When CBS News Tried To Invade Haiti

“Our general ends of fighting dictatorship in the Caribbean agrees with the general known policies of the United States government.” —Rolando Masferrer, leader of the invasion effort

In A Nutshell

In 1966, CBS News agreed to fund a group of Cuban and Haitian exiles who wanted to overthrow the government of Haiti. In return, CBS would receive exclusive rights to cover the invasion. CBS filmed mercenaries training with weapons bought by the network and actually rebuked a cameraman when they discovered he had warned US authorities of the planned invasion.

The Whole Bushel

During the 1960s, the Cuban Revolution transformed the Caribbean from a minor political backwater into a key Cold War battleground. American media companies rushed to cover upheaval in the region, which was suddenly big business. When British troops invaded the tiny island of Anguilla to put down an even tinier uprising there, they were greeted, not by armed locals, but by a convoy of at least five American news crews. In the dark, the startled British nearly opened fire at the approaching cars but were reassured when the occupants greeted them with a casual: “Hey guys, you’re a bit earlier than we expected you.”

In 1966, CBS News became aware of a spy-turned–arms dealer named Mitchell WerBell III, who claimed to be involved with a group of Miami-based Haitian exiles intent on overthrowing the brutal regime of Jean Claude “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The Haitians had also enlisted the help of Rolando Masferrer, a powerful Cuban exile who had commanded a feared anti-Castro private army during the Cuban Revolution and who had been a key player in the joint CIA/Mafia attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader. Masferrer, who had strong connections to various anti-Castro paramilitaries, hoped to install a friendly Haitian government and then use the country as a base to invade Cuba.

Naturally, CBS News bosses were delighted—a coup in Haiti would be big news, an invasion of Cuba even bigger. When they learned that the plotters were in desperate need of funds, the network saw its chance, offering to subsidize the plot in exchange for the rights to film the invasion force. CBS invested as much as $200,000 in the project, with much of it going toward buying rifles, a boat, and uniforms for the Haitian troops. In return, the network was allowed to film the weapons being smuggled from WerBell’s Georgia estate to a yacht club in Florida. Later, they got exclusive footage of a group of mercenaries training with the weapons—an exercise which had to be cut short when one soldier’s rifle exploded in his face, causing severe injuries. There were also in-depth interviews with the leaders of the invasion force, including a surreal conversation with Rolando Masferrer, who insisted on wearing a pair of women’s pantyhose on his head to disguise his identity. At one point, CBS producer Jay McMullen asked Masferrer whether his arms cache could be exported without government knowledge—conveniently ignoring the fact that the arms had been purchased with CBS funds.

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As it turned out, the plan never went anywhere. CBS eventually became impatient with repeated delays and decided to drop the report after becoming suspicious that the plotters had staged the whole thing to extract money from the network. (There’s nothing worse than paying for a war and then not getting one.) Meanwhile, most of the actual reporters CBS sent to cover the invasion, apparently not particularly eager to risk jail time for the sake of a story, immediately became informants for one government agency or another. (A CBS vice president rebuked a cameraman when he was revealed as a government informant). The invasion force fell apart and most of the leaders were arrested and prosecuted by the US authorities (the case against WerBell was mysteriously dropped, possibly after CIA intervention.)

A House subcommittee investigated the involvement of CBS, but generously agreed to close the hearings to the public to protect the network’s credibility. No CBS employees were prosecuted. But the network didn’t get off scot-free—the mercenary whose rifle had exploded sued, claiming that since CBS had funded the invasion, they were his employers and owed him compensation for a workplace injury. The case was settled out of court for a cool $15,000.

Show Me The Proof

Investigated Reporting, by Chad Raphael
An Air War With Cuba, by Daniel C. Walsh
The Washington Evening Star: The Story Of CBS And The Plot To Invade Haiti (PDF)
Paradata: Captain Mick Cotton Describes Beach Landing At Anguilla

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