An ally of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is convinced that high-level officials at a U.S. government media arm are in league with the Castro regime in Cuba and he’s trying to convince federal authorities to investigate.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has for months promoted conspiracy theories involving BBG’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) and its recently departed director, Maria “Malule” Gonzalez. Specifically, Shapiro has told the FBI, internal BBG security, and colleagues at the U.S. broadcasting agency that he believes Gonzalez is secretly in league with Cuba’s communist government, according to three sources privy to the conversations.
Officials at the BBG have mostly dismissed the allegations, sources there say. But Shapiro has friends in high places. The White House placed Shapiro, a former writer at Bannon’s Breitbart News, at a senior position in the BBG. And Shapiro has told colleagues that he sees his mission at the agency as advancing and preserving Bannon’s “legacy.”
Shapiro did not respond to questions about his allegations and the evidence behind them. How he became convinced that Gonzalez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was a secret agent for Castro is not entirely clear. Sources who spoke to The Daily Beast attributed it to a disposition towards Breitbart-esque conspiracy theories and a whisper campaign among politically active members of the Cuban exile community who oppose the recent moderation in tone of the OCB’s broadcasts.
The BBG was formed in the 1990s to oversee various U.S. government broadcasters, most notably Voice of America. The OCB, based in Miami, was designed to broadcast Spanish-language radio and television programs onto the island for the purposes of promoting American interests in Cuba. Under Gonzalez’s leadership, and in conjunction with an opening of U.S. relations towards Cuba, OCB shifted more towards a model that prioritized objective journalism.
The shift has irked some within OCB and the Cuban exile community who saw the agency and its Cuban radio broadcasts as offensive information tools against the repressive Castro regime, and blamed Gonzalez, an Obama administration holdover, for advancing the former president’s efforts to ease relations with a regime to which that many Cuban Americans remain deeply hostile.
Sources familiar with Shapiro’s work at BBG said the shift infuriated him.
At a late summer BBG meeting, where agency officials discussed how to market its mission to congressional appropriators, Shapiro insisted that OCB’s role was to advance U.S. geopolitical goals—and in particular the specific policies of the Trump administration.
“Our job is not to report the news. Our job is to promote U.S. interests, to support the president’s agenda,” Shapiro said, according to a former senior government official familiar with internal BBG deliberations.
‘There Was a Shift’
Shapiro joined the BBG in July. A source with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast that he was placed there at the direction of the White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel, which was sure to mention to BBG officials that Shapiro and Bannon were friends.
Sources described Shapiro as friendly during his early tenure at the agency. He did not demonstrate a particular familiarity with Cuba policy, a source said. He was eager to learn about the island nation, but seemed more concerned with military matters than issues directly pertinent to OCB’s mission, one source said.
“It really started to turn after Bannon resigned” in mid-August, recalled the former senior official. “There was a shift, it seemed, and then he started becoming more hostile towards Malule [Gonzalez], and becoming more political in his outreach internally to old guard OCB staff.”
Shapiro didn’t just disagree with OCB’s turn toward straight reporting, he became convinced that Gonzalez was operating at the behest of Cuba’s ruling communist party. “He went off the rails and started saying she was working for the Cuban government,” one source recalled. “He started telling everyone who would listen about that.”
Among those he said this to were BBG’s internal security service who dutifully opened a probe into Gonzalez’s supposed Castro ties, according to sources. Those sources described the investigation as perfunctory—security officials are obligated to explore such allegations brought to them by high-level BBG officials—and stressed they’d seen no evidence to support the allegations.
Gonzalez’s security clearance was high enough that any potential red flags would have prevented her from rising to the senior position she occupied from 2015 until just last month. She did not return a request for comment but a source confirmed that she resigned from the BBG for health reasons and not because of internal pressures.
Those pressures were intense though. According to both sources, Shapiro brought his allegations against Gonzalez to the FBI’s Miami field office. It was not immediately clear whether they pursued the allegations.
Throughout his campaign to expose Cuban “infiltration” of OCB, Shapiro claimed to be in frequent contact with Bannon. One source said that he would often show colleagues text conversations between him and Bannon, which the source interpreted as attempts to demonstrate his connections in the administration.
“He was always name dropping, especially dropping Bannon’s name,” that source said.
“He was constantly saying he was talking to Bannon about this or that,” another source recalled. “My job is to make [OCB] a legacy for Bannon,” that source recalled Shapiro saying. “We have to make this what he would’ve wanted.”
Neither Bannon nor a spokesperson responded to requests for comment on this story.
Years prior to coming to the BBG, Shapiro had been a minor figure at Breitbart and in Bannon-world. He left his job reporting for Breitbart in 2012 shortly after Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death, and right around the time Bannon began consolidating near-absolute power at the hard-right media outlet. Bannon’s colleagues, past and present, recall seeing Shapiro come in and out of the “Breitbart Embassy”—Bannon’s Washington, D.C., hub of operations on Capitol Hill—over the years for work and various events. But they never saw him as a key player in Bannon’s media or political apparatus.
Still, Shapiro considers himself a trusted Bannon ally and supporter. When Bannon came under fire late last year for alleged ties to anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy, Shapiro leapt to his defense.
“As a Jewish American who worked with Bannon at Breitbart News, I am certain these characterizations are false,” Shapiro wrote, in an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times in March, shortly after Bannon became Trump’s White House chief strategist. “They are the leading edge of a distortion campaign that mislabels Bannon as virulently prejudiced, anti-immigrant and a cultural fascist.”
In November 2016, Shapiro wrote at The Washington Times, a piece titled, “The tarring of Steve Bannon,” that “Bannon made sure I left [Breitbart] with dignity in a fashion that was equitable and fair, and often told me he appreciated my abilities as a journalist and a lawyer.”
Between Shapiro’s departure from Breitbart and his hiring at BBG, his attitude towards journalism appears to have changed. In his Times column, Shapiro wrote, “I was personally disappointed about the editorial direction Breitbart News had gone [under Bannon]. As a mainstream news journalist, I felt there was too much hardline opinion that carried an angry tone.”
But at BBG, sources say, Shapiro promoted a vision for its Cuba division that prioritized propaganda over news reporting. He wasn’t alone with these concerns. A number of BBG veterans shared the criticism of the direction Gonzalez had taken as Cuba-U.S. relations began to thaw. The agency has defended that shift as an effective method for promoting the value of news reporting as well as liberal democratic values in general in a nation that U.S. policymakers hope will turn away from its authoritarian political model.
Shapiro took his suspicion of OCB’s change in tone and doused it in the fuel of Breitbart-esque conspiracy, sources say.
“His personality bent towards this kind of narrative. I think he’s naturally a paranoid guy,” one source said. BBG “put him in a place that was going to magnify that.”
Citing Breitbart’s chief funders, the source added, “BBG’s a goddamn mess of an institution, but it does not deserve to be turned into what the Mercers and Bannon want to do. That is really scary.”