Follow @MarkBrownCSTFresh off his history-making campaign for president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson flew to Havana in the summer of 1984 to meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
I was part of the press contingent that tagged along to bear witness to Jackson’s unusual self-styled diplomatic mission.
“Long live President Castro!” Jackson shouted while being given a hero’s welcome arranged by the Cuban dictator, much to the consternation of many Americans back home including most everyone in Ronald Reagan’s White House.
And so Castro did — live a long time, that is — not to suggest Jackson had anything to do with it.
But Castro’s death last week at age 90 finally gives me another chance to tell my Cuba stories.
Follow @MarkBrownCSTJackson’s trip came at a time it was extremely rare for Americans to visit Cuba, and upon our arrival in Havana, we were quickly clued in on the fact that we weren’t operating in the U.S. any longer.
Cuban officials led us to a press filing center arranged for our use. We were told we could phone home to the states, but would need to place our calls through the Cuban operator.
We also learned the modems on our personal computers were not compatible with the Cuban phone system, which meant I would need to dictate my story to a rewrite man back in Chicago.
I called the Sun-Times and got a surprisingly clear connection, but as soon as I began a sentence with the words “Cuban dictator Fidel Castro,” the phone line went dead.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it and called back to pick up where I left off. Again, my call went right through, but as soon as the words “Cuban dictator” came out of my mouth, the phone went dead a second time.
On the next attempt, the rewrite guy in Chicago and I came to an understanding about the nature of the problem and arranged to work around it.
I completed my story, and in the process I gained some insight into what it was like to live in a communist country.
The Cuban people were very kind to us, including the press attaché who was assigned to be my minder to make sure I didn’t do anything subversive during our brief stay.
The most subversive thing I managed to do was write a story on the old Riviera Hotel, which had been the mob’s glitzy Havana outpost and a symbol of Fulgencio Battista’s corrupt regime before Castro overthrew him in 1959.
Chicago car dealer Charles Baron managed the Riviera at one time for crime syndicate financial genius Meyer Lansky, but its trademark casino was long abandoned and the hotel dog-eared and musty-smelling by 1984.
The hotel staff gave me a shiny Riviera Hotel ashtray as a souvenir, which was so cool I asked if I could buy more.
This made them extremely uncomfortable, and I realized only later my cultural blunder. The ashtrays weren’t for sale, and the workers had extended a kindness. Accepting my money could have got them in trouble.
I did manage to bring home one more good souvenir.
Castro held a state reception for Jackson and his entourage at the Palacio de la Revolucion. Reporters were invited.
Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson was there to greet the Americans.
I have shaken hands with two people in my life where my hand quite literally disappeared in their grip — Stevenson and Muhammad Ali.
Before leaving, I stuffed a lavender cloth dinner napkin from the palace in my coat pocket. Totally tacky, I admit, yet satisfying just the same.
Castro came aboard our plane at departure to shake everyone’s hand, which makes him the only foreign head of state I ever met. It never occurred to me to get him to autograph the napkin.