I will never forget the last time I talked to Fidel Castro. It was at the Jose Marti airport in Havana in 1988 and the Comandante en Jefe, wearing olive green, looking like a military version of an Old Testament prophet with his scraggly beard and blazing eyes, was saying goodbye to Maria Shriver and me. But this was no friendly adios. Fidel was furious at us and since I was acting as Maria's interpreter, I was the immediate target of his unrelenting verbal attack as he pointed his index finger, made even more menacing by his long nails, straight at my face.
For a moment I thought, "If I were Cuban, would this be the beginning of a one-way trip to some tropical gulag?" This definitely was not the same Fidel we met at the beginning of our assignment.
Our adventure began when the Cuban government consented to a request by Ms. Shriver, then an NBC News correspondent and weekend anchor, to broadcast the Sunday version of the Today Show live from Havana, including an interview with Fidel Castro. At the time I was a producer for the network assigned to the Miami bureau. Given my expertise in the region, I was tapped to join a large contingent of producers, cameramen, technicians, etc., led by then NBC VP and later Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert.
We arrived in Havana on Monday Feb 22. The Cuban officials who met and escorted our team could not have been more welcoming. Two days later Castro himself led Maria and our cameras on a day-long tour of Havana where he pointed out the centerpieces of his regime: the schools, the hospitals, the biomedical facilities, the senior citizen centers, etc.
We were traveling in a jeep convoy and every time we stopped and the Comandante stepped out, a strange ritual would take place. One of Castro's assistants would kneel at his feet and make sure that his sharply creased pants squarely covered the top of his meticulously shined ankle boots. Then, and only then, he could step out among his people. He was in a jovial mood and everywhere we went we were warmly received. And the pant leg routine was repeated over and over, somewhat to our amusement. Rank has its privileges, especially in Cuba.
At the end of an exhausting day we were summoned to the Palacio de la Revolución for a 10 PM interview. Castro, looking refreshed, said he had taken a swim and was ready to answer any question. In addition to our two cameras, the Cubans had their own camera crew recording the proceedings. Castro had two interpreters who took turns and Maria conducted a thorough interview that covered a wide range of topics, some historical, some current. Prominent among them: US-Cuba relations, human rights, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, as well as the Perestroika and Glasnost changes in the Soviet Union and their impact on Cuba.
Well aware that Maria Shriver is a niece of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Castro emphasized his admiration for JFK, denied any involvement in his assassination and decried the conspiracy theories that try to link Cuba to that event. Castro claimed that in effect, he and JFK were beginning a rapprochement through a French journalist and that he, Castro, was meeting with this contact when he was notified of the tragedy in Dallas. Further, when asked about his reaction to U.S. attempts on his life during the Kennedy era, Castro quickly exonerated JFK and placed the blame on the CIA.
The Kennedy connection worked to Maria's great advantage. At the time, Castro reportedly had some 100 requests from U.S. news outlets for interviews, including one from NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. But he put Maria's request ahead of all the others. Some of the members of our team learned that while we were with Castro taping the interview, he allegedly received a teletype message (email was unheard of in those days) from CBS News anchor Dan Rather requesting his own one-on-one with the Comandante. Rather had apparently gotten wind of NBC's big scoop.
Another important and timely item concerned allegations of drug trafficking through Cuba that were circulating in Washington and Florida at the time. A former Panamanian official, testifying before the U.S. Senate, reinforced those charges, saying that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, with Castro's aid, orchestrated the drug trafficking. Castro claimed those were "lies and slanders" planted by the intelligence community in their "continuous efforts" to undermine his government. He grew increasingly agitated as he denounced what he termed "these absurd accusations." "There is not the slightest truth in this, Castro said, his voice rising, "It's a lie from top to bottom." (1)
Conciseness is not a word that applies to Fidel Castro's speaking style. In his heyday, he could give speeches lasting up to eight hours. We should have been grateful that our interview was over in three hours, but we were somewhat done in as we wrapped at 1 a.m.
Castro now became the genial host inviting all of us, about 20 people, to a "refrigerio", a snack. He led the way into a sumptuous dining room where a banquet awaited us. Several chefs wearing white toques made the honors. The table was laden with exquisite dishes that no ordinary Cuban could ever dream of tasting. There was lobster - prepared three different ways - a traditional roasted piglet, chicken, steak, salads, rice, assorted vegetables, you name it. Rum, wine and other spirits were liberally poured and a side table displayed a variety of gourmet cheeses and fruit. Dessert was a baked Alaska flambé. After coffee, each one of us was offered a Cohiba cigar, Castro's favorite before he gave up smoking. We left at 3 AM sated, exhausted and puzzled at this display of luxury at the top amidst the rationing and scarcity facing ordinary Cubans.
The following day, Thursday, Feb 25, we flew to Miami planning to spend the next two days editing the interview. We were scheduled to return to Havana on Saturday to be in position for the Sunday program. And then news happened. The U.S. Attorney in Miami announced the indictment of 17 people on charges of smuggling drugs from Colombia, some through Cuba, into the United States. The indictment detailed a clear pattern of Cuban support for the drug trafficking. We dropped everything and feverishly worked on a report for Nightly News that included a relevant sound bite from the Castro interview. It aired that night.
On Saturday, as planned, we returned to Cuba. The government escorts who met us at the airport this time did not give us the warmest reception. One of them whispered to me, "How could you do that story?" I tried to explain that it was news and we were just doing our job as journalists but he did not seem to understand my point. He said that if I wanted to learn the right way of reporting we should watch television that night. We did and learned that Fidel had decided to pre-empt NBC's exclusive by airing all three hours of the Shriver interview. Obviously in Cuba, programming decisions come from the very top, the ultimate example of media conglomeration.
There were unintended consequences to airing the whole interview. "For the first time Cubans saw a journalist who asked difficult questions of the Comandante," said Gilberto Dihigo, a Cuban journalist who now resides in Miami, "Fidel always controlled his media appearances but now he was obviously uncomfortable and people were astounded at Ms. Shriver's audacity." And Dihigo adds that immediately rumors began to circulate, perhaps fed from the top, that the reason Castro had allowed Ms. Shriver to question him so harshly was "because they were having a romantic relationship."
A ridiculous fabrication but "chisme" -gossip- whether real or made up is one way Cubans cope. Another one is humor. Sure enough, an old joke was adapted to the circumstances. In it, when Maria asks Castro why he does not allow Cubans to travel freely, Castro leering at her responds "Cabroncita", Cuban slang for "you clever little thing" and the punch line "do you want to be left alone with me in this tropical island?"
On Sunday, despite the tense atmosphere, the live broadcast anchored by Maria from Havana went without a hitch. It included an edited eight minutes of the Castro interview and videotaped reports by other correspondents.
Tremendously relieved, we went to the airport and waited for the plane that would fly us back to Miami. Suddenly one of the Cuban officials summoned Maria and me to another room. There, without his interpreters, stood Fidel. Talk about somebody being in your face. Without preambles he launched into a long diatribe denouncing our coverage. "How could you portray me next to drug traffickers and criminals? How could you betray me after giving you unlimited access and hospitality?" he shouted. To borrow the title of a then-current movie starring Maria's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, we were feeling a bit of "Red Heat."
I would turn to give the wide-eyed Maria the English version of Castro's invective and back to him to hear the rest. Our attempts to respond were futile against this barrage and behind him, his aides meekly signaled us to keep quiet. After several minutes we finally managed to interject a few words about how we practiced journalism in the United States where we covered news events as they happened.
He was not satisfied, but in the end he calmed down and became friendly again. Perhaps he remembered Maria's connections because he invited her to come back to Cuba and bring along her Kennedy relatives and her husband. One of his aides then produced a portable humidor full of Cohibas for Arnold, one of the most famous cigar smokers in the world. Maria, diplomatically, turned them down saying that because of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, she could not bring the cigars back to the United States to which Castro answered that he would send them by diplomatic channels and deliver them in the U.S.
Finally Maria asked Castro to sign some posters that had been made up to promote the broadcast. In spite of his harsh criticism of our efforts, he promptly agreed. It was as if he had multiple personalities and his old avuncular self had returned. He gave us an abrazo, a big hug, and left. By then our plane was ready for take-off. Feeling a little battered we scrambled onboard and once safely on the air we all let out a loud scream of relief as we made our way back to Miami.
Arriving back in the U.S. of A after surviving the Castro tirade, we were met with less than favorable reviews from some Cuban-American and conservative groups because they thought we were not tough enough on Fidel and his regime. Maybe this proves true the old journalistic cliché that if both the right and the left criticize your work, you are doing a good job.
In March 1988 two of those indicted in Miami, Reinaldo Ruiz, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen, and his son Ruben pleaded guilty to transporting drugs to Florida and using Cuba's military runways as transit points. They were sentenced to 17 years and the senior Ruiz died in prison.
And back in Cuba, Major-General Arnaldo Ochoa, a hero of the revolution and the leader of Cuba's military involvement in Africa and Nicaragua, and six other military and Interior Ministry officials were arrested in early June 1989. They were accused of helping the Medellín cartel transport six tons of cocaine to Florida. After a show trial, Ochoa and three others were executed by firing squad.
Like everything associated with Cuba and Miami and the intelligence community, there are many unanswered questions in this episode. Could the drug trafficking operation have gone on without Castro's knowledge or did he just turn a blind eye to it? Did he go after such high-ranking officials as a way of demonstrating his abhorrence of drugs and corruption? Or was he trying to salvage his hurt pride and honor after having the matter exposed in the U.S. media? And when it comes to our story, was he naïve in believing that by giving NBC News access and hospitality he would influence the way the story was covered? And finally, did Arnold ever get those cigars?
(1) Here are transcripts of the interview.