A child plays in front of a mural of late former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Managua, Nicaragua November 27, 2016. (REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas)

By François Raitberger

I had my first glimpse of Fidel Castro on my very first day in Cuba, and I was fascinated and ridiculed.

As the Reuters correspondent I was invited to a reception for an African president in the lush gardens of a state villa in Havana. There I was, a young foreign correspondent on his  first posting, just 10 feet from Castro chatting animatedly with his guests.

Watching the great man, mesmerized, I reached for cigarettes in my jacket’s inside pocket. In a flash, two bodyguards sprang guns on me. I took my hand out of my pocket very slowly and backed away piteously.

A couple of mojitos and a fat cigar later, unaccustomed to tropical heat, I felt dizzy and had to crawl under a bush to avoid fainting. One second later I had a gun muzzle in my face again. “What are you doing here?” “Heat, cigar,” I mumbled.

The soldier burst out laughing and lectured me about how to smoke cigars.

He was a very impressive man, so convinced and so convincing.

The rest of my two-year assignment went much better, and I met Castro many times. On official occasions, when he had a message to convey, he would spot our small group of foreign correspondents and walk by.

“Comandante,” we would call out with a question. He would stop, answer the question and then relate at length what he wanted the world to know, gesturing forcefully with his forefinger, his beard towering above the group.

He was a very impressive man, so convinced and so convincing.

The United States was hungry for news from the quarantined communist island, and Reuters was the only English-language media accredited there, with Agence France-Presse and Spain’s EFE sending the only other permanent western correspondents.

In 1975, Castro stunned the world by airlifting thousands of troops across the Atlantic to stop South African soldiers invading newly-independent Angola. The emergency airlift, on vintage planes, turned the tide in favor of the communist-backed government.

Months later, convoys of buses crammed with waving soldiers returning from Angola drove through Havana. My story of Cuban troops marching home earlier and in greater numbers than expected was widely published, the implication being that the expedition had run into problems.

I understood only later that Castro, while bringing a few hundred soldiers home, was at the same time secretly shipping thousands more to Africa from Mariel, a port far from Havana.

This was a variation of his famous ruse when, as chief of a small guerrilla group, Castro marched his men round and round his Sierra Maestra mountain hideout several times to trick New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews into believing they were an army.

Cuba never commented on rumors.

I framed my story of Cuban troops marching home early from Angola as a reminder of humility. Reporters must think hard before believing what they see.

Reporting from Cuba was frustrating. Sources were non-existent besides official newspapers. Officials hardly ever commented on developments until “Fidel” had done so.

Checking stories was most difficult. Authorities seldom answered queries. My editor once asked me to urgently check a rumor in U.S. markets that Castro had died. The answer to my query came several days later: It was that Cuba never commented on rumors.

U.S.-Cuban relations also had a secret side. Every six months or so in the mid-1970s a thaw between the two arch-enemies seemed at hand as influential U.S. politicians visited Havana and met with Castro.

But months later any prospect of a thaw vanished for obvious or hidden reasons — until the next visit by congressmen eager to push for an end to the trade embargo.

That saga may win a fresh lease on life if President-elect Donald Trump rows back on President Barack Obama’s overtures.

Cuba mixed austere communism and easy-going Caribbean style.

Foreigners were isolated from Cuban life. We had access to hard currency shops, curtained diplotiendas off limits to ordinary Cubans. We could buy basic items that were in short supply or unavailable in state shops. But without a ration book, we had no access to ordinary shops to mix and chat with the man on the street.

Suspicions of spying ran high. The ever-present Committees for the Defense of the Revolution checked on who called on whom. Cubans were reluctant to visit foreigners for fear of being reported. Food rationing made it difficult for them to entertain at home.

The lack of spare parts made living conditions difficult. The lift was often out of commission, and we had to walk up 11 floors, sweating in tropical heat. And to do without a shower.

To spare rusting water pipes, running water was available only a couple of hours a day. A short time to hurriedly fill buckets and the bathtub, and to take a precious shower before you were left with soapy skin and no water.

Despite all the challenges, most former correspondents in Cuba I know have special memories of their assignment.

Perhaps because Cuba mixed austere communism and easy-going Caribbean style, boredom and revolutionary enthusiasm. The essence of the “but” country where nothing was clear-cut. Free health care and education, but lack of freedom.

Perhaps because “Fidel” was such a fascinating character. Admired by so many, but hated by so many. Charismatic but a dictator. Powerful but isolated. A visionary or a dinosaur?

fraitberger-637x640François Raitberger was correspondent for Reuters in Cuba from 1975-77. Later he was the news agency’s news editor for Latin America based in Buenos Aires, chief correspondent in Spain and head of general news reporting in Paris, with assignments to Iran during the 1979 revolution, Saudi Arabia and Africa. He lives in the southern French Alps.

Share This
WorldAmericasMemories of Cuba under Castro