak, as are our desk editors.”

This will get me in trouble with the journalism establishment and some readers, but I think that Tamayo and The Herald bent over further than needed to explain their use of anonymous sources. It doesn’t help me to know that some unnamed source didn’t want to upstage the White House, for example.

Such explanations have become de rigueur in recent years as a way to build trust with readers, but they are as formulaic as the old “sources say.”

The Herald is right to avoid anonymous sources, but I trust Tamayo’s stories because he tells me what he doesn’t know as much as what he does, with an evident sense of honesty, deep information and intelligence that leads me to trust him.

Some gurus says that the future of the news business is one in which reporters, not companies, will be brands. These two stories support that possibility.

This column was originally published in The Miami Herald on Aug. 22, 2010.

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