by Adam Johnson
Fox News (10/14/15) reported last week that Cuba has sent Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias and hundreds of troops to Syria to assist the Russian and Assad governments in “operating Russian tanks.” This explosive claim was soon echoed by James Bloodworth in the Daily Beast (10/16/15) and subsequently spread widely on social media.
A Cuban troop presence in Syria would be a blockbuster story indeed—undermining the easing of tensions between Cuba and the United States while serving as a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration, which has spent much political capital restoring relations with the socialist island nation. There’s only one problem: The story is looking increasingly bunk.
Of course, it’s impossible to ever prove a negative: One cannot prove there are no Cuban soldiers in Syria, any more than one can prove there are not any members of the San Antonio Police Department or Nepalese Army there. Thus far, though, we have about as much evidence of those two scenarios as we do that Cuban military are helping out the Assad government with tanks.
Two days after the initial Fox News report, putative socialist James Bloodworth, who’s made something of a career of browbeating enemies of American and British foreign policy under the guise of Real Socialism™, jumped at the chance to do what both he and the Daily Beast do best: hyping America and Britain’s war effort in Syria by bashing its opposition in tabloid tones. In “Cuba Is Intervening in Syria to Help Russia. It’s Not the First Time Havana’s Assisted Moscow,” Bloodworth would take Fox News’ thinly sourced piece and run with it, sewing a historical narrative of Cuban military aggression and at the same time discrediting Obama’s gestures of peace toward Cuba and Iran:
For President Obama, who has staked his legacy on rapprochement with America’s adversaries, the entrance of Cuba into the bloody Syrian civil is one more embarrassment. Russia, Iran, and Cuba—three regimes Obama has sought to bring in from the cold—are now helping to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ruler of a fourth regime he also tried in vain to court early on in his presidency. Obama has been holding his hand out in a gesture of goodwill to America’s adversaries only for them to blow him a raspberry back in his face—while standing atop a pile of Syrian corpses.
Such subtle, John Bolton-esque prose. Bloodworth went on:
Yet for seasoned Cuba-watchers, the entrance of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces into the Syrian civil war is a surprise but hardly a shock. A surprise because Cuba was forced two decades ago to curtail its military adventurism by a deteriorating economy. (The Cuban military has been reduced by 80 percent since 1991.)
The fact that Cuba hasn’t engaged in overseas military operations in decades isn’t seen as a red flag that the story is suspect, but rather as an invitation to frame their supposed secret expedition as a significant departure from 25 years of foreign policy. And that’s what makes Bloodworth and the Daily Beast’s casual embrace of this thinly sourced conspiracy theory so irresponsible: If it were true, it would be huge. It would be a disaster for the Obama administration’s years-long effort to normalize relations with Cuba. Didn’t the fact that two days after the story first appeared on Fox News, not a single mainstream outlet carried the story or corroborated it set off alarm bells to anyone at the Daily Beast?
Thus far, both the Cuban and American governments have categorically denied a Cuban troop presence in Syria, with the latter saying it “had seen no evidence to indicate the reports were true.” No other major media outlets have confirmed it or anything like it. Washington Post Latin American correspondent Nick Miroff, asked on Twitter how credible the story was on a scale from 0 to 10,said, “unless we see some evidence or someone credible saying it on the record, it looks like a zero.” Thus far, not a single image, video or third party has corroborated the presence of Cubans in Syria.
All the while, Fox News and Bloodworth’s pieces continue to spread across social media. Last Sunday, GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz even echoed the claim to millions on Meet the Press to an uncritical Chuck Todd:
There’re a couple hundred Cubans right now with a major Cuban general fighting in the Syrian civil war. You’ve got Iran. You’ve got General Suleimani in bed with the Russians. So you now got Russia, Cuba and Iran all arm in arm.
Another major issue is how nakedly partisan the original sourcing was: one ideologically driven professor from the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies in Miami writing a page-long “report” based on hearsay, and one anonymous “US official” “confirming” said report to right-wing tabloid Fox News. As Matt Peppe over at Common Dreams laid it out in his piece “The Imaginary Cuban Troops in Syria”:
The source at the Miami Institute indicated that “an Arab military officer at the Damascus airport reportedly witnessed two Russian planes arrive there with Cuban military personnel on board. When the officer questioned the Cubans, they told him they were there to assist Assad because they are experts at operating Russian tanks.”
It is unclear what nationality the “Arab” officer was. Perhaps said Arab determined the people aboard the Russian plane were Cubans because he saw them smoking cigars and drinking mojitos. The Cuban soldiers then volunteered –supposedly—they were “there to assist Assad” because of their expertise manning Russian tanks. However improbable this may seem to an unbiased observer, the source from the Miami Institute said that “it doesn’t surprise me.”
That’s correct: The original source for the piece, when discussing the “report,” said the material claim of his own report “didn’t surprise him.” What does that even mean? You should not, by definition, be surprised by ideas you yourself are floating. From the looks of it, it appears he’s doing little more than trial-ballooning a rumor, qualifying it so he doesn’t need to fully commit.
FAIR reached out to the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, but they did not return our emails.
And what about this anonymous “US official” who “confirmed” the report? They provide no photos, no video, no keyhole satellites, little specifics and little additional details beyond that which was fed to them in the Institute’s report. Put simply: There’s no indication that their “intelligence” was anything other than the report itself.
Fox News and the Daily Beast should correct their stories about Cubans in Syria to note that there is no substantial evidence of a meaningful Cuban presence in Syria. As the crisis in Syria grows more precarious, unsubstantiated claims like these do nothing but ratchet up tensions and make an already volatile situation worse.
Photo: Cuban soldiers of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc. This article is reprinted, with permission, from FAIR.