I owe my career in journalism and academia — more than half a century — to Fidel Castro.
When I was a young parliamentary reporter in my native Canada for United Press International, then an important news agency, I asked for a transfer to Latin America. My chances of success were remote as there was always a backlog of young journalists who wanted to become foreign correspondents.
Fidel Castro changed the odds in my favor.
Canada and Mexico were the only hemispheric nations to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba following the 1959 revolution and Castro’s fealty to Marxism. Canada became one of Cuba’s major trading partners and a source of news, much of it written by me.
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My breakthrough came when Cuba’s economic affairs minister, Regino Boti, met with Canadian trade minister, George Hees. At a press briefing afterward, Hees, a 6-foot-4 former professional football player, put his arm around the shorter Cuban and said, “You can’t do business with better businessmen anywhere. They’re wonderful customers.” The reporter for the Canadian Press news agency was covering his first Cuban story and did not realize the significance of the minister’s remarks and did not put them in his story. I led my story with them.
When my story was transmitted by UPI, the Canadian Embassy in Washington denied the minister’s remarks. Questioned on the floor of the House of Commons, Hees said he had never in his life claimed a journalist had misquoted him. I was soon on my way to UPI’s New York headquarters, where I joined three other young reporters awaiting a transfer to Latin America.
After more than two years in New York, I was sent to Havana for a month in 1964. UPI then had more than $10,000 in an account at the Royal Bank of Canada and one paying client, the newspaper El Mundo, which Cubans bought for its coverage of major league baseball. My assignment was to see if a Canadian could spend the money in the bank on behalf of UPI.
I was introduced to Fidel Castro at a reception at the Mexican Embassy. Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and other top officials were present. Fidel Castro held a press conference at which I asked one of the questions.
Besides carrying out my journalistic duties, I regularly invited people from the office for lunch, one couple to the Tropicana nightclub for dinner and the show. I did this with funds from the bank account.
When I returned to New York, U.S. Immigration found a stamp in my passport showing I had returned to Mexico from Cuba. Since I was working in New York on a trainee visa, the immigration officer said I was hardly a trainee if I had been sent to Cuba. I was given one month to depart the country.
Again Fidel Castro was responsible for my transfer, this time to São Paulo, Brazil, as manager of the 30-man bureau that prepared UPI’s Portuguese-language news service.
By 1974, I was UPI manager in Mexico City, where the bureau was responsible for covering events in Cuba. Five years earlier, the Cuban government had closed the UPI and Associated Press bureaus in Havana and seized UPI’s bank funds.
Starting in 1976, I made four annual trips to Cuba, the first accompanying Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. To save UPI money, I joined his entourage in Mexico. During a reception at the Canadian residence in Havana, state security agents dragged UPI photographer Rod MacIvor and his bulky camera bag into the garden area and roughed him up. It turned out there had been rumors that an attempt would be made on Fidel Castro’s life at the residence.
The Cuban Consulate in Mexico City opened for me one Sunday in 1978 to issue a visa so that UPI could cover the release of the first of 3,600 political prisoners to be released that year. My last trip for UPI was in 1979 to sign an agreement for an exchange of news agency services: the Cuban Mission at the United Nations would receive the UPI service while we’d receive Prensa Latina in Mexico City.
I left UPI in 1981 to become executive editor of El Mundo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Eight years later, I entered academia, becoming a faculty member of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University.
Once again in 1998 Fidel Castro played a role in my career: the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded FIU’s International Media Center a grant to train Cuba’s dissident independent journalists. When Vicky Huddleston, then the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, learned that I had dual citizenship, she said I should do a clandestine workshop in Cuba. She said I should spend four or five days as a Canadian tourist, give my workshop and leave on the next plane before State Security realized I was there. She said the State Department could not help me if I were arrested.
By the time I traveled to Cuba, December 2002, Huddleston was ambassador to Mozambique and the chief of mission was James Cason, currently mayor of Coral Gables. I went to Havana via Toronto, paying $25 at TACA airlines for my visa. My seatmate said he was going for the jazz festival, so I made that my explanation for traveling alone.
When I was unable to finish my ethics workshop, one of the brightest journalists, Manuel David Orrio, said he could do so, but he’d like to use the spacious residence of the chief of mission rather than that of the public affairs officer, where only 18 journalists attended my workshop. Cason agreed and Orrio held his workshop March 14, 2013 in the residence. Four days later, Fidel Castro said Cason had gone too far in opening his residence to dissidents; he announced the arrest of 75 dissidents, including 29 journalists.
It turns out Orrio was a state security agent. After 12 years working as a journalist, he broke his cover to testify against his former colleagues, who received prison sentences of up to 28 years.
That year, an FIU researcher met Fidel Castro, who said he understood one of her colleagues had been in Cuba the previous December, meaning me. Little did Castro know that his very presence over half a century propelled my career as a journalist and a trainer of journalists. Do I owe him my thanks?
Virtue retired July 17 as director of FIU’s International Media Center. He is the author of eight non-fiction books, including Canada and the American Dream.