After fleeing Fidel, newsman ready to return to Cuba

John Skelly reads the writing on the back of a photograph of himself and Fidel Castro in 1959 Havana. Skelly grew up in Banes, Cuba, where his father ran the railroad for United Fruit. His neighbors were the Diaz-Balarts. As a newsman, he was there when Fidel Castro marched triumphant into Havana and he briefly served as Fidel's press secretary. June 3, 2015.
John Skelly reads the writing on the back of a photograph of himself and Fidel Castro in 1959 Havana. Skelly grew up in Banes, Cuba, where his father ran the railroad for United Fruit. His neighbors were the Diaz-Balarts. As a newsman, he was there when Fidel Castro marched triumphant into Havana and he briefly served as Fidel's press secretary. June 3, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

John T. Skelly's life has been inextricably linked with Cuba, Fidel Castro and the Kennedys.

Born in the Dominican Republic, 88-year-old Jack Skelly moved to Cuba when he was 1 and grew up in Banes, where his father ran the railroad for United Fruit. His neighbors were the influential Diaz-Balarts. His sister was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Fidel Castro and Mirta Diaz-Balart.

As a newsman, he was there when Fidel Castro marched triumphantly into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and he briefly served as Castro’s international press coordinator. He became disillusioned and helped many marked people get out of Cuba during the early months of the revolution.

A confidant of presidents and at home in the shadowy world of intelligence, Skelly has been involved in pivotal times in Cuba history. He hasn't been back to the island since he fled in the early months of the revolution although he has maintained a lifelong involvement with Cuba.

“He is living history,” said his daughter Beth Skelly, who lives with him in a Fort Lauderdale apartment overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and palm trees that remind him of Cuba.

Now, under President Barack Obama's opening, he wants to return to Cuba for a visit, preferably the visit of Pope Francis in September.

Although he now must use a walker to get around, he is determined to return to a country that he hasn’t seen in 56 years — to visit the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, and to see Banes and nearby Puerto Rico Beach, a place he still dreams about many nights.

Through the years he worked for many news organizations, including the Washington office of the old United Press where he was assigned to cover Latin American and Hispanic affairs. He made four trips to Cuba when Fidel and Raúl Castro were in the Sierra Maestra waging their guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista, and he was in Cuba when Batista and his entourage fled to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1959.

Skelly was also there on Jan. 8 when Fidel Castro and his army, who had marched across the country from eastern Cuba, entered Havana. He watched Fidel perched atop a Sherman tank with his young son Fidelito at his side on a television at the home of Mirta Diaz-Balart, his childhood friend and by then the ex-Mrs. Fidel Castro.

Some events from the past now slip from his memory or blend together, but Skelly still remembers what Mirta told him. “She said, ‘If he’s as good a leader as he was a father and husband, poor Cuba,’” Skelly recalled.

Shortly afterward in Havana, Skelly came face-to-face with Fidel, whom he had met in 1948.

“When Fidel came out of the mountains in his military uniform, it seemed like everyone wanted an interview. It was just 90 miles away from the United States and $65 round trip and everyone who could afford to send someone did,” Skelly said. Even Ed Sullivan flew in to interview Castro in those first days.

“Fidel said, ‘This is insanity — help me out. So I stepped up and helped him with the translations,” said Skelly, who was wearing a blue guayabera that matched his eyes and a ball cap emblazoned with the word Cuba as he told his story.

Because it was a conflict, he resigned his post at UP and briefly served as Castro’s international press coordinator and translator. At the time, Skelly said, he thought the revolution would bring democracy to Cuba, but he soon saw it as a betrayal.

On Jan. 11, he was at Castro’s side at CMQ studios in Havana when he appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation. In an old news clip, Skelly can be seen bending toward the comandante’s ear to translate questions, but Castro answers in English. At one point, Skelly supplies the English word for respected.

“I am not a Communist at all,” Castro said in the interview. “I will never be against any right. We have fought for democracy here. We believe in democracy.”

Pressed why there were so many executions “without open and free trials,” Castro answered: “Not so many.” Asked how many, Castro responded, “I don’t know exactly. Two or three dozen — but of criminals.” The first to meet the firing squads were Batistianos, mostly members of Batista’s army and police.

The firing squads were rumored but no secret, said Skelly. He first became aware of them when he began hearing about priests being called in the middle of the night to administer last rites before prisoners were lined up against the wall. “Fidel respected the church at the beginning,” said Skelly.

After marching into Havana, the revolutionaries set up shop at the Havana Hilton and promptly renamed it the Habana Libre. “I saw Russians coming in and out of the Habana Libre,” Skelly noted.

About that time, Skelly said he began warning some Cuban friends that they should leave Cuba.

His own departure was hastened when a story linking him to the CIA appeared on the front page of a newspaper, Diario de la Marina as he recalls. Skelly suspects Castro himself had the story planted.

He said Castro summoned him and accused him of being with the CIA. “I told him the only CIA I knew about were the Catholic Irish Alcoholics. Fidel Castro thought that was very funny and laughed quite a bit. Being a Catholic Irish Alcoholic that day, I think, saved my life.”

But Skelly took the hint and said he was on the next plane out of Havana.

As a reporter, he said, he had many good contacts with various agencies: the State Department, the CIA, the FBI. His CIA contacts, he said, had been warning him: “Don’t touch him, get away from Castro.”

Even though his daughter remembers “CIA guys hanging out in hammocks in the backyard smoking cigars” when she was growing up, Skelly said he wasn’t CIA.

Before the revolution, he mentioned an event that might seem unusual by today’s standards. President Dwight Eisenhower, he said, gave him a call asking whether he could do anything to win the release of about a dozen Navy men who had been taken captive by the 26th of July Movement in the Sierra Maestra. Skelly said he spent days trekking up to their camp and met the captives and captors.

State Department documents from June and July 1958 detail the taking of 19 American and Canadian civilians and 30 Navy men and Marines, ostensibly to pressure the United States to stop providing arms to Batista. Efforts to secure the captives’ release were carried out on several fronts, but the documents don’t specifically mention Skelly. The captives were released in small groups with the last 14 — all enlisted men — unexpectedly set free on July 18 and returned to the Guantánamo base.

Georgie Anne Geyer, a long-time friend of Skelly and a pioneering Latin American correspondent, said it wasn’t so unusual in those days for a president to dispatch a reporter. “It was the times: Everything seemed to be falling apart with Cuba, and no one [in government] knew how to locate the barbudos,” she said.

But Skelly’s Cuba story, which daughter Beth calls “Gone with the Cuban Wind,” begins in Banes, a company town operated by United Fruit Co., which ran the nearby Boston sugar mill. The Skellys lived on one end of the block; the Diaz-Balart family on the other end and their children grew up together.

After returning to Cuba for the summer after his first year in high school in Baltimore, Skelly said everyone kept telling him he should see his old friend, green-eyed Mirta Diaz-Balart, who had grown into a beauty. He was instantly smitten and was in the throes of puppy love as he accompanied her to dances and the beach that summer. “When I saw her, I said, ‘That’s it.’ She was a very nice person and, of course, beautiful.”

After finishing high school, he joined the U.S. Army and served for two years in Austria and Germany before enrolling in George Washington University where, as an editor of the Hatchet student newspaper, he met a budding photojournalist named Jacqueline Bouvier — a connection that linked him to the Kennedys during the turbulent 1960s.

When he returned to Cuba in the summer of 1948, he saw Mirta again and met her new husband, Fidel Castro, who was visiting his in-laws at Puerto Rico Beach. “When I first met him, he was very polite,” Skelly said. “You would not know he was the future gobernante of Cuba.” But Skelly admitted he still carried a torch for Mirta and “I was angry.”

Her nephew, former South Florida Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, said Skelly was an “American-Cuban,” as opposed to the more common Cuban-American. He grew up hearing stories about Skelly from his parents and became more personally acquainted the first time he ran for Congress. “He always talked with great nostalgia and affection about Cuba,” he said.

After Banes, Skelly began his career as a newsman. He went on to become a presidential speech writer on Latin America, a publicist for the old Pan American Coffee Bureau, special assistant to two Organization of American States secretaries general and father of seven children.

After leaving Cuba, he went to work on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and was a co-founder of a Viva Kennedy group — an effort to attract Spanish-speaking voters. As the United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 1, 1961, Kennedy was getting ready for his inauguration and Skelly was providing input on speeches that touched on Latin America.

The guest room in his Alexandria, Virginia, home was always open to recently arrived exiles. “Hundreds” passed through, he estimated. “I always kept up contacts with the exiles so I could find out what was going on,” he said.

In his current home, the living room walls are decorated with Cuban posters and artwork his daughter Annee Martin brought back when she visited the island last year. Now, Skelly’s big interest is getting back to Cuba — even though he knows his family home was knocked off its foundation by Hurricane Ike and nothing remains.

When he heard the news in December that Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro planned to reestablish diplomatic ties and open embassies, he was happy. “I thought it was about time. I was against the embargo; I thought there was no reason for it,” Skelly said.

“We don’t care about politics. If he can get over it, anyone can get over it,” said Beth Skelly. “Dad always wanted to outlive Fidel Castro and go back to Cuba.”

Asked about outliving Castro, who will turn 89 in August, Skelly responded, “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind it.”

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