07.02.10

The Spy Who Loved Chavez

El Diario's Vicky Pelaez, arrested as part of the Russia spy ring, glorified dictators Castro and Chavez in her columns and decried "American imperialism." John Avlon says her case is a wakeup call for fellow travelers.

In her writing, El Diario La Prensa columnist Vicky Pelaez managed to personify the stereotype of the reflexive leftist radical, attacking “American imperialism” and capitalism while lionizing dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. In one column she compared Castro to Christ. Seriously.

“We had the moments of Christ, Mohammed, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, Pascal, Bolivar, Marti, Che Guevara, etc,” she wrote. “Fidel Castro Ruz belongs to that glorious group of rebels!”

“If you had told me that she’d been spying for Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, or China, I might have believed it, but Russia? I never heard her talk about Russia or the Soviet Union. Ever.”

Pelaez, who along with her husband was among the 11 people arrested this week as part of the Russian spy ring, would be something of a late ’60s museum piece, if her beliefs didn’t now give urgent new meaning to the term “conviction journalism.”

I spoke to her one-time editor and current columnist at El Diario, Gerson Borrero, who described her as “a pain in the ass” and “not my favorite colleague over the past 20 years” but said her arrest came as “a complete surprise.”

“If you had told me that she’d been spying for Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, or China, I might have believed it, but Russia? I never heard her talk about Russia or the Soviet Union. Ever.”

Since Pelaez’s arrest, the emails have been pouring into El Diario. “Fifty percent of our readers are saying that they knew she was a communist,” Borrero said. “The other 50 percent say that she’s being set up by the U.S. government to silence her.”

I called the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., to get some perspective from its in-house historian, Mark Stout. “Most of the major intelligence agencies have a history, at least in the past, of having used journalistic cover,” he said.

Full coverage of the Russian Spy Ring

Lawrence Schiller: The Russian Spy We Didn't Catch
In the United States, we now know that the Soviets used liberal journalistic icon I.F. Stone as an agent for a time. Stout added the name of Carl Marzani off the top of his head and then emailed me this more complete list:

• During the late 1970s, Philip Agee and others ran a publication called the Covert Action Information Bulletin to expose the activities of the CIA. The KGB helped provide information for use in the Bulletin.

• The Soviets, probably the GRU (military intelligence), recruited an American journalist named Peter MacLean to provide unspecified services in the 1930s.

• Stephen Laird (codename YUN) was an American journalist who appears in the Venona messages as an agent for the KGB. He later reported on the 1947 Polish elections, finding them to be free and fair.

• James Allen, an American communist and one-time foreign editor of the Daily Worker, worked with the KGB as of 1949.

Even a former KGB general who now serves on the board of the Spy Museum, Oleg Kalugin, studied at Columbia Journalism School on a Fulbright scholarship in the 1950s. He then posed as a Russian journalist in the United States while acting as a KGB agent.

I asked Stout whether he could name any right-wing journalists who spied for foreign governments. “No, I cannot,” he said simply.

If you’re looking for a basis for the unfair stereotype that folks on the far left are somehow anti-American, this inconvenient truth is a good place to start.

But now, with the Cold War replaced by hamburger summits, and Russia reinventing itself as a shadowy petro-oligarchy, why would spying for Vladimir Putin retain its attraction for Pelaez and Co.?

“What we are seeing these days is at least an alliance of convenience among certain leftists,” said Stout, “all coalescing around the notion of opposition to globalization and opposition to what they perceive to be American imperialism…and Russia is a country which some people perceive as being a counterweight to the United States.”

Any misty notions of communism should have been buried along with the 40 million murdered by Stalin. And if today’s far-left sympathies still extend to Russia by transit of property, it’s a special form of anti-American ignorance that manages to ignore the suffering imposed in Castro’s prisons and horrors in North Korea. Of course, it may be that Pelaez was motivated only by money to use in the capitalist system she despised.

The fact that Pelaez opined on the ideals of life in leftist dictatorships from a safe perch on the banks of the Hudson River, instead of her native Peru, is her right as a citizen of a genuinely free country. But if the accusations against her are proved true, we are not talking about political opinions, but treason. It is an indictment on several levels that should also serve as a wakeup call to those who are still tempted to call themselves fellow travelers.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.