John Virtue once credited the six decades he spent in journalism and academia to an unlikely person — Fidel Castro.
But not for anything the Cuban dictator did on his behalf. In fact, Castro led to one of the darkest moments in his career. But without Castro, Virtue might not have been covering Latin America.
Virtue died June 4 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach of complications from cancer. He was 81.
Last July, upon retirement, he wrote an essay for the Miami Herald detailing his career covering Latin America and training journalists at Florida International University as director of the International Media Center.
“When I was a young parliamentary reporter in my native Canada for United Press International … I asked for a transfer to Latin America,” he wrote. Chances were remote given the competition. “Fidel Castro changed the odds in my favor. Canada became one of Cuba’s major trading partners and a source of news, much of it written by me.”
His breakthrough came at a press briefing between Cuba’s economic affairs minister and the Canadian trade minister. When the Canadian, a jocular fellow, put his arm around the Cuban and praised the island’s businessmen as “wonderful customers,” a reporter for the Canadian Press news agency ignored the significance. Virtue led his article with the comment.
Born Sept. 7, 1934, in Nelson, British Columbia, Virtue was soon on his way to UPI’s New York headquarters. Two years later, he was sent to Havana for a month in 1964. There, he queried Castro at a press conference held at the Mexican Embassy.
Virtue, who quipped in his autobiography, My Life in Journalism, that his wife Anna was correct when she said he was married to the UPI, did his job too well.
When he returned to New York, customs agents noted he 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.” Virtue was given a month to depart the U.S.
Virtue became manager of a 30-member news service bureau in São Paulo. By 1974, he was UPI manager in Mexico City, where the bureau covered events in Cuba, and two years later he accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to Cuba. For the next 17 years, Virtue covered everything from the Guatemala earthquake in 1976 to wars in Central America.
Virtue left UPI in 1981 and for seven years was executive editor of El Mundo, a daily paper in San Juan. Then, “I did something that seemed like a good idea at the time. I quit my job … on principle,” he said in an interview with the Miami Herald in 2006. He had clashed with a new El Mundo publisher who did not believe in independent newsrooms. “I was a hero in the newsroom for about two days,” he said.
Virtue worked for The Miami News in its final eight months as a copy editor in 1988. From there, he joined a U.S. Agency for International Development-sponsored program, the International Media Center at FIU. For the next 25 years, as director, he taught more than 8,000 journalists from 14 countries.
“His biggest impact was the love he had for training journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said the center’s interim director, Mercedes Vigon. “His personality was so optimistic. He was responsible for investigative journalism in Paraguay. There wasn’t any before he arrived. He gave them a little power. That was all they needed. He was a light of hope in the middle of all the difficulties that is journalism in Latin America.”
Then Castro entered the picture again in December 2002, when Virtue held a clandestine workshop in Havana to train independent journalists. When he could not finish an ethics workshop, one of his “brightest students” offered to conduct the course for him at the residence of then-Chief of Mission James Cason, now mayor of Coral Gables. The student turned out be a spy. Castro had 75 dissidents, including 21 journalists from the International Media Center, jailed.
Castro was mistaken if he thought this action would silence the center, Virtue told the Herald in 2003. Enrollment grew to fill the void caused by the imprisonments.
Said Virtue: “One has to have great admiration for people who are willing to continue writing when they know their colleagues have been jailed for doing exactly what they’re doing.”
Virtue is survived by his wife Anna, granddaughters Samantha Rose and Madeline Gene, daughter-in-law Laura White and sister Dawn. He was predeceased by son Mark Virtue.