1977: Me in Cuba with Fidel

Castro, in person, was amazing. I loved the guy. I should remind you that my Spanish was fluent by 1977, when this happened. It was six years since we moved to Mexico City and my life there was in Spanish, from the radio talk in the car to all the dealings in the office. I was even writing finished copy for the UPI news service, in Spanish, for some sporting events that required instant posting.

Castro held court for more than two hours with more than a hundred executives of multinational corporations, about half of them American. He gave a short speech to start, but most of this was free-wheeling answers to the executives’ questions. He’d raise his voice at times in anger, and I’d seeth with him over the injustices inflicted on him by the American power. He told us that for years he never slept in the same place two nights in a row, because the CIA was so determined to assassinate him. And when Castro spoke, I believed. Then just a few minutes later, he’d lower his voice, in complete sincerity and conviction, as he talked about his goals, his dreams, what he wanted to do for his people. And over and over he’d answer with wisecrack and instant wit to rival the best of the best standup comedians. Over and over he’d raise the hairs in the back of my neck as he fell into his quiet and almost poetic best visions. He was a master. I would have followed him anywhere.

I took this amateur-looking picture and it’s the only one I have. Castro was charismatic and cordial with the executives who attended. Here he was signing autographs. I didn’t get a picture with him and me in it because I was mostly in the background, doing the work.

No, I didn’t get him alone, or in a small group. There were more than a hundred people in the room. But I sat near the front, on one side, taking notes, getting a privileged position because I was charged with reporting it.

I was also favorably disposed. I came to the occasion after my hippie-oriented youth, the summer in Haight Ashbury, the cumbaya group in the Trinity Alps, marching against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights. I’d had a lot of reinforcement from my colleages in journalism in Mexico City, Latin American correspondents, generally sympathetic to Cuba and distrustful of the U.S. My understanding of history had Castro as the freedom-fighter leader that kicked Bautista the U.S.-supported dictator out of Cuba in 1959; who turned to Russia for support and safety only after the U.S. had thoroughly rejected him. And my understanding of Cuba had it as an exceptionally poor country because of U.S. sanctions, but still one that treated its poor better than most other Latin American countries. At the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City, people said that Cuba was the worst place in Latin America for the rich, but the best place in Latin America to be poor. The poor in Cuba had better schools and medicine than the poor in any other Latin American country.

Going to Cuba for six weeks was a big deal for an American in 1977. It was the cold war. The US had severe restrictions on American travel to Cuba. It took exemptions and approvals from the American government, which were available because I was working at the time for Business International, so there was business interest. And Business International had some leverage into the government through CEO Orville Freeman, who had been a Nixon cabinet member. It also took getting a visa from the Cuban embassy in Mexico City.

It happened because sugar crops elsewhere failed in 1977 so Cuba’s sugar was suddenly and all at once way more valuable than it had ever been. That meant Cuba had an influx of hard currency. Unlike all its Castro history before 1977, Cuba could purchase goods from western nations, maybe even from the U.S. There was even talk of Western foreign investment. Business International, meanwhile, served more than 300 multinational corporations with newsletters, seminars, conferences, and consulting. So Business International set up a foreign investment conference in Havana. More than 100 multinational clients agreed to attend, pay a hefty fee, and send senior executives.

And that led to my being included. By that time I’d been with Business International three years and they liked me and my work. My Spanish was fluent after six years living in Mexico City. I was a damned good journalist. I had co-authored book-length studies on international business and the Mexican economy. They needed a book-length study on opportunities in Cuba, as part of the conference. So I got to go to Cuba in 1977. American, or not. And I got there bringing along, quietly, secretly, my sympathy for Fidel Castro.

The picture above is me in the office we worked in, with one of my Cuban teammates, holding the book-length study we did for the conference. If you look closely at the picture of Castro above, right above his hand, the corner of that study is sticking out from the arms of one of the officials.

And, sadly, that sympathy for Castro died during my weeks in Cuba. I came expecting to see a heroic people fighting against all odds for freedom, justice, and equality. I left with my illusions punctured, feeling confined and claustrophobic in a country with no freedom, people who spied on neighbors and turned them into dark secret police, who lived in fear.

What happened? What changed my mind? Several weeks of working on a book-length economic study of foreign investment opportunities in Cuba as part of a team. It was me and two other Business International employees, business journalists both of them, one Latin and another American with deep ties to Spain; plus three Cubans who were assigned to the team. One of the Cubans was the driver, the two others were economists supposed to help us do the study.

Working side-by-side with my Cuban colleagues popped all my illusions about Cuba. As time passed I realized, more each day, that each of the three of them was afraid of the other two. They never let down their guard. They took us to meetings with public officials, to historical places (most notably the Bay of Pigs, where Cuba defeated a JFK attempt to take Cuba back from Castro in 1962), even to ought-to-have-been fun places like the most popular beach and downtown Havana old section full of music and restaurants.

Restaurants were lively, generally full of music; but the food was dull. Everything available seemed a variation on rice, black beans, and fried bananas. Shredded pork or beef was prized as a special dish, even though the meat was stringy and tough. Fish, surprisingly, was rare.

The cars were overwhelmingly older American cars from the 1950s.

Our hosts, the Cuban organizers of the conference, seemed to make daiquiris instantly available to all of us at all times. Cubans circulated through every meeting and every event with full trays of daiquiris. After time it felt more intentional, sabotaging us by preying on our weakness, than hospitable.

The three Cubans were always wary and tense. They laced slogans and revolutionary patter throughout their conversations, with us and with each other. They competed constantly with each other on who could most use the word compañero (comrade). And so too on who most loved the revolution, Cuba, and Castro. There was never a slip in conversation that might have indicated some dissatisfaction with even the tiniest detail in their lives. They had no complaints, ever, about old cars, refrigerators, work schedules, food, anything.

And finally, there was the special claustrophobia of the opposite of free enterprise. By 1977, although I was still a business journalist, I was starting to dream about owning my own business someday. I was making more money with freelancing than the salary that Business International paid me as an employee. I was close to Raul Garcia Moreneau, Vange’s sister’s husband, who owned and operated his own travel agency. I spent a lot of time with Raul and Vange’s brother Horacio, who was a salesman for Gillete. Horacio and I often dreamt out loud about owning a business, and Raul, who did own one, encouraged us. During the weeks that I worked with the Cuban colleagues, I came to realize that the one who was a driver had no hope of ever going out on his own and owning several limos, or starting a travel agency. The ones who were economists had no hope of ever going on their own and taking on private clients. Their only hope for advancement depended on convincing their use of “compañero” and revolutionary clichés. Success and promotion was about loyalty, not work, or even competence.

I flew back to Mexico City on an evening flight on a Cuban commercial plane that was propeller driven and older than I was. The bureaucracy and red tape and inspections and such had been onerous on arrival, but seemed much worse to me as I was leaving. All I wanted from Cuba, at that point, was out of there. Getting back to Mexico was a huge relief.