Bill Moyers—Practicing Dissent


In previous columns on the media’s often belated and fragmentary coverage of the Bush-Ashcroft-Mueller-Rumsfeld war on the Bill of Rights, I’ve noted a weakening of the journalistic standard of following up on vital stories. Caught on the treadmill of the 24-hour news cycle, much of television, radio, and even the print press, tells us more about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson than about the administration’s expanding plans to shred our privacy, along with many other liberties, in the sanctified name of national security.

The exceptions among journalists include Bill Moyers, whose weekly program, Now, on PBS (channel 13 in New York), gets deeply into stories that are more than voyeuristic accounts of celebrity activities, criminal and otherwise.

I’ve been on with Moyers, dissecting the USA Patriot Act, and he’s had several probes of increasing media concentration—a subject hardly mentioned by “the Lords of the Press,” as my mentor, journalist George Seldes, called them.

A characteristically forthright guest on a recent Moyers hour was José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. The subject was Fidel Castro’s crackdown last April on 75 dissidents, including 10 independent librarians.

Why the crackdown? One reason, said Vivanco, was that “over 10,000 Cubans signed a petition calling for a political referendum [for democratic reforms] . . . a genuine grassroots movement.” He noted that the Cuban constitution allows for such a referendum if enough signatures are collected, and more than enough were.

But Castro ignored the constitution. He is the law!

“So,” Moyers asked, “Castro was afraid of the winds that were beginning to blow?”

“He was afraid,” Vivanco agreed. “And the whole world was paying attention to Iraq. . . . Castro . . . timed [the crackdown accordingly].”

José Miguel Vivanco then produced an illumination, an epiphany, of how Castro’s dictatorial mind works: “On my last trip to Cuba in ’95, I interviewed some political prisoners. Some were in prison because the security services found in their possession a copy of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I discussed this with Castro in a meeting with him.

“And Castro said, ‘You know, we don’t know how this individual got a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights. Who gave him a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights? And in that sense, you know, he’s considered a counter-revolutionary and needs to be sent to prison.’ ” Fidel, the liberator, has spoken!

Among the charges against some of the independent librarians the dictator has since imprisoned is that they have made available copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the American Library Association won’t support these locked-up librarians because, the ALA says, they’re not “professional librarians.”

Bill Moyers pointed out that “in response to these recent crackdowns, the United Nations 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.”

And I don’t remember Nobel laureate Kofi Annan, the head of the UN, saying a word. Do you? Annan is often a one-man Potemkin village.

After José Miguel Vivanco left, Bill Moyers reported that “one of the dissidents arrested was a poet, Raúl Rivera. He’s [also] probably the country’s best-known independent journalist. He’s 57 years old. Here’s what he said a couple of years ago about conditions in Cuba: ‘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 . . . sovereign act I have performed since I gained the use of my reason—writing without being dictated to.’ ”

As I’ve written, Castro’s locking away of these dissidents, including the independent librarians, has caused considerable debate within the American Library Association. On December 9, one of Castro’s defenders, Ann Sparanese, a member of the policy-making council of the ALA, sent a letter to her colleagues on the council, in which she wrote:

“Despite the fact that we as librarians prize them highly, political rights—for instance, intellectual freedom—is only one of a constellation of human rights, some of which Cuba respects in greater measure than the United States.” Among those, she added, was “universal, free education.”

Without “only” the intellectual freedom of conscience and speech, how can one defend any human right against a dictatorship? Or against any government, including ours?

On the op-ed page of the November 22 Washington Post, Yolanda Huerga Cedeño, the wife of imprisoned Cuban journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal, wrote of her 9-year-old son, Gabriel—and of her husband, winner of the 2003 International Press Freedom Award, presented to him in absentia on November 25 in New York by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Gabriel’s classes, Huerga Cedeño writes, “the teacher tells the children about the ‘Cuban mercenaries’ who sold themselves for miserable dollars to the U.S. government. Together with other children, Gabriel participates in the meetings that heap venom on the enemies of the revolution. Otherwise he might be accused of having ‘ideological problems.’ ”

At home, Gabriel draws portraits, his mother writes, of ” ‘Dad,’ ‘Mum,’ and ‘Gabriel’ [with] the word ‘free’ written on their chests. . . . Sometimes he doesn’t want to go to school. . . . ‘I do not like the school anymore.’ ”

Says Yolanda Huerga Cedeño to the American defenders of Castro: “We the grown-ups understand no better than our children what is happening in our country. Why does the state education system oblige children to scream slogans they cannot even comprehend, instead of just letting them be children?”

As for her husband’s plight, she says, “How can expressing opinions in a journalistic text be taken to constitute a violation of the ‘law of protection of the national independence and the economy of Cuba’? . . .

“I heard that Cuban parents who have not allowed their children to participate in political gatherings have been threatened with ‘revolutionary justice’ carrying lengthy imprisonment for ‘acts against the normal development of a minor.’ ”

Ah, what a wonderment Castro has achieved in “universal, free education” in Cuba! Will the American Library Association give him the annual Immroth Award for Intellectual Freedom that it gave me in 1983?