BBG Watch Commentary

A former political prisoner in communist-ruled Cuba who now lives in exile in the United States and works as a journalist for the U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio and Television Martí in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which together with the Voice of America (VOA) and several other broadcasters is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), was deeply offended by reports posted on VOA English and VOA Spanish websites which referred to Fidel Castro as “the icon of the Cold War” but failed to mention human rights abuses in Cuba under his dictatorial rule.

The Radio and TV Martí journalist was reacting to recent text reports about Fidel Castro on the VOA websites. The VOA English-language website did have a video report which accurately described Castro as a perpetrator of some of the worst human rights abuses.

Radio and TV Marti operates separately from the Voice of America and generally avoids one-sided, biased, ideologically-motivated and partisan reporting which became common at VOA during the last two years. The agency has consolidated its last place in employee morale in the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Many employees fear retaliation from the management and are reluctant to speak out. Because of the fear of retaliation, we are not releasing the name of the Radio and TV Martí journalist who complained about the VOA reporting on Fidel Castro.

Top executives in charge of VOA and BBG, Amanda Bennett and John Lansing, are both Obama-era holdovers who lack prior experience in overseeing international news broadcasting, U.S. public diplomacy or federal government operations. While still in charge of the State Department and serving as an ex-officio member of the BBG Board, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2013 “practically defunct” and and said that the agency was losing the information war.

Radio And TV Marti Journalist

November 25, 2017 at 9:08 pm

“I could not continue reading the Voice of America article. It is truly offensive for me as a Cuban political ex-prisoner. For VOA to say that ‘Fidel’ is or was an ‘Icon’ affected me a lot.” …


SEE: Voice of America English and Spanish texts ignore human rights abuses under Fidel Castro, BBG Watch, November 25, 2017.



  1. I think the problem here is a misunderstanding of what the word “icon” might mean in the context in which it was used. The second meaning of the word in the dictionary I consulted is this: “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something: this iron-jawed icon of American manhood.”

    Castro could certainly be described as an icon of the Cold War, as could several Soviet leaders and other communist figures of the time. The problem is that this use of the word may not be clear for many people whose first language is not English. Indeed, there are reasons for Christians, in particular, to apply a positive connotation to the word. Word usage is something VOA writers struggle with all the time and many of them take this very seriously. It is often difficult to avoid using phrases that are commonly used by American reporters but which may not be understood by people in other countries. Some of the longtime word watchdogs at VOA have departed in the past few years leaving younger writers with less guidance on such matters.

    1. It’s not just the word “icon.” These two entire posts by the Voice of America on Fidel Castro on VOA’s English and Spanish websites are an affront to history and the former and current political prisoners, victims of torture, the memory of those who were executed by the Castros, refugees and others who have suffered in communist-ruled Cuba over many decades. The senior leadership of the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) cannot blame younger writers and editors. They should have provided proper leadership and oversight. In addition to Amanda Bennett, Sandy Sugawara, John Lansing and Jeff Trimble, there are dozens of senior executives each one of whom should have been able to spot these one-sided VOA reports on communism and make sure they are immediately corrected and never appear again on VOA websites. This is not the first time such reports have been posted by VOA.

  2. In regard to the text report you cite, it was certainly an inadequate presentation of who Fidel Castro was and his suppression of freedom in Cuba. But it also avoided the issue of what role he played in the Cold War. For example, it is known now that he urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack on the United States during the October, 1962 missile crisis. He also sent instigators and agents into Latin American and African nations in an effort to impose communist rule in other countries. He manipulated Hugo Chavez to get Venezuelan oil and advised him on how to get rid of potential opponents within the government, the military and the state-owned oil company. The result is that, even without Chavez, the ugly, dysfunctional system remains while the people starve. The story need not have included all of this, but there should at least have been a mention of the disruptive role Castro played in the region even after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    As recently as a few years ago there were senior correspondents and editors who knew something about the history of the Cold War, which many people in their 20s and 30s regard as a period from the deep past. Having a few people around who had actually lived in communist countries helped provide some perspective.

    Management at the top does seem quite eager to sideline the older, experienced people at VOA. Discouraged and frustrated, they often grab the next buyout and leave. Managers in the upper strata at VOA are focused on cost efficiency and see an opportunity to hir e two or three new employees for each hi-salary employee they can encourage to leave. But budget considerations may not be the only reason to purge the system of the older workers. Newly hired workers tend to be more compliant and contract workers are in no position to complain about anything.

    There is also an attitude that favors very short material as opposed to longer, more detailed pieces that provide background to a given story. In the case we are discussing here, there was certainly enough room to have provided a few lines of background or at least a statement representing the anti-Castro perspective. Since one was available in the video it is a shame that it wasn’t used in the text. The dismal numbers the VOA website gets on stories would seem to counter the idea that short and dumbed-down pieces attract more views. But VOA’s purpose is not to get high ratings. The charter provides a clear statement of what it should be doing.

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