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Fidel's Flatterers
The U.S. Media's Decades of
Cheering Castro's Communism


By Rich Noyes, MRC Research Director
February 7, 2007

While every other country in the Western Hemisphere moved towards democracy, Cuba has remained a one-party state under dictator Fidel Castro, who held power without free elections from 1959 until health problems forced him to step aside in 2006. Castro's communist regime has executed hundreds of political opponents and driven tens of thousands more into exile; hundreds of dissidents today languish in Cuban prisons. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all listed Castro’s Cuba as among the worst violators of human rights on the planet, while the Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the harassment and imprisonment of journalists.

Yet liberals in the U.S. media — who have rightly condemned such abuses when perpetrated by dictators such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet — inexplicably remain enchanted with Castro and his socialist revolution. For more than half a century, positive profiles of Castro have appeared in U.S. papers. Back on January 18, 1959, New York Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews exulted in Castro’s seizure of Cuba: "Everybody here seems agreed that Dr. Castro is one of the most extraordinary figures ever to appear on the Latin-American scene. He is by any standards a man of destiny."

For 20 years, the Media Research Center has documented the liberal media’s infatuation with Fidel Castro and Cuba’s communism. Below are some of the choicest examples from MRC’s archives, many accompanied by audio and video clips, plus links to further evidence.

 

Field Trips to Fidel’s Island "Paradise"

The most laudatory coverage of Castro and his communist revolution’s "achievements" have come when an American news network decides to visit Cuba for an in-depth examination. Invariably, the U.S. networks granted access to Cuba have rewarded the communist government with promotional coverage of both Fidel Castro and the supposed achievements of his revolution:

In February 1988, just weeks after the State Department named communist Cuba one of the worst human rights oppressors in the world, NBC’s Today program sent its cameras to the island to investigate. NBC’s conciliatory approach allowed Castro to spew lies about his drug connections and the wonderful achievements of the Cuban revolution. Reporter Ed Rabel was typical: "There is, in Cuba, government intrusion into everyone’s life, from the moment he is born until the day he dies. The reasoning is that the government wants to better the lives of its citizens and keep them from exploiting or hurting one another....On a sunny day in a park in the old city of Havana it is difficult to see anything that is sinister." (MediaWatch, March 1988)


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In December 1988, CBS This Morning spent two days reporting from Cuba. CBS all but ignored the totalitarian nature of the Cuban regime, only alluding in passing to the human rights violations, the lack of civil liberties, and the disastrous economic condition brought on by the communist system. Co-host Kathleen Sullivan was enthusiastic about the benefits of Castro’s revolution: "Half of the Cuban population is under the age of 25, mostly Spanish speaking, and all have benefitted from Castro’s Cuba, where their health and their education are priorities." In a second report, she touted Cuba’s socialized medicine: "Of all the promises made by Fidel Castro in 1959, perhaps the boldest was to provide quality health care free for every citizen. Did he deliver? In many ways the answer is yes!" (MediaWatch, December 1988)


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In April 1989, ABC anchor Peter Jennings went to Cuba and provided his own optimistic report card on Cuban communism: "Castro has delivered the most to those who had the least," declared Jennings on the April 3 World News Tonight, "and for much of the Third World, Cuba is actually a model of development." Jennings also fell for the state’s line on health care: "Medical care was once for the privileged few. Today it is available to every Cuban and it is free. Some of Cuba’s health care is world class. In heart disease, for example, in brain surgery. Health and education are the revolution’s great success stories." Jennings concluded by repeating the words of a Cuban woman: "For me, he [Castro] is God. I love him very much." (MediaWatch, May 1989)


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In February 1992, NBC’s Today returned to Cuba for a two-day visit, and held up Castro’s communist approach as a model for the U.S. Co-host Joe Garagiola began: "Among Cuba’s successes is its health care; it's progressive and it's free." Correspondent Robert Bazell continued without dispute: "Cuba’s health care system is world class. In a neo-natal intensive care unit; on a burn ward; or in a clinic to treat epilepsy one can find equipment and procedures equal to those in the U.S. and only a few other countries....The quality of care remains high and it is free. Health, a guarantee of socialism, billboards proclaim. The Castro government has always been obsessed with health, starting with improving sanitation." (MediaWatch, March 1992)
 

In March 1993, ABC’s Diane Sawyer traveled to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro for Prime Time Live, but only once did she raise the issue of human rights abuses and political prisoners. Upon the dictator’s denial, she dropped the matter completely. The remainder of the interview had the coziness of a People profile: "He grew up a first-rate baseball player and lawyer who married once, divorced. But was mainly driven by his burning desire to crush Cuba’s American-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista. It began with a daredevil attack on the military barracks. Jail. His exile. Then a death-defying two-year fight in the mountains of the Sierra Maestre. He and his small band of soldiers endured and won only because of Castro’s invincible certainty of their destiny."  (MediaWatch, April 1993)


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In November 1993, CBS This Morning reporter Giselle Fernandez spent three days in Cuba delivering what she admitted was a "pretty postcard" view of the communist island: "Welcome to Fidel Castro’s playground, Cuba’s Caribbean paradise few have seen, a Cuba the commandante is now inviting the world to enjoy. It’s the promised land Cuba is hoping will guarantee a promising future. In the last two years alone, Cuba and its sultry island beaches has become a major vacation hot spot...While tourism may be changing the landscape of Cuba’s Caribbean shores, Fidel Castro is banking on it to save his workers’ paradise from becoming a paradise lost." In three days of live reports, Fernandez devoted exactly one sentence to Castro’s human rights abuses. (MediaWatch, December 1993)


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ABC’s Peter Jennings traveled to Havana to report on Cuba’s May Day celebration in 1996. "There was a boisterous enthusiasm that went on for several hours," Jennings intoned on World News Tonight. "We were invited to the reviewing stand to hear President Castro in person praise Cubans for standing up to American pressure. This is the man who nine U.S. Presidents have tried unsuccessfully to influence. The President [Castro] said the Helms-Burton was brutal and inhumane....‘I must watch my people now,’ he said, and turned back to the parade." (CyberAlert, May 2, 1996)

In July 1996, CBS’s Dan Rather traveled to Cuba for a CBS Reports prime time documentary, The Last Revolutionary. Rather and Castro hiked together in the mountains where Castro plotted to overthrow the Cuban government. "We walked the paths he’d walked before," Rather announced. "This is the Cuban Revolution’s holy land. From these mountains, Castro’s guerrilla army took a dream and gave it life, made it known in every village, made it real in every home across Cuba." Rather gushed about Cuban schools: "The educational system is a jewel in the society his revolution has built....It’s a source of great pride for the President, as is Cuba’s literacy rate — virtually 100 percent." But he also confronted Castro about his wretched record of oppression: "There are people in my country who say to me, ‘Dan Rather, you’re being fooled,’ that when the history of Fidel Castro is written it will be like Stalin was in the Soviet Union." Castro said there was "zero possibility" of history rendering such a judgment.


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In June 2001, Cuba granted NBC’s Andrea Mitchell an exclusive follow-up on Elian Gonzalez one year after the Clinton administration sent the young boy back to the Communist-controlled island. Reporting for the NBC Nightly News and Today, Mitchell mentioned none of the drawbacks to life in the socialist dictatorship, instead, painting Elian’s hometown in quaint Rockwellian colors: "Cardenas, a small fishing village two hours from Havana, where people still get around by horse and carriage." Granted a three-hour interview with Castro for Today, Mitchell allowed the dictator to brag about how his resting pulse rate is like that of a professional athlete: "Approaching his 75th birthday this August, the world’s longest surviving leader also believes he is politically strong, partly as a result of that struggle over a seven-year-old boy." (Media Reality Check, June 28, 2001)

In May 2002, CNN sent correspondent Kate Snow to anchor an hour-long prime time Live From Havana, timed to the visit of ex-President Jimmy Carter. Snow fretted about the "hard line" policies and views of President Bush and exiled Cubans in Miami while hoping Carter’s visit might "moderate" the Cuban-Americans. She also touted the "successes" of life under Fidel Castro, admiring how, "according to a United Nations study, Cuba’s regular schools rank at the top in Latin America" and how "every Cuban has a primary care physician" who gets "to know their patients and even make house calls." She conceded that "Cuba may not have the nicest facilities or equipment," but she noted in praising the socialist ideals, "everyone has access and the concept of paying is completely foreign." (CyberAlert, May 14, 2002)


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In October 2002, ABC’s Barbara Walters traveled to Cuba for an exclusive interview with Castro. She fawned, "For Castro, freedom starts with education. And if literacy alone were the yardstick, Cuba would rank as one of the freest nations on Earth. The literacy rate is 96 percent." The quote "won" Walters first prize in the "Media Hero Award" category of the MRC’s Best Notable Quotables of 2002: The Fifteenth Annual Award for the Year’s Worst Reporting.


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CNN’s Havana Bureau: "Megaphone for a Dictator"

In 1997, CNN became the first U.S.-based news organization with a full-time news bureau in Cuba in nearly 30 years. CNN’s mission was to transmit the reality of Castro’s dictatorship to American audiences. But instead of enlightening the public about the regime’s repression, the network mainly provided Castro and his subordinates with a megaphone to defend their dictatorship and denigrate their democratic opponents.
 

For a May 2002 Special Report, MRC analysts examined five years of CNN’s Cuban coverage. They found CNN aired six times more soundbites from communist leaders than from non-communist groups such as the Catholic Church and peaceful dissidents. Only about three percent of CNN’s Cuba coverage focused on Cuban dissidents, and less than one percent dealt with the harassment and intimidation of independent journalists in Cuba. Fidel Castro himself was treated more as a celebrity than a tyrant, with stories about his 73rd birthday party and an in-depth look at his office furnishings in a segment called "Cool Digs."


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In January 1998 on CNN’s The World Today, Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman even managed to put a positive spin on Castro’s rigged one-party elections: "Cuban President Fidel Castro cast his vote in Sunday’s national and provincial assembly elections with enthusiasm. No dubious campaign spending here, no mud slinging, and even less doubt about the outcome in elections where there is no competition. That is because there are as many candidates as seats to be filled, all of them by supporters of the Communist government — a system President Castro boasts is the most democratic and cleanest in the world."


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Newman also put a positive shine on Cuba’s policy of sending young teenagers to work as forced farm labor. In a May 26, 2000 report, CNN quoted just four sources — two 13-year-old girls, a camp official, and a father — all of whom praised the practice. Newman declared the program instills "respect" for "hard work" and that while students "say at first they were homesick," they soon boast that they "are having a great time" and learning "the importance of camaraderie." But as the screen showed a boy with his arm around a girl, Newman warned that "some parents are concerned their children may be learning more about the birds and the bees than about agriculture." (Special Report, "Megaphone for a Dictator," May 9, 2002)


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Elian Gonzalez, Back to the "Peaceable Paradise"

In late 1999 and 2000, the media became fixated on the story of Elian Gonzalez, a six-year old boy rescued from the ocean after his mother and nine others died trying to flee Castro’s dictatorship. The episode highlighted the media’s longstanding approach to Cuba, as reporters took the stark contrast between American liberty and Cuban tyranny and muddled it to the point where life in Cuba was presented as no different, or even better, than life in the United States.

An MRC Special Report, "Back to the ‘Peaceable’ Paradise: Media Soldiers for the Seizure of Elian," documented the media’s tilted approach, including reports that praised the actions and achievements of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and claimed it was better for children than America. (Special Report, May 23, 2000).

On the April NBC Nightly News, for example, reporter Jim Avila touted the "Cuban good life" Elian could have under Castro: "If and when Elian returns, he will become a four-foot tall deity in a country that officially does not believe in God....Elian’s future here likely to be the Cuban good life, lived by Communist Party elite with perks like five free gallons of gasoline a month for the family, a Cuban tradition called ‘La Jaba,’ the bag, which includes extra rice, beans, cooking oil and sundries like deodorant, shampoo, razors and shaving cream, about $15 a month worth of basics. Plus, invitations reserved for the party elite to cultural events, sports, discos and restaurants, access to the best medicine, expensive drugs like heart cures not available to everyone in Cuba."
 

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Some more highlights of the media’s pronouncements about Castro’s dedication to the children of Cuba and the quality of life under his regime, with links to additional information as reported in the MRC’s daily CyberAlert e-mail newsletter:

"Without doubt he [Castro] is taking personal control of the case of the six-year-old, even to the point of calling child psychiatrists to ask about the effect of all this on the child’s mind. His chief concern: Could the boy readjust to life here?...He seemed old-fashioned, courtly — even paternal."
— NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on the December 15, 1999 Nightly News. For more, see the December 16, 1999 CyberAlert.

 
"Part of what the [Cuban school] children talked about was their fear of the United States and how they felt they didn’t want to come to the United States because it was a place where they kidnap children, a direct reference, of course, to Elian Gonzalez. The children also said that the United States was just a place where there was money and money wasn’t what was most important....This is a place where the children’s role models and their idols are not the baseball players or Madonna or pop stars. Their role models are engineers and teachers and librarians — which is who all the children we spoke to yesterday said they wanted to be."


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— ABC’s Cynthia McFadden on December 31, 1999, reporting from Havana during ABC’s live 24-hour coverage of the New Year 2000. For more, see the January 3, 2000 CyberAlert.
 
"Why did she [Elian’s mother, a maid] do it? What was she escaping? By all accounts this quiet, serious young woman, who loved to dance the salsa, was living the good life, as good as it gets for a citizen in Cuba....An extended family destroyed by a mother’s decision to start a new life."
— Jim Avila from Havana on NBC Nightly News, April 8, 2000. For more, see the April 10 CyberAlert.


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"To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously."
Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift on The McLaughlin Group, April 8, 2000. For more, including how Clift stood by her remark when challenged by FNC’s Bill O’Reilly, see the May 3, 2000 CyberAlert.


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"Elian might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami....The education and health-care systems, both built since the revolution, are among the best in the Americas, despite chronic shortages of supplies....The boy will nestle again in a more peaceable society that treasures its children."
— Brook Larmer and John Leland in Newsweek, April 17, 2000. For more, see the April 12, 2000 CyberAlert.

"While Fidel Castro, and certainly justified on his record, is widely criticized for a lot of things, there is no question that Castro feels a very deep and abiding connection to those Cubans who are still in Cuba. And, I recognize this might be controversial, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Fidel Castro was sincere when he said, ‘listen, we really want this child back here.’"
— Dan Rather, live on CBS the morning of the Elian raid, April 22, 2000. For more, see the April 23,200 CyberAlert.


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"The one thing that most, that I’ve learned about Cubans in the many times that I have visited here in the last few years, is that it is mostly a nationalistic country, not primarily a communist country."
— NBC News reporter Jim Avila [now with ABC News] on MSNBC’s simulcast of Imus in the Morning, April 26, 2000. For more, see the April 27 CyberAlert.

"The school system in Cuba teaches that communism is the way to succeed in life and it is the best system. Is that de-programming, or is that national heritage?"
— NBC News reporter Jim Avila [now with ABC News] from Cuba on CNBC’s Upfront Tonight, June 27, 2000. For more, see the June 29, 2000 CyberAlert.

"Elian will almost certainly rejoin the Pioneers as almost all Cuban children do. It’s very much like the Cub Scouts, camping trips and all, but with a socialist flavor and a revolutionary spin. But besides politics, what will he learn? Cubans boast about their universal free education...."
— Keith Morrison from Cuba, previewing Elian’s new life, June 28, 2000 Dateline NBC. For more, see the June 30, 2000 CyberAlert.

 

Touting Fidel and Cuba’s Communist Revolution

Despite decades of poverty and repression, reporters frequently found ways to praise Castro’s communist regime, often parroting the Havana government’s own claims about high literacy rates and improved health care, as if such achievements would balance out the fact that Cuba is a police state. Reporters also often exhibited a giddy excitement about the dictator himself, thrilled by Castro’s personal charisma while often blind to the suffering Castro and his revolution inflicted on those who disagreed with his tyranny.

Here are a few of the more gushing quotes, some of which point to longer write-ups in our MediaWatch and CyberAlert newsletters, while others have appeared in the MRC’s bi-weekly Notable Quotables newsletter.

"He [Fidel Castro] said he wanted to make a better life for Cuba’s poor. Many who lived through the revolution say he succeeded....Today even the poorest Cubans have food to eat, their children are educated and even critics of the regime say Cubans have better health care than most Latin Americans."
— Reporter Paula Zahn on Good Morning America, April 3, 1989.

"While Castro is an odd man out in a hemisphere increasingly headed by young free-market democrats, he still commands respect and awe."
— CNN reporter Frank Sesno on the March 20, 1990 PrimeNews.
 


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"They are the healthiest and most educated young people in Cuba’s history. For that, many of them say they have Castro and his socialist revolution to thank....If they long for the sweeping changes occurring in Eastern Europe, they are not saying so publicly....To the extent he can, Castro has been rewarding young people. For example, on their return home [from Angola], the 300,000 Cubans sent to Africa were first in line for housing, jobs, and education. Such benevolence breeds dedication, some young people say."
— NBC reporter Ed Rabel, April 1, 1990 Nightly News.


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For two years, PBS refused to air Nobody Listened, a documentary account of the harsh treatment of Cuba’s political prisoners. In August 1990, PBS finally capitulated but "balanced" the damning expose of Castro’s prisons with the explicitly pro-communist film, The Uncompromising Revolution by Saul Landau, Senior Fellow at the radical Institute for Policy Studies. Landau followed Castro around the countryside, describing how the "force of nature" gave Cuba "action-packed decades of experiments in collective survival and socialist living." Landau tingled his way through the hour like an overaged groupie: "Fidel touched this young machine adjuster and the man enjoyed a mild ecstasy. I know the feeling." To PBS, "balance" meant giving a pro-Castro propagandist equal time with the dictator’s victims. (MediaWatch, September 1990)

"If nothing else, the Cuban revolution has eliminated abject need. The cost may be generalized poverty and zero political pluralism, but, even with shortages, there is no starvation here. Education and medical care are assured for all. And, unlike in most of Latin America, you don't see naked or even shoeless children in the streets. When Castro speaks of the need to defend the gains of revolution, he means a level of social welfare rare in the underdeveloped world."
Washington Post Assistant Foreign Editor Don Podesta, April 28, 1991 "Outlook" article.

In April 1991, Ted Turner’s TBS station ran a two-hour homage, Portrait of Castro’s Cuba. Narrator James Earl Jones read a gushing, pro-Castro script: "Incessantly involved in affairs around the globe, this island nation has won the respect, sometimes grudgingly, of countries twenty times its size. Castro’s Cuba stands tall in the ranks of nations....Today is a passionate display of national pride. These men [Cuban soldiers returning from Angola] are symbols of all that Castro’s Cuba has aspired to be: A nation to be reckoned with. A major player on the world stage. Defiant, spirited, free." To show how the Cuban people feel about Fidel, the program quoted an armed militia member: "We want Fidel, he is our father, he is the father of our people. The Revolution is our mother and we feel proud." (MediaWatch, May 1991)

Covering the 1991 Pan Am Games in Cuba, ABC’s sports commentators showed why they belonged in the locker room and out of politics. In a July 27, 1991 special, Fidel Castro, One on One, ABC’s Brent Musburger gave Cuban communism a positive review: "There are many Cubans who find their lives much better here than before the Revolution. Medical care is free. Education is also state-funded. Cuba’s 97 percent literacy rate is among the highest in the world." And in his interview with Castro himself, ABC’s Jim McKay flattered Fidel: "You have brought a new system of government, obviously, to Cuba but the Cuban people do think of you, I think, as their father. One day you’re going to retire. Or one day, all of us die. Won’t there be a great vacuum there, won’t there be something that will be difficult to fill? Can they do it on their own?" (MediaWatch, August 1991)


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"The Roads Are Potholed and the Luxuries Few, Yet Many People Say They’re Better Off"
New York Times headline, August 18, 1991.

"The government points out rightly that Cuba’s standard of living is better than in many other countries of the Caribbean and Latin America. There are no filthy children scrambling over garbage heaps to compete with vultures for scraps of food, as in El Salvador. There are no death squads preying upon the weakest and poorest, as in Guatemala. There is none of the festering disease and crushing poverty that is on display in any village in Haiti or Honduras or Nicaragua. The violent crime, random killing, and manic drug trade that are Colombia’s scourge, and Jamaica’s, are practically unknown in Cuba."
Washington Post reporter Lee Hockstader, September 12, 1991.

"Considered one of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century....[Fidel] Castro traveled the country cultivating his image, and his revolution delivered. Campaigns stamped out illiteracy and even today, Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world."
— Katie Couric reporting on NBC’s Today, February 13, 1992.


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"The island may have been a thorn in Washington’s side, but it was a beacon of success for much of Latin America and the Third World. For decades, Cuba’s health care and education systems were touted as great achievements of the revolution....Some say the trade ban has never given Cuba a chance to see whether or not Castro’s socialism might work."
— Correspondent Giselle Fernandez, September 4, 1994 CBS Evening News.

"Like these young dancers, Carlos [Acosta] benefited from Cuba’s communist system because it not only recognizes physical talent, it nurtures it, whether it’s baseball, boxing, or ballet."
— CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Christiane Amanpour [also with CNN] on a star of London’s Royal Ballet, May 21, 2000.

"There’s a good chance that Fidel Castro, who marks his 78th birthday today, could keep going for another 40 years, the Cuban leader’s personal physician says....Cuban officials say the same revolutionary zeal that has driven nearly five decades of socialism can overcome the ravages of time....At least 40 different Cuban research groups are said to be at work unlocking the secrets of aging. The research ranges from studying special diets to basic research on genetics."
— Reporter Eric Sabo in an August 13, 2004 USA Today story headlined, "Cuba pursues a 120-year-old future."

"With 66,567 doctors, Cuba boasts a ratio of 1 doctor per 170 citizens, compared with 1 doctor per 188 residents in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. The emphasis on preventive, personalized care has yielded life expectancy rates almost identical to those in the United States, and infant mortality rates even lower than its northern neighbor’s, WHO data show. Advocates of the Cuban system point out that all Cubans are entitled to free healthcare and medicine, while more than 44 million American residents — nearly one of six people — have no health insurance."
Boston Globe reporter Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in an August 25, 2005 front-page article.

In 2006, after Fidel Castro’s declining health forced him to turn power over to his brother Raul, many members of the U.S. media fell over themselves in describing the dictator in poetic terms. On Fox News’s Geraldo At Large, host Geraldo Rivera went overboard in a commentary about Castro’s legacy, using flowery descriptions such as "the iron man of revolutionary rhetoric," "romantic revolutionary," and even "charismatic commie." An awe-struck Rivera recalled: "He is a towering historic figure, and meeting and interviewing him was one of the most memorable experiences of a young reporter's life." (CyberAlert, August 3, 2006)

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"When outsiders think of Cuba, it’s often the lack of political freedoms and economic power that comes to mind. Cubans who have chosen to stay on the island, however, are quick to point out the positives: safe streets, a rich and accessible cultural life, a leisurely lifestyle to enjoy with family and friends....For all its flaws, life in Castro’s Cuba has its comforts, and unknown alternatives are not automatically more attractive....Many foreigners consider it propaganda when Castro’s government enumerates its accomplishments, but many Cubans take pride in their free education system, high literacy rates and top-notch doctors. Ardent Castro supporters say life in the United States, in contrast, seems selfish, superficial, and — despite its riches — ultimately unsatisfying."
— Associated Press writer Vanessa Arrington in an August 4, 2006 dispatch, "Some Cubans enjoy comforts of communism."

 


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