Wakefield

I Am Not a Communist

Oscar Corral Dreamed of One Day Being Hired by the Miami Herald. He Never Imagined His Wish Would Come With an Existential Crisis

Oscar Corral: from writing news to making news.
Photo by Jacqueline Carini/jacqueline.nexsoftware.com

Some days, it ainít easy being Oscar Corral. The Miami Heraldís reporter of all things Cuban exile-related has tackled some of that communityís hottest topics and found that the flames can blow back in his direction.

Corral was born in Sweetwater, a town known mostly for its outlandish politics, poor drainage and for being founded by Russian circus midgets. He is one of five children born to Cuban exiles who arrived in 1961, at age 15, and met in Miami. Corral grew up largely in Coral Gables and attended Belen Jesuit Preparatory, a school noted for producing everyone from Fidel Castro to Manny Diaz.

Corral understands the Miami Cuban diaspora from both the inside and outside, but the perspectives are sometimes hard to bridge, especially when the local idea of political discourse is often burning bridges.

Just in the past year or so weíve had the Vamos a Cuba book-banning controversy, the Cuban spy professors at FIU, the transition of power from Fidel to Raul, and the latest installment of the Luis Posada Carriles saga. Thatís not to mention the scandal that erupted after Corral wrote a story last September revealing that a number of local journalists, including some who worked for El Nuevo Herald, had accepted money from the U.S. government for producing reports for Radio MartŪ and TV MartŪ.

The reaction was fierce and, in some cases, vicious. A contributing columnist to El Nuevo Herald suggested that Corral may or may not be linked to pro-Castro agents within the community. People were fired, then rehired. The publisher quit. Then Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler accused El Nuevo of committing a ďblood libelĒ against Corral, and went on to get embroiled in his own strange Taco Bell moment.

Corral was also threatened and harassed by a small group of exile activists who spread rumors he was a communist, among other outlandish claims. It was a critical moment for Corral, whose innocuous Herald blog, ďMiamiís Cuban Connection,Ē was inundated with hateful screeds. But he got through it, if anything more determined to, as the blogís motto states, continue ďfiltering the BS out of the mess.Ē

Corral, 32, is soft-spoken, thoughtful and earnest to a fault. He still looks like a Catholic school boy and has an almost ecclesiastical approach to journalism. Heís married with two kids, and also enjoys a huge extended family that includes some 30 first cousins.

I invited Corral for coffee recently and picked his brain about what itís like to be a young Cuban-American journalist in Miami at this time in its history.

Why did you decide to be a Miami Herald reporter, Oscar?

I would drive by the Herald building in college and see it as this incredible fortress of truth. Maybe thatís a little corny. I saw it as a fortress that needed to be penetrated and broken into. It had this elite air as an institution in Miami that didnít bow down to anybody.

What do you mean ďbroken intoĒ? By you in particular, or by Cuban-Americans in general? Or do you just mean that the Herald usually hires from outside the community?

Even though I grew up in Cuban Miami, my parents always subscribed to the Herald. So I saw it as this elite institution I wanted to get into somehow. In the newsroom there arenít that many Miami natives.

Where did you start?

I started by freelancing for $25 an article for Neighbors right after college while in grad school at FIU. It barely covered my gas and parking. I did that for six months before they hired me in Broward to do the police blotter. I went on to Newsday in New York for three years as a crime reporter and left there two weeks before Sept. 11.

The Herald had offered me a job covering Miami City Hall. My first political assignment was to cover the mayoral election where Manny Diaz won over Joe Carollo, which surprised everybody. I covered the city on and off for about three years.

You came from the most Cuban of local schools, in some ways the center of the universe for the part of the community that arrived in the í60s and í70s. Then you went to New York and got to see how the community is viewed elsewhere. What is that like?

Going to Belen, youíre insulated from not only the realities of Greater Miami, but the world, really. When I was there I was surrounded by Cuban-American boys like myself. You never got the sense that you were part of a tiny immigrant group that made up just a small part of the puzzle of this country. You got the sense that this was what the world was like.

When did you switch to the Cuban beat at the Herald?

It was never formalized. I became kind of the defacto Cuban exile community reporter there. I like it because itís part of who I am. I feel like I understand the Cuban exile community.

How are you using that knowledge to cover it and not let the exile community be defined by a narrow range, rather than the broad community it is?

One of the things that bothers some of the older hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami is that there is in fact a rich diversity of opinion among Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans, as to how they feel about policy toward Cuba, and how they feel toward politicians their parents or grandparents endorsed. As a journalist, you have to take that into account. You cannot feel that you are writing for one part of the community, but have to lay it all out there for people to absorb.

I really liked a story you wrote a while back about how newly arrived Cubans living in Hialeah were having a hard time adjusting to life here, even in a heavily Cuban-American community.

Thereís a totally different world view of Cubans who got here recently versus those who got here in the í60s. Thereís people who love to talk about how the Cubans who come here now are not trustworthy, or lazy, or money-hungry. In the end, they are just immigrants who are going through the immigrant experience and they are a lot like [the critics] were back in the í60s. Itís just 45 years of exile, and working in this country clouds your perception of how you were, or how your parents were when they first got here. As a reporter you have to let the community know that that applies to the new Cubans as well.

So you have deep roots here, family and friends, neighbors who read the paper every day. How do you deal with strong reactions they may have to what you write?

Having roots in a community makes you sensitive to that community; I think itís people who have roots here who are most appreciative of what I do. No one wants to see their city turned to crap. People like to know there are journalists out there, prosecutors, artists, etc. who are trying to do the right thing for their city. Hopefully.

How do you deal with the kind of backlash you got after the Radio/TV MartŪ stories?

The way I approach reporting is that youíre never going to make everybody happy. My only commitment is to the facts and the truth. I really deeply believe that.

People feel strongly about the Cuba issue. Itís part of the democratic process where people can express opinions. I think lines are crossed when those opinions turn into threats and insults and baseless accusations.

That story had a big effect on the way people viewed my coverage of the exile community. People accused me of all kinds of nonsense, like being a Cuban agent. But it gets repeated enough that people start believing it. Itís almost as though being anti-Herald goes hand in hand with being anti-Castro. Thatís inexplicable to me.

When I started my blog, people were upset that I didnít offer my opinion. Some of the hard-line exiles felt I should be out there as a champion for anti-Castro cause. There is a concept in parts of the traditional Cuban exile community where you have to pass a litmus test of opinion to be approved of or included. But thatís a minority point of view. 

How do you know that?

Because of the feedback. Comments Iíve gotten on my blog, letters, e-mails, phone calls Iíve got.

Did the criticism get to a point where you were concerned for your safety?

It got to a point where I did feel that my family and I were in danger, and it made me feel as though the discussion that could have been triggered by those stories was hijacked by people who were out to basically stifle any discussion with threats and insults. Some people become so safe and secure in their viewpoint that when a certain set of facts raises questions about that, thereís a knee-jerk reaction to the person laying out the facts. That person is an enemy and is out to get them. And thatís a tragedy because thatís not true.

What happened?

Iíd received minor threats and accusations from people on other stories. But I got the sense on this story that there was an orchestrated campaign to intimidate, harass and silence. It was e-mails, phone calls, and comments on my blog. It was a barrage. Some threats were very specific and mentioned my family. It got to a stage where I had to tell my editors that I was concerned. They were great about it. They moved me and my family to a secure location for about six weeks, so I could finish my reporting.

Do you think it would be different if your name was Joe Smith instead of Oscar Corral?

Itís almost like the Cuban exile community feels more comfortable being covered by a non-Cuban journalist. Itís harder to accept that somebody from your own community looks at things in a different way than you do. If theyíre an outsider, you write it off. I love my city, I love the Cuban exile community, but I completely reject anybody who thinks itís a monolithic, single-issue community that only thinks one way.

All right, Oscar. You are basically an optimistic person. Letís end with one of your escape valves ó culture. What can the cultural side of Miami say to the political side?

I think about Suťnalo. Itís this great Miami band made up of people from all over the Americas ó American-born, Venezuelan-born, Mexican-born. They get together and each contributes something from their culture ó the Cuban son, Brazilian samba, Mexican horns, a little bit of everything. And it works.

So Miami is like a jam session?

I do see Miami as a big jam session of cultures. Sometimes one member is out of tune. Sometimes one doesnít show up, sometimes one of them storms off the stage. But in the end itís a beautiful chorus of crazy music that comes together and somehow makes sense.

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