In an emotional gathering with staff earlier this week, a teary-eyed Andre Mendes told employees that his last day as head of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs Radio and TV Martí, was Wednesday.
His departure marks the end of a longtime internal saga and clashes with executives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America, the board’s largest operation and lead U.S. government broadcaster to the world. Mendes, who was also the Director of Technology and Information at the OCB’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, served as OCB interim director since Malule González left in September.
“Don’t believe the lies,” Mendes told the OCB staffers Monday amid a string of news reports based on allegations by Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-NY., implicating Mendes in an alleged “coup” plot against BBG chief John Lansing and board members.
Engel alleged that whistle-blowers at the BBG told him the Trump administration planned to dismiss Lansing and replace him temporarily with Mendes, who would then dissolve the board “presumably with the aim of pushing the BBG’s journalism toward a viewpoint favorable of the Trump Administration.”
Mendes, who served as interim director of the BBG for some months before Lansing was appointed in 2015 and applied for the full-time job, said Engel’s accusations were false and denied any participation in the alleged plot.
Engel did not reply to an el Nuevo Herald request for an interview for this story. The White House also did not reply to a request for comment.
Mendes said he had complained about problems at the BBG during a meeting with board members in mid-March to explain his decision to leave and accept the job of information director at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“I am the real whistle-blower,” he said. “The real story is that the current directors (of BBG) are afraid that the Trump administration will name a new CEO.”
Lansing did not reply to several requests for comment. BBG spokesperson Nasserie Carew issued a statement saying, “We do not comment on internal conversations, alleged or otherwise.”
OCB employees said they were lukewarm about Mendes’ interim replacement, personnel chief Emilio Vazquez.
During his time as the head of the OCB, Mendes made several changes in programming and experimented with new ways of distributing Radio and TV Martí content inside Cuba.
A group of employees wrote a letter to Trump saying Mendes “had returned this organization to President (Ronald) Reagan’s original objectives of informing the Cuban people, that in the previous two years were dangerously distorted by a policy of appeasement with the Cuban communist dictatorship.”
“It’s a shame he’s leaving because that man, even though he was not Cuban, understood what should be the role of Radio and TV Martí,” said former Miami Mayor and experienced broadcaster Tomas Regalado, who applied for the OCB director’s job three months ago but has received no answer.
“The worst part is the uncertainty surrounding the stations’ employees and editorial line. That’s a little crazy, at such an important moment for Cuba,” Regalado added.
Cuba’s legislative National Assembly of People’s Power is scheduled to select a replacement April 19 for Raúl Castro, who has said he will retire as president of the ruling Council of State — but not as head of the Communist Party.
The stations’ site Martínoticias.com has been running a box counting down the days, hours and minutes “for Raúl Castro to make it look as though he’s leaving power.” The box includes hashtags used by opposition activists on the island, such as “#FalseChange” and “Cubadecide.”
“How can there be balance [in the coverage] of a murderous regime? Should we have been balanced about Hitler, should we be balanced about Pol Pot, about Stalin?” Mendes asked.
He added that he did not believe in “unilateral deals in which one side gets everything and the other side gets nothing” — a reference to former President Barack Obama’s policy of engaging with Cuba.
“Repression continues, the Ladies in White continue to be arrested,” Mendes said. “I don’t give balance to dictators. At the same time, we are not going to propagate lies. What we propagate are truths they don’t like.”
Mendes’ opinions about the Cuban government won him the support of OCB employees and Cuban exiles who oppose Obama’s policies and attempts by previous OCB directors to promote coverage that was less critical of the Cuban government.
After Trump was elected president in 2016, some anti-Castro activists saw the opportunity to recover the Martí’s hard-line tone and targeted Malule González for criticisms that were echoed by some employees of Radio and TV Martí.
“Last year, we campaigned to cast a spotlight on Malule’s continued management of Radio and TV Martí in a manner that favored the dictatorship and discriminated against hard-line opponents,” said Marcell Felipe, director of the Inspire America foundation.
“Under Malule, many opposition activists could not use the word dictator” to refer to Castro, Felipe added.
“Mr. Felipe, whom I do not have the pleasure of knowing, knows that never under my administration was a journalist, let alone a guest, banned from using the term dictator or dictatorship,” González said Thursday. “In Martí, things are called by their name. He knows that is a vulgar lie as well as the rest of his false accusations.”
In an email, González wrote that she made decisions unpopular among employees in order to pay for new digital media strategies that were not in the budget. She also suspended some programs such as Piramideo, a cellphone-based social network, because they were expensive and were being used for marketing and even “illegal activities,” she added.
“Each director is forced to make decisions based on the budget, according to social and technological factors during that period, and in accordance with the strategies submitted and approved by supervisors,” González added.
“Personally, I believe many groups are not clear on the mission of the BBG/OCB or that taxpayers’ money is assigned to providing information for people who do not have access to a free press,” she said. “Those funds are not assigned for making propaganda.”
Some critics have long questioned the journalism standards of the Martí stations. They also point out that Spanish broadcasts already are offered by Voice of America.
Opposition activists on the island and Cuban American members of the U.S. Congress have a very different view of the stations.
“Radio and TV Martí should be a channel of communication and information for the Cuban people. They must be the opposition’s main ally in communications, and must reach the farthest corners of the island,” said opposition activist Antonio Rodiles.
“Especially at this critical time in Cuba’s history, the mission of OCB is vital to ensuring that the Cuban people, and particularly the pro-democracy opposition, are aware of activities occurring both across the globe and from province-to-province on the island,” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a South Florida Republican.
“For that reason, the next director of OCB must have a firm grasp on both President Trump’s policy of solidarity with the Cuban people, as well as the unique mission of OCB in getting outside, reliable information to a people largely isolated from independent media,” he added.
Said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: “These stations are crucial to promoting democracy in Cuba and helping ensure opposition leaders on the island are covered. We need strong leadership at the Martís so that the Cuban people can continue to receive information on events as they actually occur and not as the dictator distorts them.”
The OCB budget approved by Congress this month totaled $29 million. During the Obama administration, the stations survived a plan to eliminate the OCB and contract a private enterprise to continue its operations.
Current and former OCB and BBG employees say the two organizations are in crisis. The Office of the Inspector General has reported over the past three years about “significant deficiencies” in news coverage, finances and the handling of contractors at the BBG.
An OIG inspection of the OCB in 2014 found problems with employee morale, communications from supervisors and fear of reprisals. But some employees said Mendes had brought a brief measure of relief.
“The best person who ever worked here, and the one who left the quickest,” said TV Martí reporter Alfredo Jacomino.
“This man believes in the stations’ mission like few before him,” added producer Luis Guardia.
Mendes said he felt he had been unjustly forced to resign.
“It’s a strange thing, but it’s hard to be an anti-communist at the BBG,” he said.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres