In late fall of 1993, our editor at that time, Tom Walsh, approached me in his usual, brusk fashion with a most unusual request. He said, in words to this effect, "So, uhh, why don't you send me to Cuba? Or are you too cheap for that, too?" Walsh was this newspaper's first full-time editor and he never once flinched at the chance to make me feel guilty about something, anything. "Yeah, right, Tom. Cuba. How are we supposed to afford that?" I replied.
Aside from his predilection for poking me and everyone else, Walsh was the consummate professional journalist. "Like this," he said. He'd somehow connected with a group called the Freedom to Travel Campaign that was running trips of like-minded U.S. citizens into Cuba from Canada and Mexico with the intent of drawing attention to what they deemed to be an illegal travel embargo. Walsh asked for $1,000, which included airfare from Mexico, a hotel room for a week and some meals. He'd pay his own way to Mexico, spend his own money in Cuba, wouldn't ask us to bail him out if he got in trouble, and promised at least two cover stories upon his return. So we pulled the trigger and off he went.
As a journalist (along with researchers), he was allowed passage into Cuba, but like everyone else, he was not supposed to spend money while there, thanks to a U.S. law titled "Trading with the Enemy." They could all face fines or jail for spending money in Castro's Cuba. I guess that's why he never brought me a souvenir. But one must eat, so on Day 1, Walsh began breaking the law. If he ever got in trouble for that, I never knew. All I know is that he came back awed by what he experienced, and true to form, parlayed what he saw into two very fine cover stories for this newspaper (called The Private Eye in those days)—one detailing daily vignettes of Cuban citizens and the other telling the story of the Freedom to Travel group.
On their sixth day in Cuba, Castro met with the group, in part to recognize their civil disobedience of spending much-needed American dollars in his country. He reassured them he respected the American people, not so much the American government. Walsh, due to security did not have a recorder or notepad, so he grabbed the only piece of paper in his pocket, and asked Castro to sign it, which he did, to the alarm of some. Castro jokingly said, "How will this affect your economy?"
Thus, Walsh brought back two treasured items. The first was that piece of paper, a $10 bill autographed by El Jefe himself. As an elementary student in Cuba, and having never seen one, Castro once requested a $10 bill from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR sent a kind, personal note instead that Castro held dear. Walsh then asked if the leader of the Central Committee was becoming open to capitalism and free enterprise. Castro replied, "We have made some compromises in an effort to alleviate difficulties during this special period, and we will make more. But we will never risk the survival of our socialist society, one based on solidarity and equality."
The second treasure was this: Walsh proved the notion that no newspaper was too small to do important stories, and if one is not brave (and he was), there is no point in being in journalism at all. We had gone to Cuba and back through our editor's eyes. We became a bigger blip on the map. We will always owe him for that.
I read Walsh's stories again on Monday night. He wrote about the people of Cuba just 34 years after the revolution that placed Castro—who began his life as a revolutionary with just 80 followers—in power and in the crosshairs of world history. Castro was going gray, had paled and had adopted a nervous habit of rubbing his forehead when stressed. In the 23 years since the stories were written, the United States remains fully out of sync with the rest of the world on the matter of trade with, and travel to, Cuba.
Just as Cuba has played pawn to the chess masters heading the Soviet Union and the United States, even to point of nearly leading to nuclear war, by 1993 Castro himself was bound to two different internal bands of Cubans. Many on one side relished the idea of normal relations with the United States and the resources that would come to their island. There was talk of liberalizing certain restrictions upon Cuban citizens. Conversely, attempts to do so were denounced by the Fidelistas, true believers in Fidel, one such fellow telling Walsh, "I didn't work my entire life for nothing, to bow down to the vile dollar."
By the end of this week, Castro, who is referred to as a "master of image and myth" in his New York Times obit, will not only be dead but also buried. If you care to, have a mojito as the dictator himself would on such an occasion. You can celebrate his life or his death. Or not. But for nearly 60 years the people of Cuba, located just 90 miles from our borders, have lived knowing no other ruler. Their rock-steady concept of equality remains based in a social contract with all citizens. What comes now was perhaps forecast 23 years ago by Walsh, words as frozen in time as the '56 DeSotos still running the streets of Havana. Regarding the solidarity of the Cuban people, one of the persons interviewed by Walsh said, "We have neighbors giving to neighbors, our society is not based on selfishness and greed. There is no true democracy where a few have too much and all the others have too little."
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