(Reuters) – Reuters first established a presence in Havana before the Second World War and covered every major story of the Fidel Castro era since his 1959 Cuban revolution, from the Bay of Pigs invasion to his sickness in old age.
Following Castro’s death on Friday, three former Reuters Havana correspondents – Frances Kerry, Andrew Cawthorne and Anthony Boadle – share some memories of reporting on him.
In the summer of 1994, Fidel Castro was fighting for the survival of the revolution. The economy was in tatters following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had given it key support for decades, and tentative economic reforms launched by Castro in 1993 had yet to do much to improve life for ordinary Cubans.
Many Cubans were sick of the “Special Period”, as the government termed the drastic economic belt-tightening. They were resentful over hours of power cuts every day, seemingly endless hours waiting for buses, or the struggle to get around Havana’s hot and hilly streets on lumbering Chinese bicycles, and the battle to find basic goods such as soap and deodorant.
Castro’s speeches were full of talk about Cubans’ resistance and dignity, but real life was often less heroic. People got thinner and joked grimly about the dreadful food and having to brew coffee using the same grains multiple times. Visitors to the Reuters office would sometimes pocket the soap if they went to the bathroom.
A steady trickle of people set out for Florida in homemade boats that were sometimes as rudimentary as the inner tubes of tires. There were cases of people stealing boats.
Castro railed against Washington, claiming the United States encouraged the departures and he denounced its policy of picking up rafters at sea and taking them as legal immigrants.
Rumors of something going on in Havana harbor on Aug. 5, 1994 sparked an angry gathering that then became an unprecedented anti-government protest in the center of the city.
I remember my heart racing as I hurried back to the office that afternoon to send my report. It was so unheard of at that time for people to protest. Who could know how the government might respond? Was Castro losing his grip?
But just as things seemed they might spiral out of control, Castro put on a display of the trademark political cunning that partly explained the durability of the Cuban revolution and certainly explained the fascination of reporting on his very long years in power.
The demonstrations were dispersed by security forces. Accompanied by phalanxes of organized supporters, Castro arrived at the protest zone in a jeep and turned it into a pro-government rally.
Then, wielding the masterstroke in the days that followed, he announced that if the United States would not change its policy on Cuban migrants, the Cuban government would no longer seek to stop people trying to leave the island, instead turning a blind eye.
It was a safety valve that allowed the most desperate to go. Castro had allowed a similar wave of discontent to spill off the island with the Mariel boat lift in 1980. It also shifted the problem squarely to Washington.
By the end of the summer more than 30,000 Cubans had left and by allowing an exodus, Fidel Castro put the ball in President Bill Clinton’s court. That forced Washington to stop welcoming Cubans picked up in the Florida Strait, and brought about a bilateral agreement in September on more ‘orderly’ migration that included an annual granting of 20,000 visas to Cubans.
It was a summer of desperation and death for some of the rafters who didn’t survive, but it was also a summer that showed Castro at his most wily and dogged.
During my time in Cuba (1998-2002), it wasn’t hard to bump into the garrulous commander-in-chief.
We, the small Havana press corps, would stalk him at statue inaugurations, women’s solidarity meetings, airport farewells for dignitaries, and the tall-framed Castro would often meander over for a chat. Sometimes the chats were undesirably long on deeply tedious subjects at ungodly hours and at other times a few sharp words would have us racing for our offices to transmit to the world.
“Ah, the rubio (blonde guy) from Reuters,” he would say on sighting me. “How’s your wife?” (She’s Venezuelan, a point in my favor for the Cubans).
Or: “So, what are your Washington masters telling you to write today?” That was his constant time-saving riposte to awkward questions.
He once summoned me and three other news agency heads for a 1 a.m. ticking-off in an austere office at Revolution Palace over a story. The audience began with intimidatingly angry words from a Zeus-faced Castro sitting in an armchair before us, but after he calmed down, matters ended with some laughter and a next-day story in my notebook. Something like: “Fidel Castro says ‘fit as a teenager’ after ill health rumors”.
Then there were the awkward debates on live TV. Once when I tried to turn the prescribed subject of anti-Cuban bias in doping in international athletics onto politics, he put me down in front of the nation: “Don’t think I don’t know you, your intentions, and who you are talking to”.
The next morning, my phone would not stop ringing from Cuban dissidents to ‘thank’ me for ‘confronting’ the Comandante, so I decided to take a week’s holiday to lower my profile on the island. At a distant beach resort though, the manager recognized me from state TV, and gave me a warm handshake, a free room and a huge basket of fruit.
The crowning encounter was an extraordinary all-night dinner, towards the end of 1999 if I remember rightly. Despite what appears to have been a historically rare period of decent access for foreign correspondents to Fidel Castro, we were a difficult group and had been loudly complaining to apparatchiks that it had been weeks since we’d spoken to the bearded one.
The response was typical Castro. You want access? Right, come to dinner with me and ask as many questions as you like – all night long!
We entered a large dining room in Revolution Palace at about 6 p.m. and sat around a huge table with his senior ministers as Castro held forth without eating a morsel while his minions plied us with food and wine.
By 4 a.m. we had hardly got a word in among his hours-long answers to just a few questions, and our eyes were screaming to each other, “how do we get out of here?”
Just as a designated colleague was about to stand up and make a gracious thank you signaling departure, another disastrously asked Castro a waffly question about “his views on Latin America entering the 21st century.” In his typically didactic and verbose way, he indeed gave us his views, starting with Patagonia in the south and just about reaching Central America when the sun came up.
That seemed to shake him out of his meditations, and he led us to the exit. Having spent most of the previous afternoon designing the most probing questions possible, and assuming that we as seasoned correspondents would not be hoodwinked by the wily old man, we left with nothing new and headed to our beds exhausted and outfoxed.
I arrived in Havana in 2002 when Fidel Castro was facing a unprecedented threat from internal opposition organized in a nationwide network by Catholic dissident Oswaldo Paya.
A few days later the movement he had started by riding a bicycle to hand out leaflets got a big boost from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In a lecture at Havana University, with Castro sitting in the front row, Carter mentioned Paya’s Varela Project, a petition signed by 11,000 Cubans pressing for democratic reforms.
Under the terms of Carter’s visit, Cuba’s state media had to accurately report his words and the Communist Party newspaper Granma was obliged to reprint his full speech two days later with that mention. It was the first time most Cubans had heard of Paya’s movement which continued to grow across the island.
But not for long. In March of the next year, when all the world’s attention was on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Castro government rounded up 70 dissidents and broke the back of Paya’s movement. To this day the dissident groups in Cuba remain a fractious bunch that are well infiltrated by the secret police.
A diplomat friend liked to say two things work superbly in Castro’s tropical Orwellian dystopia: political control and the black market. Living in Havana was a constant challenge of where to shop for household goods, but the worst of the “Special Period” was over by then, and once you knew the lay of the land, it only took a cellphone call to have a box of Montecristo cigars or fresh lobsters delivered to your door.
My Cuban government handlers were courteous and friendly but stern when it came to frequent admonitions.
Ironically, they did not like being called a Communist country, even though the ruling Communist Party was the only game in town.
One rule to survive as a correspondent in Havana was vital: never invite dissidents to your home, just to the office, where infiltrated staff could inform authorities. When it became clear that home was home for me, they stopped bugging my phone.
Cuban authorities never harassed me but they withdrew my visa in 2008 and I had to leave. Months later, in an attempt to discredit my reporting from the island, a dissident turned government informant said on television that I had introduced him to the CIA station chief in a dark alley one night, a laughable charge since I first met him at a U.S diplomat’s home.
Access to information was never easy in a government where no official dared speak out of line and queries were referred up to “el Jefe.” I managed to get a brief word in with Castro on five occasions. Once, in response to a 10-second question on relations with the United States, I got a 45-minute answer from him that included references to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and the Soviets.