Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Peláez Colleagues Express Disbelief at Arrest

by Marianne McCune
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Vicky Peláez

NEW YORK, NY June 30, 2010 —Colleagues and followers of columnist Vicky Peláez continue to express disbelief that she’s one of 11 alleged Russian spies arrested earlire this week. Peláez is scheduled to appear in federal court tomorrow for a bail hearing. Many of her friends and acquaintances say she's a journalist with strong beliefs--but none have to do with Russia.

Vicky Peláez' writing appeared weekly in the Spanish language daily El Diario/La Prensa and at times in Latin America--including on a Cuban government website called CubaDebate. Peláez has consistently criticized U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and defended leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. As a journalist in Peru, she was known for having been kidnapped by revolutionary guerrillas and interviewing their leader while in captivity. On Twitter and in blogs, many of Peláez' fans say they suspect the U.S. government just wants to silence her.

Here in New York, some of Peláez’ current and former colleagues are equally skeptical of her guilt. The staff at El Diario have been instructed not to comment, but court reporter Candida Portugues said she felt compelled to--because she can't believe the Vicky Peláez she's known for seven years is a spy.

“I can't believe it. I can't believe it,” she whispered with awe. “I will have to see it. Let's see the case when we go to court. Because I can't believe it. I can't believe it.”

Portugues said she spent time with Peláez in the newsroom and in her home and that she's a hard-working journalist and mother. She said part of Peláez' job is to turn wire copy into newspaper articles. And that her once-a-week column does not have her mixing it up with high-powered government officials. At night, Portugues said, Peláez goes to painting class or home to her 17-year-old son, whose talent as a pianist she's worked hard to help foster. And while the U.S. government says it has videotape of Peláez receiving a bag full of money from Russian officials, Portugues said she can't imagine Peláez would trade secrets for financial gain.

“She's not interested in money,” Portugues said. “She's not interested in money. I mean she's interested in money like everybody because we need to pay our bills. But that's it. The money for her is that.”

Javier Gomez says Vicky Peláez mentored him from the time he started at El Diario as an intern through his four year stint as a young staff reporter. He says she took him under her wing and taught him to write a great lede and cover the most important stories.

“I have read the complaint and I know the person,” he said. “It’s just very incompatible.” Gomez said Peláez was all about economic and social justice, but Russia was never an area of interest. “I don’t think I’m in a position to challenge what the FBI is saying,” he said, “but the person I know is so far removed from any of those accusations.”

Another colleague at El Diario said Peláez has an equal number of followers and detractors and that it's up to prosecutors to present evidence she's a spy. Meanwhile, some of the columnist's detractors say the only surprise is that she's not spying for Cuba, given the tone of her columns.

Peláez' husband is also one of the alleged spies, and the government says at one point in the conversations they recorded, he complained to Peláez that the Russians were disappointed with his intelligence because he didn't provide any source. The complaint says Peláez advised him to 'put down any politician from here.' Peláez’ older son has told reporters that the charges are preposterous. And in Peru, her mother said she's heading to New York to figure out what's going on.

More from the WNYC Newsroom:

Spies Among Us: How Common Are Espionage Rings?

Russian Immigrants React to Arrests

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