Editor’s note: Some language in this story, a review of objectionable content published in a supplement distributed with el Nuevo Herald, is graphic in nature and parts include hateful and offensive passages.
The columnist wrote that Michelle Obama reminds him of a “black monster” in Dante’s Inferno. Other times, he wrote that Islam is “filth,” Native Americans “primitive” and Africa the “ass of the world.” On another occasion still, he called George Floyd “ugly,” a “common criminal” and the protests over his death at the hands of police “racial whoremongering.”
And then there’s the time that he wrote, in all apparent seriousness, that Black Lives Matter protesters should summarily be put to death.
That’s only a small sample of the work of Roberto Luque Escalona, a Cuban exile writer whose vituperative and obscenity-laced opinion pieces ran in a thick insert named LIBRE that its publisher paid to distribute inside every Friday’s edition of el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister newspaper this year. After ending the relationship with LIBRE last week, Herald newsroom leaders said they had been unaware the company was distributing it as an advertising supplement since January, and the company promised an investigation into how they overlooked it.
Though still incomplete, the investigation has found “significant lapses” in the handling of the supplement, according to a statement released on Saturday by McClatchy, the Herald’s parent company. There was no “formal content review” of LIBRE in the advertising department and no one in the newsroom was alerted to it, the McClatchy statement said.
The Herald’s publisher, news editors and staff at both papers and the top news executive at McClatchy say they learned of the deal with LIBRE only after a reporter spotted a reader complaint on social media about anti-Semitic content in a Luque Escalona column, one of two he wrote for the weekly’s Sept. 11 issue. The staffer brought it to his editor’s attention.
In the piece, Luque Escalona castigated American Jews as “cowards” after U.S. Jewish organizations issued a letter of support for Black Lives Matter and the protests over Floyd’s death.
“What kind of people are these Jews?” Luque Escalona wrote. “They are always talking about the Holocaust, but have they already forgotten the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi killers razed Jewish businesses across Germany? The same is being done by B.L.M. and Antifa, only the Nazis did not rob; they only destroyed.”
At the conclusion, Luque Escalona writes, referring to U.S. Jews: “I don’t like them. I don’t like them at all.”
As part of the investigation, the Herald reviewed 31 of 32 issues of LIBRE distributed in el Nuevo Herald (one issue was missing from the newspaper’s digital archive and could not be immediately located). LIBRE has been published since 1966 by Demetrio Perez, Jr., a controversial former politician, felon and businessman who has become wealthy running a chain of private schools and a network of government-funded non-profit programs across Miami-Dade County.
LIBRE, like many of the free newspapers, or periodiquitos, aimed at a Cuban exile audience that are distributed across Little Havana, styles itself as a resolutely anti-Communist publication. Unlike those often crudely produced and designed newspapers, LIBRE today is a slick production, with lavish and often beautifully illustrated covers, full color and a steady editorial stable that includes some skilled and knowledgeable writers.
Much of its content, typically running to 40 pages, is innocuous, including articles on health and cooking, horoscopes, advice columns, coverage of social occasions, and events at Perez’s Lincoln-Marti schools.
Also in every issue was a half-page column by Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, with his photo at the top, on topics related to public education. On Friday, a spokeswoman for Carvalho said the school district advised LIBRE it would no longer provide the Carvalho material after news of the racist and anti-Semitic content broke. The district was not paid by LIBRE for the submission and did not pay for its publication, Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said.
The Herald’s content review of LIBRE found abundant objectionable material in every issue of LIBRE.
The vast bulk of that was written by Luque Escalona and another regular columnist, Roberto Cazorla, a Cuban exile writer based in Spain. Both appear to specialize in rankly provocative and deliberately offensive writing, occasionally punctuated by calls for violence. Between them, Luque Escalona and Cazorla contributed as many as five columns to each issue.
Cazorla, who in his columns rarely fails to lavish praise on the rule of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, typically attacks a few hobbyhorses: “feminazis,” “homosexuals” — whom he sometimes labels with the offensive Spanish-language vulgarity maricón or mariconsón — and what he calls the gay lobby, which he contends is backed by international Communism.
Cazorla also shares a deep disdain with Luque Escalona for what the Spain-based writer calls “the damned Chinese race.” In one column, Cazorla calls the creation of “the nation named China” as one of God’s greatest mistakes. Separately, Luque Escalona fantasizes about a meteorite wiping out the “miserable population” of Beijing “like the one they say wiped out the dinosaurs.”
The Sept. 11 column was not the only time Luque Escalona wrote in questionable or acrid terms about Jews. He remarked in a July 31 column on how American Jews and Jewish immigrants often drop their original family names and adopt Americanized surnames “to hide their identity,” making it difficult to identify them as Jewish or distinguish them from people who are not.
“Bernie Sanders, Mike Blomberg (sic), Mark Cuban, do they by any chance look like Jews?” he wrote.
Embracing a right-wing anti-Semitic meme, Luque Escalona has called for the death of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, a Holocaust survivor who supports liberal causes.
It’s not the only time Luque Escalona called for the deaths of people whose political stances he opposes in the pages of LIBRE.
In one column, he states flatly that Black Lives Matter activists and supporters should be killed, though “not all of them.”
Luque Escalona and Cazorla both have extensive literary and journalistic backgrounds; their papers are held at the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, an online search of the school’s library system shows. The collection’s director did not respond to an email from the Herald.
Well-regarded as a novelist, Luque Escalona, who is white and in his 80s, actively supported the Cuban Revolution and worked at the official Prensa Latina news agency before turning against the Communist government. After leaving Cuba in 1992, he was a freelance Op-Ed contributor to el Nuevo Herald for about nine years known for his hardline anti-Castro position.
Cazorla, who has lived in Spain since 1963, is a former correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE and a published poet.
In an emailed response to questions from the Herald, Cazorla called the Herald a “leftist” publication attempting to censor LIBRE, and doubled down on his incendiary commentary.
He said he has never attacked “normal homosexuals” but only “exhibitionists,” and defended a column lambasting “effeminate singers” and expressing approval of “virile” ones.
“As to China,” he wrote in the email, “I say and will repeat thousands of times, it should not have appeared on the world map. Russia either.”
In a phone interview, Luque Escalona denied his writings are racist and said he can’t be anti-Semitic because he’s “a Zionist.” He cast the backlash against his column as “a clear attempt against free speech in the United States.”
He added: “I am a Zionist. I am always defending Israel. Those who do not defend it are these American Jews.
“How can you support that organization of looters, thieves, murderers who have also declared themselves Marxists?” he asked, referring to Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters. “Just because you were born a Jew, it does not mean that you are a loyal Jew. They are betraying Israel, and if they call that anti-Semitic, that is nonsense.”
Luque Escalona said he’s paid for his LIBRE columns and that no one at the weekly edits them.
”Nobody has any responsibility but me. There [at LIBRE] no one changes a single comma,” he said. “I send the articles by email, and they go directly to the printing press.”)
Reached for comment about the content of Luque Escalona’s and Cazorla’s columns, Demetrio Pérez said in an email he could not respond in detail without specifics. He declined to say who is responsible for their content at LIBRE.
In a subsequent interview, he declined to say whether he was aware of the problematic language used in many of the columns. Perez added that LIBRE is not responsible for the individual opinions of its columnists, who have a First Amendment right to free expression.
An unsigned editorial posted in both English and Spanish on LIBRE’s website on Thursday likens the weekly’s policy on columnists to that of the Herald in regard to an incident involving several Tweets by a sports opinion writer that were widely regarded as racist.
In response to social media complaints, Aminda Marques Gonzalez, publisher and executive editor of both the Herald and el Nuevo, condemned racism and the content of the tweets: “While columnists have broad latitude to express their opinions, his comments were uninformed, insensitive and deeply troubling. For that, we apologize. We expect our columnists to base their opinions on reporting and facts. We are addressing this matter internally.”
LIBRE’s editorial says it “publishes articles and opinion pieces by columnists, just like el Nuevo Herald.... LIBRE expressly differentiates between its thoughts and those of its columnists, and disclaims its columnists’ thoughts as being their own, just like el Nuevo Herald.
In his emailed response to questions, Perez said Herald executives had the right under the agreement with LIBRE to review, reject or remove any content they wished to before publication, but did not do so.
McClatchy said its investigation has identified several gaps in procedures which allowed this objectionable material to reach el Nuevo Herald subscribers. McClatchy’s new head of Advertising, Tony Berg, told the Herald that, according to McClatchy’s review, the newspaper’s advertising team entered into the LIBRE relationship and created a direct line between the advertiser and the Herald’s production team for printing and distribution. The content never passed through advertising personnel, and was never provided to the newsroom team.
Perez added that the questioning and the Herald’s review reminded him “of the scenes of the censures... of totalitarian regimes and not of American freedoms.”
Every LIBRE issue is suffused with Cuban nostalgia, with reminiscences of life in pre-Castro Cuba and profiles and obituaries of prominent exiles. Most issues carry at least one piece on the life or writings of revered Cuban poet Jose Marti, a leader of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. LIBRE also carries a serious weekly column on topics of high culture, straightforward reporting from Cuba by independent journalists with a critical angle on the Communist government, and some limited coverage of local news.
Much of the rest is ardently political and often rabidly ultra-conservative, extolling Republicans and President Donald Trump while routinely deriding Democrats as socialists, communists and worse. Every issue carries pages of accounts of the actions of Bay of Pigs veterans and articles or book excerpts on pre-Castro history, the Revolution and its aftermath.
Some of its political writing would not be out of place in a mainstream U.S. newspaper. In fact, LIBRE regularly runs columns from three conservative writers from the Washington Post News Service, two of whom — Michael Gerson and George Will — are acerbic Trump critics. Those run in English in LIBRE. Columns by a third Post writer, Marc Thiessen, a Trump backer, sometimes run in Spanish.
Many of LIBRE’s own writers, including veteran Miami radio personality Armando Pérez Roura, eagerly and uncritically repeat Internet memes, conspiracy theories and disinformation about Democrats, liberal and leftist politicians and other figures perceived as sympathetic to Cuba’s Communist regime, or leftist and liberal causes in general. One columnist, Esteban Fernández, called Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden senile and said he’s controlled by Communists.
LIBRE’s tone, content and approach are nothing new in the exile-focused media landscape in Miami, said Lisandro Perez, a Cuban-American sociologist and anthropologist at City University of New York who has done extensive research on the city’s Cuban community.
“This is what the periodiquitos have been all about for decades,” he said.
Perez said old traits in Cuban political culture, such as a tendency toward intransigence and intolerance rooted in the island’s Spanish heritage and independence wars, are reasserting themselves in a climate where President Trump is “stoking fears, talking about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ “
“And a lot of those ‘them’ are people that many in the Cuban American community, and the exilio histórico, have been intolerant of, the left, of Blacks, because African Americans (they believe) are on the left, and want socialism,” Lisandro Perez said. “This country has become divided into extremes, and it doesn’t take much for a lot of elements in the Cuban community who see themselves as marginalized by history, who are intolerant or intransigent, to just take the last push into extremism. And that’s always been there.”
But most LIBRE writers rarely stray into the blatantly aggressive invective that characterizes nearly every piece that Luque Escalona and Cazorla contributed to LIBRE.
In column after column, Luque Escalona appears obsessed over classifying and describing the skin tones of Black people.
He argues Black Americans should be grateful for slavery because it brought them to this country, says they have “contributed nothing to the greatness of America,” and should decamp to Ghana if they don’t like it here.
All the while, he contends that it’s Black people who are racist, a label he applies to LeBron James, Obama and Muhammad Ali, whom he insists on referring to as Cassius Clay, the name the famed boxer forsook when he became a Muslim.
“There is no people in the world more racist than Black Americans, who are always accusing the whole world of racism,” Luque Escalona wrote.
At times, Cazorla seemed to be vying with Luque Escalona for most outrageous commentary.
So fervid is Cazorla’s disdain for Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro, who was recently accused of crimes against humanity by United Nations investigators, that he fantasizes in one column in gory detail “ devouring” Maduro’s brain in the form of fritters after his own military blows the strongman’s head off.
In the first issue of LIBRE included with el Nuevo Herald, Cazorla’s frustration with the Venezuelan impasse boils over and he attacks President Trump, who is otherwise the subject of unvarnished devotion in the weekly’s pages, for failing to invade the country to depose Maduro.
His epithet for Trump: “Mariconsón.”