I’m not one who likes his picture taken. If I did, I might have chosen television reporting over newspaper writing.
But there’s one photograph of myself that I keep on my phone, and it makes me chuckle. It’s of me and then-Cuban President Fidel Castro, taken 15 years ago, when the jefe máximo invited me and several other journalists to have dinner and interview him at his Havana palace.
I used to think I was the reason that Newsday had entré into the Castro regime. But Les Payne, former Newsday assistant managing editor, recently relieved me of that misconception. He said Cuba had long felt Newsday was fair and responsible in its coverage of the country and its government.
Whatever. I’m not going to hide that I liked being around Castro. Before we had dinner 15 years ago, he put a hand on my shoulder and lectured me (oh, yeah, he could talk) about the good things Cuba was doing around the world.
It was kind of amazing, actually.
There I was, a reporter from an enemy country, and no one even patted me down. From 1987 to 2001, I stood close to Castro on several occasions, and never got pushed away by security agents or grilled about my intentions.
Contrast that with the experiences of American reporters who were recently covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. One, a woman, got grabbed by a Trump campaign official and thrown to the ground as she tried to ask the candidate a question. Others were regularly threatened by Trump backers at his rallies.
On this topic of journalism ethics, I have to say that Castro, who died Friday, did try to influence me. That time that we had dinner with him, he gave us boxes of Cuban cigars. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I could have brought the cigárros back to Newsday; or I could have kept them as valuable mementos. Instead, I gave them to a Cuban source of mine, a struggling economist who helped me out with stories.
It was Castro who gave me one of the biggest stories I ever did. In 1987, I went to Cuba and interviewed Assata Shakur, who was wanted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper.
Our front-page Newsday piece was based on a week of interviews with Shakur (born Joanne Chesimard). Castro had granted her asylum and it was clear that he had approved of her spending time with me and Newsday photographer Ozier Muhammad.
For sure, there were occasions when Castro seemed, even to me, to be overdoing it.
There was the time I learned about a former Cuban Air Force colonel, Alvaro Prendes, who had turned against the Castro regime, and was complaining about restrictions on speech and economic policies. Cuban police were giving him a hard time, stopping him when he was driving and generally harassing him.
I went to Prendes’ home, and interviewed him on a couple of occasions. After our Newsday article appeared, Prendes was allowed to leave Cuba and live in exile in Florida. He died in Miami in 2004.
I’ve had the great fortune over the past several years, at the invitation of former Newsday editor Howard Schneider, now dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, to take students to Cuba.
Castro was a thing of the past, and more and more Americans have been visiting the country. The students, using smartphones that were non-existent when I was there years before as a reporter, snapped photos day and night.
I loved being with them as they reported on a new and developing reality, a scene that no longer had Fidel Castro in it.
Ron Howell, a former Newsday reporter, is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College.