The death of Fidel Castro at age 90 is the end of an era for the Cuban people. It’s also the end of an era for me personally.
Although Fidel surely didn’t know it, we went back a long way, back to when I was a student at Willamette University in Salem in the 1950s.
Several of us students were captivated by Fidel’s rebellion against the dictator Fulgencio Batista, glamorized in a large spread in Life Magazine. We fantasized joining his rebellion, and developed an actual plan, discussed over several evenings at a Portland espresso café.
The plan: We would drive my friend Bill’s aging Chevrolet to Florida, exchange it for passage on a boat to Cuba, make our way to the Sierra Maestra, and find Fidel Castro, who would warmly welcome us, give us weapons, and send us into his fight against the hated Batista regime.
Then we graduated. So much for the plan.
As I embarked on my career in journalism, I followed with great interest the debacle of the U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961; the crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962—I actually cobbled together a makeshift bomb shelter at our then-home in Salt Lake City—and the combat death of Castro’s fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, in Bolivia in 1967.
With that background then, it felt a bit surreal when years later, I found myself across a desk from a bearded Fidel Castro, dressed in military fatigues in his presidential office in Havana. No, I didn’t tell him about the plan.
I made two visits to Cuba during the Carter administration as a correspondent for The Associated Press, along with other journalists, covering visits by U.S,-sanctioned trade delegations. The purpose was to begin laying the groundwork for the resumption of trade and diplomatic relations—if Castro would agree to certain conditions.
The big condition was that Castro needed to pull his troops out of Angola where they were fighting American-backed forces. We journalists had an opportunity to question Castro about this during a lavish reception one evening at the Soviet-built Palacio de la Revolucion.
Would he agree to pull those troops out? Although Castro understood English perfectly well, the question was translated into Spanish, Castro answered in Spanish, and his answer was translated back to English.
Summarizing the rest of his long answer, it went something like this: You Americans send your troops everywhere you want to support your interests. Why shouldn’t Cuba send troops abroad to support its interests? There was a certain amount of logic in this.
Anyway, there was no resumption of diplomatic or trade relations, not for another 50 years.
My impression of Castro was that he was one of those rare charismatic leaders who bring electricity with them when they enter a room—conversations end; all eyes turn; a circle gathers. I’ve met a few other leaders with that kind of magnetism, notably Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and the late Puerto Rican Governor Luis Munoz Marin. John Kennedy obviously had it, too, although I never met him.
While disagreeing with Castro’s attempts to export revolution and his suppression of human rights, I’ve had a certain amount of respect for him. He helped educate his people and provided them with medical care. I also applaud that he kicked the mafia out of Cuba, closed down the mafia-run casinos and ended the corrupt Batista regime, which had also severely abused human rights.
As for that picture I don’t have …
Following the interview at the Palacio de la Revolucion, Castro offered to have photographs taken with individual reporters. Other reporters accepted the offer. However, I declined. I felt it would compromise me as a journalist if I agreed to such a photograph.
But for years now, I have imagined such a photograph on my wall. It would have been a welcome reminder of how Castro’s career overlapped mine—he was in office when I started my 40-plus years as a journalist, and still in office when I retired.
Because I’m still here, I’m sorry he’s gone.