The Good War? The View from Cairo, and Deregulation of Media

  • submit to reddit

In this episode of NOW with Bill Moyers, former head of Paramount and Universal, Barry Diller, discusses the impact deregulation has had on the media industry and the quality of its product.

What does the war in Iraq mean for the rest of the Middle East? In The Good War?  NOW takes to the streets of Cairo to gauge the mood of that Arab community in the wake of the war with Iraq. The segment includes interviews with some of the Arab world’s most well-known writers and thinkers who express hope for Democracy in their own country.

Also, Bill Moyers interviews Human Rights Watch’s José Miguel Vivanco about Cuba’s recent crackdown on dissidents. Finally, almost 20 years ago, Bill Gentile traveled to Nicaragua as a photographer for Newsweek to cover the conflict between the Sandinistas and the Reagan Administration-backed Contras. Now Gentile returns to find and talk to the subjects of the photos. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.


TRANSCRIPT

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. This week, as the smoke clears, the world is asking, “Who speaks for the new Iraq?” It’s a multiple choice question. Is it the Shiites, hundreds of thousands of whom made a pilgrimage this week to the holy city of Karbala? Or is it the Sunni Arabs or the Kurds? Is it the secularists or the exiles who have been away from their homeland for so many years? The fact is, there isn’t just one Iraq, there are many. And the same is true of the entire Arab world. The so-called Arab Street has many addresses and public opinion is no more a monolith there than it is in the West. NPR’s Deborah Amos went to Cairo, Egypt for us, and heard a variety of voices, some predictable and some quite surprising.

DEBORAH AMOS: You’ve heard a lot about the so-called Arab Street in the last few months. That the people who live and work here are angry because of the American invasion of Iraq. And this is one of the oldest streets in the region. This is Cairo, the cultural and intellectual capital of the Arab world. We came here to listen — to check in on the Arab Street.  For many Egyptians there is a sense of shame. They consider the fall of Baghdad a bleak day in Arab history because the Iraqis did not put up much of a fight.

The Friday call to prayer is a call to protest. At Cairo’s largest mosque, these Egyptians end the service with chants against America and President Bush. Many Egyptians are suspicious of American intentions in the Middle East, skeptical of American promises to bring democracy to the region, especially when it comes to regimes with close ties to Washington, like the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarek. But there are other Egyptian voices, influential voices, that are just beginning to be heard, and they may surprise you. They say the U.S. victory in Iraq can lead to positive changes … not just in Baghdad, but in Cairo and throughout the Middle East.

HISHAM KASSEM: Nobody endorses a war, but when you come to think of it, the worst military dictator in the Arab region has been taken out.

DEBORAH AMOS: The toppling of Saddam Hussein is a lesson to other repressive Arab regimes, says Hisham Kassem. He publishes the English language Cairo Times, and heads the largest human rights group in Cairo.

DEBORAH AMOS: Do you think that that lesson will weigh on other Arab rulers?

HISHAM KASSEM: Yes, certainly. I mean, I think it’s bringing back memories of how the domino effect took place in Eastern Europe. So I think they are pretty nervous now.

DEBORAH AMOS: The hope that other Arab leaders will learn from what happened to Saddam Hussein is why Kassem and other reformers in Egypt are taking such a surprisingly positive position. Kassem ran this headline just last week, “The silver lining” in Saddam’s defeat.

HISHAM KASSEM: If the world wants to be safe from the evils that have started appearing from this part of the world, this part has to be democratized. There has to be good governance. This region is too important to the rest of the world for it to become dysfunctional or to have a number of failed states.

DEBORAH AMOS: So democracy comes to you because it’s in the West’s interest?

HISHAM KASSEM: Yes, I have no doubts about that.

DEBORAH AMOS: For the first time.

HISHAM KASSEM: For the first time, yes.

DEBORAH AMOS: If you want to talk openly about politics in Egypt, you have to be careful to do it without being too critical of the government of President Hosni Mubarak. One Egyptian reformer who has paid a price for such criticism is Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Long one of Egypt’s most influential and combative thinkers, he agrees this could be a turning point in the political history of the region.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: I am optimistic that things will be better. And I hope that Americans live up to their promises. We will hold them accountable as democratic forces in this region to keep the American administration true and honest to the promises and proclamations it made.

DEBORAH AMOS: The promises? To press governments in the region, including the Egyptian government, to accelerate democratic reform.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: I think it is the time now to rebuild this region for peace, for prosperity, for democracy and I hope it will succeed.

DEBORAH AMOS: Ibrahim is slowed by a stroke suffered during a recent 14-month prison term. His crime? Advocating democracy for Egypt, a stand he says many Egyptians share.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: The demonstrations that took place in the last month or so were all asking for change, asking for democracy, asking for fighting corruption, asking for a share in power, a share in wealth. So as much as they were against war, they were also against the status quo.

DEBORAH AMOS: That was clear at these demonstrations in late March. Alongside shouts against the war, against America, against Israel, there were cries for democracy and the end of corruption in Egypt. The response from the government: water cannons and clubs.

Once American victory in Iraq became clear, Egyptian newspaper editorials began a slow shift of blame, from the United States to Saddam Hussein, for failing to open his government to reform. Newspaper columnist Salama Ahmed Salama insists there must now be change in Egypt, too.

SALAMA AHMED SALAMA: This is a time, a turning point for all Arab regimes to revise their situation and to allow some new opening in — not some new openings, but a drastic reform, political reform in the way of governing the people.

DEBORAH AMOS: That’s not how the Egyptian government sees it. Spokesman Nabil Osman, who is the official voice of the Egyptian regime, says the reformers are wrong.

NABIL OSMAN: If they were correct, then they have accepted that democracy can be imposed through rockets, missiles and B-52’s and this is unheard of in history.

DEBORAH AMOS: You don’t buy it?

NABIL OSMAN: Definitely not. Democracy cannot be imposed.

DEBORAH AMOS: We all saw Iraqis cheering. We have seen Iraqis happy that Saddam is gone. Is that not a positive part of this war?

NABIL OSMAN: I have seen on television, on American networks, Iraqis with anti-American sentiments because now they have to differentiate between: “Is it a war of liberation or is it invasion and occupation?”

DEBORAH AMOS: Millions of other Arabs saw those images too. This was the Arab world’s first television war. A half dozen new Arab satellite channels beamed in the conflict 24 hours a day, influencing opinion on the Arab Street. But was the reporting accurate? Many Arab critics now say it was not.

MOHAMED KAMEL: They magnified, first of all, Iraqi resistance. But they also magnified the civilian casualties and so on. So it wasn’t really accurate. That’s why people’s expectations were very high of the Iraqi resistance. And when the whole thing collapsed, it was very difficult for them to absorb it.

DEBORAH AMOS: Dr. Mohamed Kamel is a political scientist at Cairo University. He says these are early days for Iraqis finally free of Saddam Hussein — early days that will test President Bush’s promise to change the world.

MOHAMED KAMEL: If the Iraqis smile to the Americans, if they participated in any election that is to be organized there, then I would say you cannot be more Catholic than the Pope. If the Iraqis accept that, I think it’s going to silence many critics of the U.S. in the region.

DEBORAH AMOS: But not here at Cairo University. These students say they are more anti-American than their parents. When President Bush talks about bringing democracy to the Arab world, they don’t buy it.

MALE STUDENT: I feel that we are deceived as Arabs because the first thing that Bush has claimed is that we are going into Iraq in order to establish a democratic country. But I do not think that the way he’s going to establish this democratic state is really correct.

FEMALE STUDENT: When the civilians, the children, are killed, the USA, did not allow the media to cover it. But when it comes to the Iraqis, when some people start to steal things after the war is finished, the media cover this very well.

DEBORAH AMOS: And when many of the younger generation look for answers, they find a clash of civilizations.

MOHAMED KAMEL: Many of my students were talking about this war as a religious war. This is a war by the Christian West against a Muslim nation. And I heard that not from Islamicists, or something like that, but from secular kids.

DEBORAH AMOS: Some of these students are not just speaking out in class. They have used their anger to organize. They pledge to die fighting infidels who have invaded and occupied the Middle East. For now, they just march and shout. The question is: will there come a time when they do more? And, as always, much of their frustration comes back to the failed peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

MOHAMED KAMEL: This is the core issue in the region. People will forget about Iraq and what happened in Iraq if the U.S. is really sincere about resolving this conflict once and for all.

DEBORAH AMOS: Americans may separate the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the war in Iraq. But many Egyptians do not. They see outside armies occupying Arab lands. It is all a matter of history, says Tom Bartlett, President of American University in Cairo.

TOM BARTLETT: From the United States, we think of our armies are going abroad to win fights that help people. In this part of the world armies go abroad to occupy and conquer. And that’s the image that they’ve lived with for centuries. It was the Ottomans, then it was the Europeans, now it’s the Americans who have come to occupy and conquer countries in this part of the world.

DEBORAH AMOS: And nobody’s ever had a good experience with that, so…

TOM BARTLETT: Nobody’s ever had a good experience. And so the assumption going in is it’s going to be bad.

DEBORAH AMOS: But come to this coffeehouse, one of Cairo’s oldest, and meet an Egyptian who has lived through many Middle Eastern wars. He says this war is different.

ALI SALEM: This is the end of the authoritarian ideas and thoughts in our region.

DEBORAH AMOS: Ali Salem is one of Cairo’s most famous poets and playwrights. His works are often banned because of his criticism of the Egyptian government. Over strong coffee and sweet tea he has talked and argued in this café for more than forty years. He watched the fall of Saddam with joy, but has some advice for the Americans.

ALI SALEM: We couldn’t redeem ourselves. And you came to liberate us. Don’t remind us every minute that you liberated us. Because it’s shameful. So it’s bad. And I think it will give the fundamentalists in the region a new motive to move.

DEBORAH AMOS: Ali Salem knows most Egyptians, most Arabs, still condemn the United States for this war in Iraq. He believes the quality of the peace could change some minds. But in Cairo, the fallout from the war is not over yet. For Egyptians it means more security police on the street than ever before. For them the real measure of the peace will not come in Baghdad, but in Cairo. Egyptians will judge the remaking of Iraq by real reforms at home.

ANNOUNCER: There is more to come on NOW. Human rights activist José Miguel Vivanco on the arrests and executions in Cuba.

BILL MOYERS: Many things can be said about Barry Diller. But what he says about himself goes right to the point. “I’ve not conducted my life in the service of smallness,” understates the man who created Fox Broadcasting and ran some of the world’s biggest media giants: ABC Entertainment, Paramount, Vivendi Universal, and is even now chairman and CEO of USA Interactive, itself an empire of informational services from the Home Shopping Network to Ticketmaster.

“Second,” says Barry Diller, “I am a contrarian.” This is, after all, the man who, at the failing Paramount Studio, took a huge gamble on a movie called Saturday Night Fever. Everyone else said it was a sure loser. And then it broke every box office record and moved Paramount from last to first place in the motion picture business.

Now, once again, Barry Diller is shaking up the media world. A couple of weeks ago, he stunned an audience of broadcasters with a speech in Las Vegas at a moment when fewer and fewer conglomerates own and determine more and more of what we see, hear, and read. And the FCC is about to allow them to own even more. Barry Diller said, “Whoa. We’ve gone too far.” He’s here to talk about that contrarian idea. Welcome to NOW.

BARRY DILLER: Nice to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Why now? Why did you choose this moment to speak out on media conglomeration?

BARRY DILLER: Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because all the forces are, so to speak, gathered. What’s happened is that this oligopoly, that was attempted to be prevented by regulation over the last 30 years. You know? Thirty years ago three companies controlled 90 percent of everything we heard or saw. And that was a bad idea. Now four companies, five companies, control 90 percent of everything we see.

BILL MOYERS: Oligopoly? That’s your word? I mean, that’s a very strong word.

BARRY DILLER: Well, certainly it isn’t an exaggeration.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by it?

BARRY DILLER: What I mean is, is that… a handful of companies are in charge of everything both vertically and horizontally that you get to see through a screen—a television screen, not a computer screen. And what I do think has to come along with that are rules and regulations that will make it so that what we do not have in this country is a media and communications business that has no other voices in it. No air in it.

BILL MOYERS: Has that happened?

BARRY DILLER: Sure.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, you stated in your speech that ten years ago independent producers in Hollywood created 16 new television series. Last year, only one.

BARRY DILLER: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Is that the consequence of oligopoly?

BARRY DILLER: Sure it is.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

BARRY DILLER: Well, if, in fact, you have companies that produce, that finance, that air on their channel, and then distribute worldwide everything that goes through their controlled distribution system, then, in fact, what you get is fewer and fewer actual voices participating in the process. You used to have dozens and dozens of thriving independent production companies producing television programs.

Now you have less than a handful. What has caused that? What’s caused that is the forces of consolidation and consolidation. And I am not saying that those forces are bad and that their results are evil. What am I saying is that with that, I think, comes the necessity to say, “Well, you can’t own all your programs. Well, you can’t own every voice there is to own.” There should be some restraints.

And more importantly, what’s happened to broadcasting is that broadcasting really used to have a very clear public service quotient. And it’s more or less lost now. Other things have been lost too. But this perfect balance was fear—fear that your license would get taken away from you, plus a real sense of public service responsibility; that those airwaves actually belonged to the public. You used them. You profited from them. But you had to keep it in balance. That was a healthy environment. And in that environment, of course, mistakes get made, excesses happen, but they rebalance themselves. Today, after Mark Fowler says…

BILL MOYERS: The Chairman of FCC in the Reagan Era.

BARRY DILLER: In the ’80s.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

BARRY DILLER: Who says, you know, a television is a toaster. It’s just there for marketing. All that goes away. So…

BILL MOYERS: You sell a lot of toasters on television.

BARRY DILLER: Yes, I do. I’m happy to continue to sell toasters. But, in fact, that’s not what these mass engines of communication — which are so vital, you know, they’re so influential in everything — they have to have other aspects of responsibility and balance in order to do what they should be doing.

BILL MOYERS: Could a young Barry Diller make it today? A young Ted Turner? Could there be a new ESPN? A new CNN?

BARRY DILLER: Almost impossible.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

BARRY DILLER: Because, again, there is, the levels of concentration, if you’re a new player, you have a new idea, you know? Ted Turner started with TBS which was a rundown Atlanta television station that he got to Superstation status. But he was still a tiny, little player when he said, “You know, I’ve got this idea for a 24-hour news network.”

Of course everybody thought he was crazy. Everybody thought that it was hopeless. But what he did in individual selling, he sold cable system after cable system on this idea. He got backing from a whole group of people to start what was then just a stand-alone. I mean, he didn’t have very much else than that.

That can’t happen today. It can’t happen today because if you knock on the door of these entities, they say, “Well, first of all, it’s not independent by definition ’cause we’ll own it.” You know? There’s no chance you can own it. That’s gone now. So as the stakes rise, you know, that becomes virtually impossible.

BILL MOYERS: Where does a young, bright, upstart go with an idea?

BARRY DILLER: Somewhere else. You know, look… in media and in entertainment and in certainly in journalism, I mean, if you’ve got a great idea, an idea will out. It’ll just be owned by one of the large and concentrated players.

BILL MOYERS: Five of them now.

BARRY DILLER: That is, it’s reality. Yes. And it’s not that that’s just an altogether horrible thing. But what I do think is these five players who believe they are living in a justifiably unregulated universe, should have enough regulation. Enough regulation — not that strangles them by any stretch — to stop these absolute forces of complete vertical and horizontal integration.

BILL MOYERS: Is this a change of heart for you? I mean, you’ve run huge companies. You run one now. If I remember correctly, when Disney bought ABC you said, “This is a great transaction.”

BARRY DILLER: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: What’s different now?

BARRY DILLER: Well, I think what’s different now are a couple of things. The first thing that is different now is that the… I had hoped that the regulatory process would tightly follow consolidation and concentration. And that, in fact, what would not happen is that we would not be living in an area where it is considered antique and, you know, stupidly liberal to have regulations, you know?

Laissez-faire. Let it all mix. Well, my feeling is that if regulation had kept with this; if, in fact, we had not gone and raised the caps on broadcasting on what any one person could own in broadcasting; if, in fact, we had said in this Communications Act of ’96 that we would actually impose real public service obligations on broadcasters and not toss them out; I think, much of this would—consolidation would have happened—but it would have allowed other voices to come in. It would have allowed… Again, it would have just simply stopped complete vertical and horizontal development.

BILL MOYERS: You mentioned the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The chairman of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, said at that time — and he was a Democrat — here’s what he said: “The new law is intended to begin the era of genuine competition.”

BARRY DILLER: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And you say just the opposite has happened.

BARRY DILLER: Well, what happened is that instead of the competition that was supposed to get more voices and all of those things, in fact, this, I think, dangerous oligopoly reconstituted itself in ways that nobody thought would happen at the time. And so what I think now is, as the FCC is thinking about tossing more and more out. But instead, they think about this issue for not only broadcast but the cable business which is now, you know, a cable business. One little…

BILL MOYERS: Very dominating. Very concentrated.

BARRY DILLER: Five, ten years ago there were thousands and thousands of cable operators, you know? Serving their local communities. Now, there are three big ones and three mid-size ones. And no one else essentially.

BILL MOYERS: And the consequence is?

BARRY DILLER: Well, the consequences are, in any completely concentrated area, the consequences have to be that when you get that kind of size that, in fact, it has to restrain the ability of any new player. It gives them such buying power. It gives them such overwhelming power in the marketplace that everyone has to do essentially what they say.

BILL MOYERS: The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, and others say, “Look, we have 500-plus channels. We have the satellite. We have the wide open internet that Barry Diller knows so well.” I mean, these have radically changed the media landscape. Perhaps we have more diversity.

BARRY DILLER: No, we don’t. Because what we have is an absolute fact —that five companies control 90 percent of all of it. It has been reconstituted. Instead of it being three channels that were controlled by a few people, there are now 500 controlled by a few people. This doesn’t relate to the internet, by the way. You say, “Where do young people go?”

BILL MOYERS: Yes.

BARRY DILLER: My opinion, young people go to the internet. Because the internet distribution system right now is, you put it up there and it’s accessed by the world.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s no competition for Fox, for CNN. For AOL…

BARRY DILLER: The internet sites?

BILL MOYERS: Yes, the internet doesn’t… can’t compete with it in terms of scale.

BARRY DILLER: Well, no, no. The internet, again, the internet is… first of all, the internet is currently two dimensional —meaning the internet is not broadband. It doesn’t really have live, fast, big pictures. It has little pictures in a computer screen. Soon, though, in some years, the internet will have broadband capacity. And that, by the way, is a chance for another reconstitution. What I’m worried about is that unless you think about this now because broadband may, in fact, be controlled by the cable business. Because cable modems is the way to get real fast connections today. I mean, the most vibrant part of the growth is in cable — well, certainly, what do they want to do? They want to be, if you can figure out how to first create a toll bridge with them standing at one side of it and you having to pass through them.

Now, okay. They own the pipe, so to speak, but it’s not okay to control it in the ways that current media is controlled. So my reason for being thoughtful about this now — and really it’s to be thoughtful — it’s to say, “Wait!” Not full-stop, but wait. “Before we toss things, let’s think about the media landscape that exists today. Much less is going to exist tomorrow when more consolidation is, of course, probably inevitable.”

So let’s think about that. Let’s say, “What’s appropriate? Is it appropriate for you to control 100 percent of the programming that passes through you? Is it appropriate for you to be able to block programming that passes through you if it’s on economic terms only? Not on editorial terms, so to speak.” I mean, those are the kinds of things that one would think that appropriate authorities should do. The problem today is almost no one is paying attention to this.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it also the case that these big oligopolies, as you call them, have so much access and power and influence over the very authorities that you say are supposed to be asking questions in the public interest?

BARRY DILLER: Yes. Such is life.

BILL MOYERS: Such is life but what do the rest of us do? What does the public do?

BARRY DILLER: Well, I think what the public does is say, “We’ve gotta have, through our representatives, we have got to have a voice in this. Some voice.”

BILL MOYERS: And you want the government to do that for you?

BARRY DILLER: I want the authorities to do it. Yes, of course I want the government to do it. Who else is gonna do it for us? I mean…

BILL MOYERS: To tell you that you can’t own but so much, Barry Diller?

BARRY DILLER: Well, you can’t own so much. I mean, the issue here is distribution. It’s the ownership of the pipes, you know, that is at issue here. It’s the ownership of, so to speak, the broadcast pipes that are concentrated. Or, it’s the ownership of the cable pipes. Or it’s the ownership of the satellite pipes. And that ownership—the one that allows pictures and words to go two ways — therein, is the area. Now here’s the issue. Do you own all the programming? Is there any way to get on, other than through the Wizard of Oz? You know, in a corner someplace. Is there any access?

BILL MOYERS: To be one of the most successful media entrepreneurs of our time, you talk like a Neanderthal. I mean, regulation? A role for government? I mean, this is the age of free markets. This is the age of…

BARRY DILLER: Well…

BILL MOYERS: Laissez-faire.

BARRY DILLER: Yeah, I recognize that. But I also recognize that to its ultimate conclusion, it’s a bad thing. It’s also not a new note for me. I have felt this. I felt it about broadcasting, because I grew up in broadcasting. I grew up…

BILL MOYERS: I remember an essay you wrote in The New York Times, an op-ed piece, I think in 1995?

BARRY DILLER: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: In which you called for this sort of thing.

BARRY DILLER: I did.

BILL MOYERS: For this kind of regulation, this is before the Telecommunications Act was passed, they didn’t listen to you.

BARRY DILLER: Not even close.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think they’ll listen to you now? In a few weeks, the FCC will vote on removing the last rules against media concentration. The industry wants to remove the rules that limit the number of television stations in the same market that can be owned by a broadcaster. They want to eliminate the rules that also restrict a single company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience. What are the implications? What’s at stake in this?

BARRY DILLER: If, again, they are further loosened, then, in fact, the forces that I’ve talked about notch one step towards absolutism. So, I’m against them going further. I actually think that what they should do is take a look at those rules. And to the extent they have oversight over cable and satellite, they should think about applications of rules for broadcasters to cable and satellite. The reason being that cable and satellite now make up 50 percent of what people see and hear. So, I think that it is a valid and more full-throated discussion that I am after on this topic. And I think that that can only be healthy.

BILL MOYERS: Should the FCC put off this decision that is now scheduled to take place on June 2nd until there is more public hearing? More voices heard? More debate?

BARRY DILLER: Yes. For sure. Certainly.

BILL MOYERS: Barry Diller, thank you very much.

BARRY DILLER: Happy to be here.

BILL MOYERS: HBO has postponed the television premier of a feature documentary called Commandante. Commandante is Spanish for commander. And the commander in this case is none other than Fidel Castro. The filmmaker is Oliver Stone who gave the world his conspiracy theories in such films as JFK and Nixon. There’s something about Castro that turns Hollywood directors to blubber.

Steven Spielberg recently spent several hours with Castro and left swooning from the experience. So why is Castro’s presence in primetime no longer welcome? Well, he’s up to his old tricks, his old dirty tricks. In the last month, Castro arrested 75 Cuban dissidents and journalists. And they’re now serving an average of 20 years in prison. Last week, he executed three men who tried to hijack a ferry to Miami. They were shot by a firing squad less than two weeks after their apprehension.

Here to talk to me about this is José Miguel Vivanco. Mr. Vivanco is from Chile, a Harvard graduate and a long time human rights activist. Now he’s executive director of the America’s Division of Human Rights Watch.

Welcome to NOW. For the last couple of years there have been some promising signs — I mean, in Cuba. Trade missions showed up. Independent journalists were becoming bolder in their reporting. American diplomats there were mixing openly with opponents of Castro. I mean, over 10,000 Cubans had signed petitions calling for democratic reforms and suddenly this crackdown. Why do you think it happened?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: Precisely because over 10,000 Cubans signed a petition calling for political referendum. In accordance to the Constitution of Cuba and that was a genuine grassroots movement.

BILL MOYERS: But a constitution means nothing in a totalitarian country does it?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: It is a totalitarian constitution. I mean, you know, there’s no democracy. No question about it.

BILL MOYERS: So Castro is afraid of the winds that were beginning to blow?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: He was afraid. But also Cuba is going through a very, very, severe economic and social crisis. So it’s going through a very, very, difficult time. And the whole world was paying attention to Iraq. At that minute, Castro decided to just crack down against key members of this community.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that he thought that the world would be too preoccupied with Iraq to pay attention?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: That’s right. It was a tactical move. He thought that was his time, his opportunity to go against these activists, journalists, independent journalists, human rights activists, dissidents. And, unfortunately, these events received minimal attention.

BILL MOYERS: One of the men arrested was a poet named Raul Rivera. He’s 57 years old. Here’s what he said a couple of years ago about conditions in Cuba. Quote, “The letter of the law concerning the protection of national independence and the economy in Cuba allows the authorities in my country to sentence me to prison because of the only sovereign act I have performed since I gained the use of my reason: writing without being dictated to.”

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: That’s right. I mean, the trouble with the Cuban system is that the legislation, the constitution, and the practice of the security services is totally, totally against the most fundamental principles, universal principles of human rights. And that is written in the law.

BILL MOYERS: The police who rounded up the dissidents confiscated fax machines, typewriters, computers. They confiscated pencils, all of that sort of thing that we use to express ourselves. What does that say to you?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: Well, unfortunately that is precisely what needs to be changed in Cuba. I remember that in my last trip to Cuba in ’95 I interviewed some political prisoners. Some of them were in prison because the security services found in their possession a copy of  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I discussed this with Castro. I raised these cases with Castro, with Fidel Castro, in a meeting with him. And he said, “Well, you know, we don’t know how this individual got the copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Who gave him a copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And in that sense he’s considered a counter-revolutionary and needs to be sent to prison.” And that’s why you have in prison several individuals who are political prisoners, pacifists, who just disagree with the official line.

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of this arrest and execution of the three men who tried to hijack the ferry to Miami? What kind of message does that send?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: Well, that was a horrible case of no due process. You know, in a secret procedure. No right to defend so on and so forth. It’s just a very, very, Draconian precedent.

BILL MOYERS: And yet last week in response to these recent crackdowns, the UN Commission on Human Rights refused to pass a condemnation of Castro. They gave him a little slap on the wrist. They wouldn’t even pass a resolution introduced by Costa Rica to call for the immediate release of these political prisoners. What’s the purpose of diplomacy if it can’t be more effective than that?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: The problem with diplomacy is that this issue of Cuba, unfortunately, is highly politicized. The perception is that this is a Washington case, Washington issue. And as long as the U.S. government tries to implement and develop a policy of isolation against Cuba, Latin democracies, the European Union, Canada, and the rest of the world are not willing to cope with this approach. And they don’t want to appear to be puppets of Washington in this crusade against Fidel Castro.

BILL MOYERS: So this turns Castro into the victim in their eyes?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: It allows him to play the role of the victim. It allows him domestically to raise the nationalistic card and to show him fighting against the only superpower today in the world. I mean, the policy of isolation is, unfortunately, counter-productive. It’s in his best interests to keep this divisive approach. Washington promoting isolation and the rest of the world condemning that policy. Every single year at United Nations, with the opposition of the U.S. and Israel, the rest of the world condemned the embargo against Cuba. And the rest of the world tried to promote exactly the opposite policy, which is engagement. So this approach of isolation is not working. For the simple reason…

BILL MOYERS: So you’re say…

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: …because it’s condemned by the rest of the world. You really need to orchestrate a very calibrated approach with your potential allies and the potential allies of the United States and of Europe and Latin America.

BILL MOYERS: Your portfolio of human rights covers a lot of territory—all of the Western Hemisphere. And I’d like to ask you about some other human rights situations in other countries, beginning with Nicaragua. The veteran photojournalist Bill Gentile, who covered the war between the Contras and the Sandinistas 20 years ago, recently returned to Nicaragua. And he came back with what might be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens to a nation 20 years after America sees it as a potential threat to our national security.

Take a look at this film:

BILL GENTILE: Carlos Gomez lives a life without enemies now. He drives his own bus. He has a wife and three children. But when we first met nearly 20 years ago, Carlos was a soldier. He had lots of enemies. And one day they nearly killed us both. Carlos and I met in 1985, in the dark days of Nicaragua’s Contra War. He was a medic in the Sandinista army. I was a photographer for Newsweek.

We were on a routine patrol on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast — me with a camera, Carlos with an AK-47 assault rifle. This was the Simon Bolivar battalion, the toughest, the best of the Sandinista army. I felt safe with them. Nearly invincible… until that morning when the jungle exploded and men began to bleed. We had walked right into a Contra ambush.

CARLOS GOMEZ: We never thought they would surprise us there. We were careless. We never imagined they would surprise us. Here. This is me. All the bandages they have on, I put them there.

BILL GENTILE: The wounded were evacuated on stretchers made of poles and their own hammocks. I followed them back to base at the nearby town of Mulukuku. There, local peasants led me to a little plastic hut and a scene that is hard for me to look at even today. A Sandinista militiaman recently killed by Contras, lying in his casket. With him was his family: his wife, his father, his mother. It was like they were saying, “Tell the world what is happening here. Tell them of our loss. Our sorrow.”

That’s exactly what I was trying to do: first in the pages of Newsweek, later in the pages of my book of photographs. I lived in Nicaragua during the 1980s, at the height of the U.S.-sponsored Contra war. Now I’ve come back to find the places and the people printed in my book and imprinted on my life. I want to see what’s happened to this country that America said was vital to its national security. I want to find out what was all that loss and sorrow for?

I set out for Mulukuku, to find the family of the dead soldier. Heading north from Managua the road falls apart. Even during wartime I remember the highways were in better shape than they are now. Along the way, I see children fill in the holes and ruts that scar the road. Their pay is an occasional tip from grateful passersby.

As I get closer to Mulukuku, there’s hardly a road at all. The town hasn’t changed much since I was here 17 years ago. But everything has changed for Aurora Jarquin, the mother of the fallen Sandinista soldier. I found her less than a mile from where I made the photograph so long ago. Seeing the picture in my book opened up old wounds.

AURORA JARQUIN: Yes, these are all my people.

BILL GENTILE: She told me about her son.

AURORA JARQUIN: Five days after he left they brought him back dead to Mulukuku.

BILL GENTILE: The boy’s death crippled her family. Then grief ripped it apart. Her husband was first to go.

AURORA JARQUIN: About four months later we were divorced because I spent all my time in the house crying. He would come home and get mad at me and yell at me and that just made me worse, so it was better that we got divorced because I couldn’t stand the pain of losing my son.

BILL GENTILE: One of her other sons left for a nearby town. Her daughter-in-law, the dead soldier’s wife, was next.

AURORA JARQUIN: She was heartbroken and she went home with her children to her father in the mountains.

BILL GENTILE: Sixty-four years old now, Aurora sells tortillas from her house to support herself. She is alone except for the youngest of her five children and her memories. This is the first time she’s ever seen a picture of her son as he lay in his coffin.

AURORA JARQUIN: I will guard this as if it were the eyes on my face.

BILL GENTILE: The men who killed Aurora’s son were called Contras. They were denounced by international human rights organizations. The Sandinistas called them “mercenaries” and “beasts.” But this was during the Cold War, the 1980’s, and the Contras were America’s surrogate against communism.

President Ronald Reagan supported them, called them “freedom fighters,” and compared them to America’s founding fathers. During the war, I photographed both Sandinistas and Contras. Now that I’ve returned, I want to know the men, not just the labels.

A woman in Mulukuku identified one of the Contras in my book. She alleged this man had participated in an ambush that killed civilians. I decided to try and find him. I had to pass through the northern mountains, the heart of darkness of the Contra war. It’s where I spent most of my time covering the conflict. Where I saw roads turn into mine fields, farms into free fire zones, hamlets into cemetaries.

This is coffee-growing country, but the bottom has fallen out of the international coffee market. Here, whole families harvest the raw beans for a few dollars a day…even less than they made during the war. After a six-hour drive from Mulukuku, I found the man I was looking for. Ciriaco Tercero was at home outside the northern town of Ocotal. He said he couldn’t quite remember me. But when I showed him my book, he found his picture and one of his four brothers who had joined the Contra forces with him.

BILL GENTILE: When I see this picture again, I feel the excitement, the exhaustion and the fear of a one-month march through the jungle. Ciriaco spent eight years as a Contra soldier tromping through the northern highlands. His targets, he says, were Sandinista soldiers, not civilians.

CIRIACO TERCERO: All of us were peasants, all of us Nicaraguans, who simply didn’t like the repression and were forced to take up arms to defend ourselves.

BILL GENTILE: Two decades later, the will to fight seems a distant memory.

CIRIACO TERCERO: I lost most of my youth during the war. I lost the opportunity to work. If we hadn’t had a repressive government that forced us into the mountains to fight, maybe the country would be different today. Maybe we wouldn’t be living in poverty today.

BILL GENTILE: Ciriaco said all he ever wanted to do was work his land, make a family, and be left alone. And he has achieved that.

CIRIACO TERCERO: We are poor but content because at least I’m not being hunted down by anybody and I can work in peace and take care of my children.

BILL GENTILE: Like Ciriaco, Carlos Gomez, the former Sandinista medic, still believes in what he fought for because, he said, the revolution promised to bring a better life for the majority. But after tens of thousands of deaths, after the disruption of a generation of young lives, Nicaragua has moved back in time — back to the the oligarchs who control the ranches, the big farms, the factories. The revolution and the counter-revolution are over.

CARLOS GOMEZ: It’s really sad. It’s something that hurts. But it’s the truth.

BILL GENTILE: In Managua what I see now is more poverty, more unemployment, more inequality. The earth — which received the blood of so many — is now owned by the very few.

As I photograph Nicaragua once again, I see how the lives of Carlos, Aurora, and Ciriaco — the whole the generation that survived the war — survive still, one day at a time.

BILL MOYERS: What struck me about that so sadly is that many of the wealthy families in Nicaragua fled during the Contra-Sandinista war, moved to Miami, waited out the war. When the war was over, went back, and now they’re back in control again.

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: In control, and very little has changed in terms of re-distribution of wealth, in terms of social programs, in terms of, you know, real participation in a democratic system by the vast majority of the population. And that, unfortunately, is not a unique case. The case of Nicaragua, you could again find similar examples in the rest of the region. We are talking about very weak democracies, and the rule of law that is not really there yet.

Part of the problem is one of a, I would say, more endemic cancer that is affecting the entire region which is corruption. You see corruption at every level in the region. So there is still a long way to go, you know, to make sure that this democracy is able to deliver the benefits for the great majority of the population.

BILL MOYERS: I was reading just last night a story about a new wave of anti-Americanism throughout Latin America. I mean, there are boycotts being organized against American companies and products. What’s going on?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: I don’t think it’s fair to characterize this as anti-Americanism. What I think is going on in the region is a very, very, strong reaction against this administration—against the Bush Administration. It’s perceived as incredibly arrogant as an administration that is not willing to play in accordance to the rules of the game. It is not, you know, prepared to respect the rules that we have in place for the use of force, for instance, in the case of Iraq.

By fighting against the international criminal court, and by promoting, on the one hand, human rights, but on the other hand, not being willing to play with the rules that they promote for the rest of the world. But they’re not willing to apply those rules to themselves.

BILL MOYERS: You know, you make everybody unhappy. You’re an equal opportunity protestor to the violation of human rights. Why do you care so much about what you’re doing?

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: I grew up in Chile. And I know how it’s, you know, what represent to live, and the military government, military junta, when you have no rights, when you feel completely vulnerable and exposed to any kind of abuse by the government. And at that point, you realize that the only way really to save lives, and to fight for, you know, freedoms and democracy is by appealing to the solidarity and support of the international community. And that is what I try to do in my work, by promoting these values, you know, in this region, as well as in other parts of the world.

BILL MOYERS: José Miguel Vivanco. Thank you very much for being with us on NOW.

JOSÉ MIGUEL VIVANCO: Thanks a lot.

BILL MOYERS: That’s it for NOW. Thank you for watching.

I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.

This transcript was entered on April 9, 2015.

  • submit to reddit