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Columbia Journalism Review

March/April, 2007

Capturing Cuba

By: Bree Nordenson

I met Ann Louise Bardach at her home in Santa Barbara one afternoon in early January. I was running late because of traffic and just before I arrived, she called to inform me that I had missed something “very big.” As she breathlessly led me into the kitchen of the modest-sized bungalow she shares with her husband, the actor Bobby Lesser, Bardach, a small, wiry woman with auburn hair and large brown eyes, attempted to explain at breakneck speed the startling events of the past hour. In between letting out several yelps of glee accompanied by what is best described as a little jig, she announced that a U.S. representative was launching a congressional investigation into the government’s relationship with Luis Posada Carriles, the notorious anti-Castro militant on whom she had been reporting for years and the reason she is currently facing a federal subpoena (“I’m just trying to stay out of jail one day at a time.”). Dressed in black leggings and a red hooded sweatshirt, Bardach ran around the kitchen in an aimless frenzy, talking nonstop—about the wires she’d read that morning, the sorry state of press freedom, The Miami Herald’s reluctance to cover controversial Cuban issues, and a deal with Scribner’s to write a book about Castro’s later years and the U.S. government’s recent entanglements with Cuban exile militants.

Bardach is widely considered the go-to journalist on all things Cuban and Miami, a niche she began carving out for herself more than fifteen years ago when, as a contract writer for Vanity Fair, she got a phone call from a woman named Marita Lorenz, who claimed to be an ex-lover of Fidel Castro. Long inured to such unsolicited pitches, Bardach, a veteran crime reporter, was skeptical. “I think I said something like, ‘Well that’s not exactly news,’” she recalls. But when the woman added that she had worked for the CIA and attempted to assassinate Castro, Bardach’s ears perked up. “Well that could be news,” she remembers thinking. With “no real background” in Cuban or Miami politics, she embarked on a reporting adventure that she likens to “going down the rabbit hole” where “nothing was what it appeared to be.” When she learned that Lorenz had worked alongside E. Howard Hunt (who died this January), Bardach was hooked. She soon found herself in a “smoke and mirrors world,” surrounded by a cast of “shady characters” that included Frank Sturgis, a former CIA operative, notorious double agent, and Watergate burglar. “It doesn’t get any better than listening to Frank Sturgis spin for you,” she says in her deep, slightly raspy voice. “It’s like meeting Peter Lorre in Casablanca, you know? You can’t make this stuff up.”

 

Published in 1993, Bardach’s lengthy article on Lorenz was a convoluted tale of intrigue involving such major historical events as the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, the 1976 murder of the Chilean ambassador to the United States, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. She says she probably wouldn’t pursue the Lorenz story today—“She gets too much attention for a person who’s lying about too many parts of it”—but is indebted to the experience. “What Marita Lorenz did for me was make me fascinated with the Cuban exile theater, the militant theater, and I became very interested in the fact that the CIA had financed them for so long,” she explains. “We create this mobile guerrilla army to go kill Castro and bring down this government and then we say, ‘Guess what, guys? We’ve changed our minds.’ And these guys say to us,” Bardach pauses and adds in a low whisper, “‘Well, you may have changed your minds, but we haven’t.’”

Though not Cuban herself, Bardach identifies with what she calls the “overcaffeinated Cuban nature,” “an extraordinarily volatile mix” of the cerebral and the soulful. “They’re dynamic, sexy, vain....They take too much coffee, too much rum, too much sex,” Bardach told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2004. “But I find it a winning combination.” At fifty-six, her passion for Cuban and Miami affairs remains resolute. She has continued to report through one lawsuit, two subpoenas, multiple death threats, several press visa denials, countless slippery sources, and some searing professional criticism. As Castro’s death approaches, she’s in overdrive, prerecording obituaries for 60 Minutes, Nightline, CNN, and BBC radio; signing on as a special consultant to CBS; promoting an English edition of the young Castro’s letters from prison; and beginning her book for Scribner. As always, she’s pursuing those projects with her signature relentlessness. “I think a lot of editors would find her frightening because she comes on strong,” says Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times. “My advice to an editor who was going to be working with Annie would be, ‘Yes, work with her but get your doctor to prescribe you some Xanax.’”

Shortly after the publication of the Marita Lorenz article, Bardach was assigned to profile Fidel Castro for Vanity Fair. Though she told editor Graydon Carter that Castro wasn’t granting press interviews—she had been denied a request for the Lorenz piece—he insisted on the story. And so Bardach began researching how other journalists and scholars had managed to interview the Cuban president. She learned that there were travel delegations in the United States that sponsored trips to Cuba and that in some cases, if the group was big enough and included some influential members, Castro would make an appearance.

Bardach signed up for one such trip and flew to Cuba in October 1993. On the last night of the visit, her group boarded a large bus that took them to a reception at El Palacio de la Revolucion, the building that houses the Cuban government. Sure enough, Castro and the entire Politburo appeared. Bardach walked over to where Castro was standing, and introduced herself. As she recalls, the two got into an argument over Tibetan independence almost immediately. Bardach insists that though the argument was heated, it was respectful—“mano a mano,” she explained. As they continued to argue, Bardach noticed that the other members of the group—devout Fidelistas—were becoming “hostile.” Frustrated, she walked away and started complaining to two television journalists about the group’s “fawning” attitude. Suddenly, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “It was Fidel Castro,” says Bardach, laughing. “He said, ‘Ven conmigo,’ and he took my arm and I was in.”

She got twenty minutes alone with the Cuban leader. “I pumped him for everything I could,” she says. After Castro’s speech that night, Bardach returned to her Havana hotel and immediately began writing, eventually filing more than 20,000 words. “I spent a ton of time on it, you know, doing all this stuff that anybody else would publish in a heartbeat,” Bardach says. But Carter (who declined to be interviewed) decided that her story didn’t have “enough Castro.” He told Bardach to go back to Cuba. “I just thought I was going to die,” she says.

She again signed up for a group visit, this time employing an additional tactic. On her way to Havana, Bardach stopped in Miami to visit Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a famous defector whom Castro had just been forced to release after twenty-two years of imprisonment. She asked him if he had a message for the Cuban president, and he gave her a note saying that he and a number of exiles were willing to work with Castro in “a spirit of reconciliation.”

On the final night of her second trip to Cuba, Bardach again found herself at the Palacio de la Revolucion. She approached a Castro aide and, without mentioning its “piddling” message, told her she had a note from Menoyo. After Castro finished his speech, Bardach was promptly escorted deep into the Palacio where she was granted an interview, a three-and-a-half-hour affair during which she grilled him on everything from Cuba’s intolerance of homosexuals in the sixties and seventies to the drug trials and resulting executions of the late eighties to the country’s economic devastation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to Bardach, preparation—reading, researching, and working her sources—was barely half the battle in profiling the Cuban president. “The whole thing is stamina,” she says, “keeping up with Castro.” For Bardach, though, energy has never been in short supply—“I was a hyperactive child and now I’m a hyperactive adult,” she explains. She’s “one of these reporters you get e-mails from at two in the morning,” says Stephen Engelberg, the former investigative editor of The New York Times, who worked with Bardach on a 1998 series about anti-Castro militants. “She always very, very, very excited.”

“She’s the most relentless individual on the face of the planet,” says Joy de Menil, who edited Bardach’s book Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana and a recent article she did for the Atlantic. “A small number of journalists have this ability that they always come back with the story,” says Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, for whom Bardach conducted several hard-hitting interviews of such notables as E. Howard Hunt and Oliver Stone in 2004. “She always delivers the goods.” Bardach stays up very late and often sleeps only in three-hour shifts.

In early 1994, after she’d finished the Castro profile, Bardach’s stamina was put to the test when she began reporting a story about Jorge Mas Canosa, the late leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful Miami-based anti-Castro lobby. The profile ran that October in The New Republic. It was a disturbing, no-holds-barred account of Mas Canosa’s influence on President Clinton and American Cuban policy, and his retaliatory campaigns against anyone, including The Miami Herald, who encouraged or endorsed anything less than the most extremely anti-Castro stance. Despite her attempts to convince them to rethink their “reckless” choice, Bardach’s editors entitled her article, “ Clinton’s Miami Mobster.” Mas Canosa promptly sued both Bardach and the magazine for libel.

For two years, Bardach spent much of her time in Miami fi ghting the lawsuit. During that time, Mas Canosa hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on Bardach; at one point, the investigator called a colleague of hers at Vanity Fair looking for information. In 1996, her house in Los Angeles was broken into and documents related to Mas Canosa were stolen. People would repeatedly call into Cuban exile radio stations, threatening to kill Bardach. Her name was eventually dropped from the suit, which was settled out of court in the fall of 1996. “There was just this huge sense of money and power that was going to shut us up,” recalls Meg Laughlin, a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times who was then working for The Miami Herald. “Our paper started backing off and Annie didn’t.” When I asked Bardach why she would continue to pursue the Miami-Cuban beat after everything that accompanied the Mas Canosa lawsuit, she answered without a hint of her typical sarcasm: “I totally believe that if we don’t have a free, unfettered press, we don’t have a democracy. I believe that on a cellular level. And what I saw in Miami was not the shining hill of a democracy.”

But that’s only part of it. For Bardach, reporting is an addiction. “The best part of reporting is getting out of self,” she says. “It’s better than a drug.” While working with Bardach on the series on exile militants for The New York Times, Engelberg said he quickly realized that “this was a person who had an obsessive, obsessive interest in the subject. I mean she seems to follow every up and down of every Cuban you’ve ever heard of and a lot you’ve never heard of.” Indeed, Bardach has an enviable source list in the form of three thick packets, one for each of her Cuban sub-beats—the Miami exile community, the anti-Castro militants, and the Cuban government; she could fill a Rolodex with the contact information of mistresses alone. “Very often if you want to know the latest gossip in Miami about Cuba,” says Laughlin, “you need to call California and Annie will know.”

In Bardach’s office, a low building a few yards from her house, one wall is lined with shelves filled with books about Castro, Cuba, and Miami; files of documents for recent stories (the rest are in boxes piled in a padlocked shed); two framed pictures of her with Castro; and piles of snapshots of her Cuban exile sources. Hanging on the walls are framed maps of Cuba and Havana, Paul Krassner’s satirical “Fuck Communism” poster, and a Cuban pastoral scene painted by Luis Posada.

One afternoon, Bardach walked me through her daily routine of combing the Spanish and English wires and e-mail updates from the State Department and the Cuban government. “Do you want to see how my little brain works?” she asked, motioning for me to come over to her computer. She scrolled through headlines frenetically, reading every one with rabid enthusiasm and e-mailing stories to friends, fellow journalists, and lawyers.

Bardach’s obsessive streak is what fueled her intense involvement in the Mas Canosa lawsuit in the first place. As she recounts in her book, Bardach, the ever-savvy reporter, was well aware that the suit’s discovery process “would open doors that journalists had previously only dreamed of entering.” During the two years of the pretrial proceedings, for example, Bardach was able to obtain documents and depositions that proved that Mas Canosa had supported the exile militants.

Bardach continued to work for Vanity Fair until 1998, writing several more articles about Cuba and Miami, but she was becoming antsy: “I was getting to a point where I wanted to go to a difference place. I wanted to write more about politics and foreign affairs.” The turning point came when she was assigned to the JonBenet Ramsey case. “When you’re starting to do stuff so you just get the check, you don’t like yourself anymore,” she says. Bardach left Vanity Fair with the intention of writing a book. “I wanted to write my Cuba story,” she says, “about the nexus of the politics and intrigue between Miami, Havana, and Washington.” She got a book deal almost immediately, but decided to put it off when she started helping the Times report the story on anti-Castro exile militants. She quickly signed a contract with the paper’s investigative division, reporting alongside Larry Rohter, then the Times’s Caribbean bureau chief. Her breakthrough at the Times came when she received a call from Luis Posada, a notorious anti-Castro militant who had been in hiding for many years. Bardach had met a friend of Posada’s for lunch two weeks earlier on the off chance that he might put her in touch with him. As luck would have it, Posada was looking for publicity for a series of bombings he had orchestrated in Havana in 1997, so he agreed to meet with her. “The interview with Posada was a coup,” says Jane Bussey, a veteran Miami Herald reporter who specializes in Latin American finance. “There are a lot of other reporters who would have loved to have gotten that interview."

The Posada interview led to a three-article, page-one series called A BOMBER'S TALE, published in July 1998. One of the articles focused on the financial ties between the Cuban American National Foundation and Posada and other anti-Castro militants. Not surprisingly, the foundation was outraged and flew its legal team to New York. Bill Keller, then the Times’s managing editor, remembers sitting down with the lawyers. “The people from CANF are a fair match for Annie in their pitch and level of aggressiveness,” he recalls. “They came in swinging.” When I asked whether Bardach was present at the meeting, Keller exclaimed, “Oh God, no!” Laughing, he added, “I think we all agreed—probably including Annie—that it would be better if she didn’t.” (In the end, no suit was filed.)

After the Times series, the Elian Gonzalez affair exploded and Bardach delved deeply into reporting the story for both 60 Minutes and George. Instead of focusing solely on the boy and the resulting custody battle, she dedicated months to reporting the stories of the other passengers on the boat. At around the same time, she signed a contract for the postponed book with Random House (with de Menil as her editor) and, feeling sufficiently “steamed,” she began writing furiously. She capitalized on the freshness of the Gonzalez affair, using it as both the opening and the conclusion of her book, drawing parallels between Castro’s own experience of being separated from his son, Fidelito, whom Castro’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, took with her to the U.S. after their divorce (“the saddest legacy of the Cuban revolution is the broken families,” says Bardach). “What is particularly admirable about her as a reporter and especially as a reporter on Cuba is that she doesn’t have political baggage,” says de Menil. “She really is interested in human motivation. She’s interested in stories and she appreciates the narrative dimension of a story without wanting to push material into a preconceived political package.”

Published in 2002, Bardach’s Cuba Confidential was a nonfiction pen award nominee and was named one of the ten best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Some reviewers, however, felt that Bardach was too hard on the Miami exile community, specifically in drawing parallels between the political landscapes in Miami and Cuba. “At times, Bardach’s obvious distaste for hard-line exile politics gets the better of her, leading her to make exaggerated claims,” wrote David Adams in The St. Petersburg Times. As The Economist put it, “In her desire to establish the equivalence of Mas Canosa and Mr. Castro she overreaches, falling into conspiracy theory...or exaggeration.”

Bardach contends that such accusations stem from a lack of understanding of the complex, often shady political world she reports on and the intensity of the parties on both sides. “I’m not a partisan,” Bardach insists. “I truly understand the passion on both sides.” As proof, Bardach frequently notes she has been alternately championed and vilified by both the Cuban government and the hard-line exile community.

Tom Julin, a well-known, Miami-based First Amendment lawyer whom Bardach hired and personally paid to vet her book, agrees: “If you’re writing about Cuban American exiles in Miami and efforts to overthrow Castro and to finance those efforts, it’s a very dangerous enterprise because even if you get it exactly right it’s not improbable that you’ll be facing some sort of a claim, if not threats and all kinds of other things.”

This past year, Luis Posada Carriles, who suddenly appeared in Miami in the spring of 2005 and was promptly arrested for illegal entry, agreed to another interview with Bardach for a story she was working on for the Atlantic about the fatal 1976 bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight. “The fact that he was willing to talk to her again after that New York Times series is unbelievable,” says de Menil. “Because that series was clearly extremely damaging to him.” But Posada has turned out to be damaging for Bardach as well. In May 2005, the Immigration and Customs Department issued Bardach and The New York Times a subpoena for the tapes of her 1998 interviews with Posada, to be used in his asylum hearings. The Times moved to quash the subpoena, which led to its eventual withdrawal. Posada was denied asylum and ordered out of the country, but the U.S. has been unable find a country that will take him, and he remains in an immigration detention center in El Paso. In the fall of 2006, the Justice Department subpoenaed Bardach’s interview tapes for a criminal grand jury investigation into financial ties between Posada and Cuban exile groups in Union City, New Jersey. Though it was not named in the subpoena, the Times is paying for Bardach’s legal representation and, at her suggestion, has employed Tom Julin as chief counsel. Julin sought to quash the subpoena on the ground that, as he explains, “the government had or has plenty of alternative sources of information with which to conduct an investigation of Posada and they don’t need Ann Bardach’s tapes of her interview from nine years ago.”

But this is where things get complicated and legitimately conspiratorial (Posada was, after all, on the U.S. government payroll for many years, and his militant colleague, Orlando Bosch—at the time declared a terrorist by the Justice Department and the fbi—was granted residency, without explanation, by President George H.W. Bush in 1992). In 2005, Bardach learned that two years earlier the fbi had not only closed its file on Posada but had also destroyed the accompanying evidence, a fact she recounted in both her Atlantic article and a Washington Post op-ed last October. “Call me a strict constructionist, but somehow I do not believe that our founding fathers meant to allow the government to raid the news media for their work files after it bungles a case and destroys crucial evidence,” she wrote in her Post piece. As Julin notes, “If the subpoena is ultimately enforced against her it certainly does create a real threat to how she’s going to be able to continue to report about this story and whether her sources will continue to trust her or look at her as someone who is essentially a witness for the government.”

These days, Bardach spends most of her time on the phone—with her lawyers (fighting the subpoena case), the Cuban government (trying to secure a press visa), and print, radio, and broadcast journalists (commenting on the significance of Castro’s impending death). The same day I arrived at Bardach’s California home, Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, who chairs a subcommittee with a foreign-policy oversight role, had called Bardach to tell her he was launching a broad-based inquiry into the government’s ties to Luis Posada, including the fbi’s destruction of evidence. “This is so exciting,” she said as she danced around her kitchen. “Oh, my God, I’m on the moon.” It’s not hard to imagine why: her work—the information she has unearthed and written about—is actually affecting policy. Delahunt acknowledged as much, saying he would never have launched an inquiry into Posada if he hadn’t read Cuba Confidential. “It connected the dots” and “laid the initial groundwork” necessary for such an investigation, he explained. Though it may not directly influence her pending subpoena, the inquiry is likely to address the question of a federal shield law for reporters in its final report. Bardach has not been shy about her interest in that aspect of the investigation; she has repeatedly reminded Delahunt that she cares most about the investigation’s implications for press freedom, not national security.

Meanwhile, like everyone else with a passion for Cuban politics, Bardach is awaiting news on Castro’s health. His eventual death will translate into a whirlwind of calls for comment, television and radio appearances, and an exclusive short-term contract with cbs News as a special consultant. She’ll continue to promote The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro, and the congressional investigation, for which she will serve as a resident expert, is slated to begin in March. She’s gathering past reporting and research materials for her Scribner’s book on America’s involvement with Posada and Castro’s later years. And though she assured me that she’s “gonna be out of Cuba one day,” Bardach has more “detective work” to do. She plans to travel to Cuba and Miami to continue reporting on the 1976 Cubana bombing, a mystery she thinks she is close to solving. And she’s developed a new fascination with Cuban “dangles,” informers—and likely double agents—who seduce law enforcement and intelligence agencies with information. “That’s what I’m gonna write about next,” she says, her huge brown eyes flashing with excitement. “It’s a real smoky world.”

Bree Nordenson is an assistant editor at CJR.

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