|Photo by David Burnett, Time|
He told me that a member of the Senate was sending out signals that he wanted to know how a group of company executives and prominent guests were able to accompany a handful of accredited journalists and photographers to Havana, Cuba a month earlier. He also wondered how we paid for it, since financial transactions by Americans were illegal in Cuba.
Why was he calling me? Someone told him that I would be the point man for any questions regarding logistics, documentation, and payment for the recent round-the-world "Newstour", whose first stop was indeed Havana.
After a brief discussion of my actual relatively minor role in this corporate caper, the lawyer intimated that he would find a way to get rid of the inquiry. Case closed.
I did not mention anything to him about a conversation I had several weeks earlier with our contact "in the White House" about how exactly we would be able to document 70 people for that trip. People "in the administration" had noticed that the list of "journalists" wanting to visit Cuba included many names of people who were well know for not being journalists; to that I explained that they would indeed
receive accreditation for the length of the trip. She said that she would see what could be done and gave me a contact in U.S. Customs with whom I could make certain unusual arrangements.
While I'm not at liberty to share the final arrangement, we left Dulles airport in our all-first class L1011 charter on October 6, 1995 and flew directly to Havana, where we arrived in the early evening and got settled into the grand old Hotel National. The trunk pictured below was the actual one used on our office at the hotel. The other one, marked "Beirut" was never used; that city was scratched from the tour at the last minute; both trunks were presented to me as mementos at the conclusion of the trip by Time magazine.
Since we were only in Havana for a short time, I did not get to see too much of the island. I did have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, buy a hand-roled cigar in the lobby of the Nacional for a dollar and smoke it under the pans on the terrace. I also shopped in the tourist market in Old Havana, and visited a farmer's market with a government minder who praised small farmers' ability to practice a meager from of capitalism (we suspected that the market had been concocted solely for our benefit). But, my one regret is that I did not have time to visit Finca Vigia, Hemingway's hacienda. I hope to have that opportunity again one day, a hope that now seems much more realistic after this week's announcement of a new relationship with Cuba.
On the morning of October 7, my crack American Trans Air crew had our aircraft loaded, prepped and ready for take-off. The bus with our guests arrived right on time, boarded, and we were eating for clearance from the tower. And we waited. And waited.
Eventually, the Captain called me, as operations director, to the cockpit to say that the tower had orders directly from Castro to hold us at the airport; visions of the "Execs Captured" headlines in The New York Times danced in my head.
About fifteen minutes later, two military looking vehicles drove through the gate onto the runway and pulled up next to the huge, four-engine L1011. Through my translator I discovered that El Presidente had decided to send departing gifts to each one of the guests: 70 boxes of his favorite Cohiba cigars, and 70 sets of three bottles each of Havana Club rum.
We loaded up, a plane-full of happy guests. Already, I was wondering how I was going to get those gifts through customs in Anchorage, Alaska upon our return home.
"That would depend," he began, "on whether or not you purchased those items, which, of course, would be illegal in Cuba, or if they were gifts; but, you would need to pay duty."
"They were indeed diplomatic gifts from a head of state and I will pay the duty," I replied. "can you call ahead to Anchorage?" Yes, he could.
I still have one of those cigars and El Presidente's card that came with it. The rum is long gone.