Ron Magill had been itching to visit Cuba for years, but didn’t dare given his hometown’s loathing of the Castro regime and his high-profile position as spokesman for the Miami-Dade County zoo.
But with the White House now engaging Cuba, Magill decided to take a break from his frequent television appearances and board a plane for Havana three weeks ago as part of a delegation visiting the capital city’s zoo. The 55-year-old was on edge walking through José Martí International Airport when a customs agent intercepted him.
“Excuse me,” the agent said to Magill in Spanish. “Are you the guy from Sábado Gigante?”
So began a celebrity tour of sorts for Magill through his father’s homeland, with nearly every stop sparking a moment of recognition in a city where the government blocks U.S. television and strictly regulates access to media. A black-market exchange of American programming thrives in Havana, extending Magill’s fame into the heart of a dictatorship that didn’t turn out to be as isolated as he expected.
“People who don’t seem to have electricity have seen the show,” said Magill, who regularly appears animal-in-hand on Sábado Gigante, a Spanish-language variety show aired out of the Univision studios in Doral. “Ladies were crying. They were crying because they met me. They said: ‘I can’t believe you are here.’”
Magill’s star turn in Havana offers another measure of the delicate but dramatic change in possibilities when it comes to Miami and Cuba four months after President Barack Obama announced his pursuit of full diplomatic relations with the Castro regime.
A senior county employee in the heart of anti-Castro territory, Magill said that he had dismissed the idea of a similar trip several years ago under existing people-to-people exemptions in the U.S. travel ban. But while the changes in Washington gave him the confidence to go, Magill said local considerations influenced his arrangements.
Other zoo officials on his trip were there for work, scouting out possible Cuba trips as part of their travel programs. Magill took vacation time from his $93,000-a-year county job as the zoo’s communications director, and paid his own way. His boss at Miami-Dade, Zoo Miami director Eric Stephens, said that he couldn’t stop Magill from going but suggested he stay quiet about it.
“He said: ‘I wouldn’t tell people you’re doing that.’ I said: ‘You know what? I’ll decide that when I get back,’” Magill said, in an account that Stephens didn’t dispute.
Discretion has not been a hallmark of Magill’s 35-year career with Miami-Dade, which began at the old county zoo at Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park. He was a zoo keeper in the late 1980s when a county public-information officer was briefing reporters on a new baby crocodile. Magill thought the narrative was a bit stale, so he jumped in with some commentary. Then-director Robert Yokel called him and the PIO to a meeting, reprimanded Magill for violating zoo communication policy, and then named him top spokesman.
Some 25 years later, the six-foot-six Magill may be the best-known employee of Miami-Dade government, given his frequent television appearances. That includes a regular stint on Sábado Gigante, the legendary Univision show now set for retirement later this year.
Magill’s relationship with Sábado gives him a particular following among Spanish-speaking audiences. Stephens recalled attending a Tampa conference with Magill, when a naturalization ceremony was spilling out of a hotel ballroom.
“It seemed like everybody who had just become a citizen wanted to come over and have their picture taken with Ron,” Stephens said. “I think they thought it was part of their naturalization ceremony.”
Magill was allowed into Havana April 7 under a permit allowing people-to-people exchanges, an exemption whose strict rules were loosened as part of Obama’s December decision to pursue diplomatic relations with Cuba. Seen as capitulation by critics, it raised the harshest blowback in Miami.
The city’s mayor, Tomás Regalado, warned against establishing a Cuban consulate in Miami. Magill’s ultimate boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, issued a statement that read in part: “I am deeply disturbed that it appears that in this negotiation we did not secure freedoms for the Cuban people.” Both mayors were born in Cuba; neither has been back.
Asked about Magill’s Cuban travels Thursday, a Gimenez spokesman said: “That’s a personal trip.”
Magill described “great trepidation” in planning the 50-minute flight from Miami to Havana. “There is a strong faction within the county government who are very anti traveling to Cuba,” he said. “I certainly didn’t want to hurt their feelings. But at the end of the day, my profound yearning to see where my father was born prevailed.”
In Cuba, Magill said that he saw poverty, but also levity. “There were people who didn’t have shoes on their feet. But they were playing music and dancing,” he said. “The roads were in pretty good shape. It’s certainly not as bad as some people want you to think.”
Born in Manhattan, Magill attended Palmetto Senior High after his parents moved to Perrine in the 1970s. Magill’s father grew up in Santiago, Cuba, then moved to New York in the late 1940s. His parents headed back to Cuba for their honeymoon in 1959, just after Fidel Castro seized power. His mother recalled hearing the new leader start a radio address as they were leaving for a long drive across the country. Eighteen hours later, they arrived in Santiago and turned on the radio. Castro was still talking.
Magill was able to visit Cuba as a star thanks to a collision of the country’s famed resourcefulness under the Castro regime and a revolution in how media gets distributed everywhere else.
Along with pirated signals and illegal satellite dishes, Cubans regularly keep up with news, pop culture, telenovelas and binge-watching favorites through thumb drives brought in from the United States.
A thumb drive filled with a gigabyte or two of downloaded movies, shows, articles and Web page screenshots will be offered for upload by someone for a few dollars, and that buyer might resell what’s often called “el paquete” (the package) to friends and neighbors.
“It’s a Cuban version of Netflix,” said Raul Moas, director of Miami Beach-based Roots of Hope, which provides cellphones and thumb drives to Cubans. “It would have Game of Thrones. It would have Sábado Gigante.”
In Havana, a policeman approached Magill to confirm his fellow officers’ suspicion that they had seen him on Sábado. Magill said one Cuban resident saw enough of his appearances to know how he met his wife, Rita. (She was a physical therapist; he had a crocodile bite.)
“It was great fun taking photos of Ron having his picture taken,” said Craig Dinsmore, director of Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. “It was astonishing. … People started pointing at him, waving at him. That happened at every stop.”
For traveling zoo executives, the Cuba National Zoo brought its own surprises. The exposed rusted rebar and cracked concrete met expectations in a cash-starved country, as did the tales of farmers selling dying horses for lion meat. But Dinsmore and Magill described being stunned by the Africa exhibit, where elephants, hippos, rhinos and giraffes intermingle in a vast grassland managed by zoo keepers on horseback.
“For me, it was really amazing,” Dinsmore said. “So many species of animals together, compatibly, and just sort of ambling around, looking relaxed and in good health.”
For Magill, the trip proved too inspiring for him to not share. He gave his first interview this week to CBS 4, telling anchor Eliott Rodriguez, “I have never been prouder of my Cuban roots.”
He’s also being open about his take on the policy change that prompted him to visit Cuba. “This hasn’t worked for 50 years. I think it’s time,” he said of the U.S. embargo, which continues to ban regular tourism to Cuba. “I think it’s time we try something new.”
“I know my trip there, and my comments, are going to upset people,” he continued. “And I profoundly apologize for that.”