Old Fidel Castro interview haunts Cuban-American journalist’s congressional campaign

Political ad blasts Maria Elvira Salazar for 1995 interview with Fidel Castro

Self-described “political hitman” Stephen Marks is running grainy snippets of Maria Elvira Salazar referring to Fidel Castro as “comandante” alongside an English-language appearance on Fox News following Castro’s death in 2016.
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Self-described “political hitman” Stephen Marks is running grainy snippets of Maria Elvira Salazar referring to Fidel Castro as “comandante” alongside an English-language appearance on Fox News following Castro’s death in 2016.

A journalist’s interview 20 years ago with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is making a return to the airwaves — not that she’s happy about it.

As Maria Elvira Salazar runs to replace the retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress, an opponent has highlighted cordial excerpts from a rare sit-down she scored in the mid 1990s with the late Communist leader and used them in an attack ad. Hoping to paint her as a Castro sycophant, self-described “political hitman” Stephen Marks is running grainy snippets of Salazar referring to Castro as “comandante” and “un revolucionario por excelencia” alongside an English-language appearance on Fox News following Castro’s death in 2016 in which Salazar referred to Barack Obama’s rapprochement as “noble.”

The attack — which Salazar has called defamatory and sought to pull off the air — is a potentially damaging salvo for a Republican running in a district that is home to 280,000 Cubans and represented by the first-ever Cuban-American elected to Congress in Ros-Lehtinen. Consider that about one year before Salazar interviewed Castro, Magda Montiel Davis, a liberal Cuban immigration lawyer who had just tried and failed to unseat Ros-Lehtinen, was besieged by death threats in Miami after being seen on television giving Castro a kiss during a visit to Cuba.

That was a different era, of course.

Castro is dead, his brother has stepped down as president, and relations between Miami and Cuba have thawed a little as a generation of hard-liner exiles fades. But sensitive to the implications, Salazar’s campaign has threatened to sue Marks, called on Facebook to block the ad from its platform and demanded that América Tevé stop airing the two-minute spot.

“Your campaign is currently broadcasting an advertisement that is false and defames my client,” attorney Juan-Carlos Planas wrote Marks on Friday. “Ms. Salazar’s disgust of the Cuban regime is well documented throughout her exemplary decades-long career as a journalist.”

Salazar did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. But in an interview last month on WPLG’s This Week in South Florida, she called Mark’s ad “despicable” and said her interview with Castro was “an hour long and there are many segments where I’m tough.”

She said her 2016 Fox News interview about the reaction in Miami to Castro’s death — during which she supported the intent behind Barack Obama’s rapprochement and said Cuban exiles weren’t so much dancing on Castro’s grave as celebrating a “new dawn” for their homeland — was also taken out of context and mistranslated into Spanish to seem as if she were flattering the dead dictator.

“I have been one of the staunchest, most hardest critics of the Cuban revolution on the air, and for this guy to come on the air and say I’m a Communist, I am livid,” she said on WPLG, adding that she tried to play the Castro interview “down the middle” as an impartial journalist. “Not only because it’s conniving, because it’s not true. It’s manipulated. That video has been manipulated.”

The commercial was put together by Marks himself, a self-described former political hitman who once ran opposition research for conservative candidates and political committees. He said he created the ad after listening to Salazar tout her Castro interview as evidence of her toughness on Cuba, and compared her referral to Castro as “comandante” to a Jewish reporter hypothetically calling Adolf Hitler “Mein Fuhrer.”

“She’s used this Castro interview as a centerpiece of her career. She keeps bringing it up and it’s just plain wrong,” he told the Miami Herald. “She didn’t stand up to the enemy. She sucked up to Castro.”

Salazar tried to block América Tevé, a Spanish-language news station, from running Marks’ ad. Planas sent a letter via email July 20 to Jeanie Penichet, the station’s general sales manager, arguing that the commercial lacked the proper disclaimers and was defamatory. Planas said he also tried to contact Facebook to block Marks from promoting the video.

Penichet told the Miami Herald Tuesday in an email that the station had not received any complaints. But on Wednesday, shortly after this article was posted, Penichet said the station’s attorneys were reviewing the ad and had decided not to run the commercial for the day, at least.

It’s unclear when and how many times the ad has run, since the station has not posted any information about political advertising with the Federal Communications Commission, another point with which Planas takes issue.

Whether the commercial will have any consequence remains to be seen. But absentee voting in the primary for Florida’s 27th congressional district has already begun, with Elizabeth Adadi, Bruno Barreiro, Angie Chirino, Michael Ohevzion, Maria Peiro, Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera and Gina Sosa also in the GOP primary race.