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New York Times editorials timed perfectly for Cuba shift

Alan Gross speaks during a news conference at his lawyer’s office in Washington on Wednesday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

On Nov. 2, the New York Times published an editorial advocating a prisoner swap with Cuba: Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who’d been arrested in Cuba in 2009, for three convicted Cuban spies.

“If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody,” noted the editorial, “the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years. This is an entirely avoidable scenario, as Mr. Obama can easily grasp, but time is of the essence.”

Prophetic, those words. Yesterday the Obama administration announced a shift in its approach to Cuba, promising to reopen diplomatic relations with the island nation as well as to ease trade and financial restrictions on the country, though ending the longstanding embargo will require congressional approval. Also part of the arrangement was a swap, though not the one that the New York Times proposed. Those three convicted Cuban spies were released in exchange for a U.S. intelligence asset, unnamed at the time of the announcement. Gross, who had been serving a 15-year sentence for trying to smuggle communications equipment into Cuba, was technically not part of the swap, but rather, released on “humanitarian grounds.”

Such details notwithstanding, the New York Times opinionators caught a wave of sorts. The Gross editorial was part of a series of pieces that called for scrapping the embargo (Oct. 11); lamented that sour relations inhibited cooperation between the two countries against Ebola (Oct. 19); criticized recent attempts to undermine the regime of Raúl Castro; bashed U.S. policy that siphons medical talent away from Cuba; explored the politics of U.S. relations with Cuba; and assessed (grimly) the contemporary Cuban economy. Oh, and it just applauded the Obama administration’s normalization move.

That’s a hell of a lot of well-timed Cuba editorializing. Perhaps a bit too well-timed? Did the New York Times editorial board get a little heads-up from the Obama administration on all this stuff? “I’ve gotten this question before,” editorial board member Ernesto Londoño told the Erik Wemple Blog, noting that the suspicions have come from Cubans and other precincts. “Whether we were providing a trial balloon from the administration to see how these issues would play out in public opinion — and there’s absolutely no truth to that.” Londoño said that the board does speak with government officials and policymakers all the time. Those interviews “certainly informed all of our thinking,” he notes. But: “There was absolutely no collusion or coordination in what we put out,” says Londoño. As evidence that the editorial board had no special arrangement, he cites the “unnamed intelligence asset” in the deal. “He wasn’t on our radar as an element in our equation,” says Londoño. “There was no way for us to weigh in on a prisoner swap that included him.”

As Politico’s Michael Crowley reported, the government’s Cuba pivot was the “product of 18 months of furtive diplomacy.” The New York Times’s Cuba pivot, according to Londoño, arose from a meeting or two this fall, not long after he joined the paper after working for The Washington Post. The impetus for looking at Cuba, he says, came from next April’s Summit of the Americas, a hemispheric confab from which Cuba has been banished at the insistence of the United States. This time, however, Latin American countries insisted upon inviting Cuba, setting up a clash. “We kind of felt this was going to force the administration’s hand in doing something about Cuba,” says Londoño.

Whatever your take on the New York Times Cuba series, credit it for this: It managed to get aggregated by Chief Cuban Blogger Fidel Castro. The anti-embargo editorial was quoted extensively in a column by former president Castro in state-run newspaper Granma. “Never in a million years did we imagine that the Cuban state newspaper would republish our editorial essentially verbatim,” says Londoño. True: The Granma column grabs just about the entire New York Times piece. That makes Fidel Castro a copyright violator in addition to the rest of his offenses against humanity and freedom.

Castro’s voracious excerpting validates the newspaper’s decision to publish its Cuba editorials in Spanish. Not only does the practice facilitate aggregation by Spanish-language communist news organs, it also may hamstring them a bit. “In the past when they translate pieces…, it gives them an opportunity to shave off some rough edges,” says Londoño. “And in this case, they chose not to.”

Londoño recently visited Cuba and saw how Cubans are trying to get around the Internet. Via home delivery, people receive hard disk drives — known as “El Paquete,” he says — loaded up with recent news pieces and videos and the like. They plug them in and download what they want. According to Londoño, a recent item on the hard-disk pass-arounds have been the New York Times editorials on Cuba — a body of work cited by many Cubans he encountered. “I thought it was remarkable, and a very pleasant surprise that we managed to penetrate the country’s information blockade and make our case to the Cuban people,” he says.