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Cuba: Looking back, and forward

Sep 2, 2008
by Brian Thompson, '95

Communication professor talks about his days as a journalist in Havana, Cuba, meeting Fidel Castro and his thoughts on the future of the communist island

Slideshow: Cuba in Pictures

There’s a marker on the tip of Key West that proclaims Cuba a mere 90 miles south of American soil. As tourists stare out across the water trying to catch a glimpse of the communist nation, it seems as if the gulf between these two nations is bridgeable and small.

But distances can be misleading, as communication professor Tracey Eaton will tell you, and there is much more between the two countries than just water and miles.

An island he once called “strange and special, stirring and sad,” Cuba is saddled by years of communist rule and economic hardship, yet buoyed by an intense spirit, a strong sense of culture and above all, an electrifying zest for life.

Eaton will tell you there’s much more to Cuba once you scrape below the surface and get to know its politics, its people and its culture, all of which will also leave you scratching your head.

And Cuba is attracting renewed interest now that long-time ruler Fidel Castro — who Cubans often signified by stroking an imaginary beard with their hand — has stepped down and the political winds of American presidential politics are stirring. With Florida and its huge concentration of Cuban-Americans likely to figure prominently next November, presidential candidates have already begun laying out what their policies will be on Cuba.

That gives Eaton, who was one of the few — and first — American journalists to report regularly from Cuba, a unique perspective on the communist country’s future.

“I think the Cuban government is stronger than a lot of people who haven’t lived
there think,” he said. “It has controlled so many aspects of everyday Cuban lives. The demise of [Fidel] Castro won’t really mean the demise of the government, which is set up to sustain itself politically.”

It was in 2000 that Eaton set up shop in Havana Vieja as a correspondent and bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News — one of only five American news organizations that the Cuban government had permitted to report from its soil.

“This was no ordinary island,” Eaton wrote in a farewell piece after The Morning News re-assigned him after almost five years, and some 28 reporting trips before that.

It’s a country that is a mystery to most Americans — a land best known for its larger-than-life revolutionary leader, and made famous by Hemingway, memories of the heyday ’50s, pungent cigars as thick as sausages and the captivating sounds of its folk music and salsa.

Castro ruled the communist nation since leading a rag-tag band of revolutionaries to power in 1959. But with his health failing, the 81-year-old stepped down as president in February and handed the reigns of the tight-fisted government (and its sputtering economy) to his younger brother, Raul.

Raul has led Cuba’s military for the past 50 years and is seen by some to be more willing to embrace change for the island. Even so, Cuba continues to struggle years after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had helped subsidize its economy. Others doubt that the younger Castro will make any significant changes at all, especially on critical issues like bringing about democracy, improving human rights, allowing capitalism to thrive, or loosening the clamp-down on opposition leaders and Cuban journalists.

“I think it’s real difficult to predict what will happen in Cuba in the future,” Eaton said. “Raul is much more pragmatic, and not as much an ideologue as his brother. He has to know that some of the things he’s doing will make people [in Cuba] happier.”

And he has loosened some restrictions on Cubans, allowing them to own cell phones and stay in expensive hotels once reserved for foreigners, if they can afford them. But so far there has been nothing more substantial.

For those reasons, Eaton doesn’t subscribe to the belief that once the Castro regime is gone, the communist government will crumble and democracy will suddenly flourish.

“I don’t necessarily see people rising up [because Castro is gone],” he said. “A lot of things are business as usual. There’s no revolt in the streets. Why would things be so different when he dies?”

Part of the issue, he says, is that the Cuban revolution that Castro launched and sustained for almost five decades is not so much a Socialist or Marxist revolution, but instead a nationalist revolution.

“It’s about being independent and free from foreign rule,” he said, which is part of why many Cubans, even living under harsh economic conditions and numerous state controls, still feel a bond with the revolution, and Castro himself.

Eaton said Fidel’s grip on the nation for half a century inspired great loyalty among Cubans, as well as great fear.

“There’s a whole cult of personality surrounding Fidel,” Eaton said. He remembers the first time he
got a chance to meet the bearded revolutionary: at a reception for American businessmen in Havana.

“Just to watch him work the room, he’s a master politician,” Eaton said. “When he’s talking to you, he makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room, and he’s very charismatic.”

Eaton left the journalism world in the fall of 2007 to join Flagler’s Communication Department and teach a future generation of journalists the art of newsgathering.

“I miss the action, and I miss kind of being at the center of things,” he said about leaving a career that spanned 24 years. “But I’m really enjoying it here.”

The “center of things” was a journalist’s cornucopia of assignments ranging from Cuba to assignments in Mexico, Haiti, the Middle East and even Afghanistan after U.S. forces struck at the Taliban following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Before Flagler, he worked for The Houston Chronicle, where he had been the Mexico/border editor and later the metro editor. He became somewhat of a specialist investigating Mexican drug cartels, organized crime and political corruption.

Fluent in Spanish, he had always wanted to cover Latin America, and began his career working for the The Miami Herald and The Orange County Register before moving to The Morning News.

“My goal was to be a foreign correspondent,” he said. The Dallas paper sent him to their Mexico City bureau in the early 1990s, just as Mexico started making international headlines, all beginning with the Zapatista uprising.

But it was Cuba — a land that few Americans are allowed to visit thanks to a U.S. travel ban — that fascinated him the most. Eaton first journeyed there in 1994 on assignment for The Morning News, which was trying to broaden its coverage of Latin America.

“We were really trying to raise the profile of the newspaper and take the place of The Miami Herald in Latin America,” he said.

After seven “very difficult” years of trying to open a bureau in Cuba, Eaton moved there permanently in 2000 to get a taste of the troubles a foreign journalist can have while trying to report on a media-adverse communist government. Cuban media is all state-controlled and primarily government propaganda — a far cry from the kind of journalism Eaton practiced.

“We wrote about economic and social problems in Cuba, which were often scathing and hard-hitting,” Eaton said. “That didn’t sit well with the Cuban government. But we couldn’t compromise and write fluff. We wanted to write what we felt was the truth [about Cuba].”

While it didn’t sit well, Eaton wrote it anyway, even if it meant occasional calls to visit the Foreign Ministry where a Cuban official would explain to him why a story was unfair or incorrect. But he said he was never censored or pressured to write pro-Cuba stories, and his travel was never limited. Cuban journalists don’t have it so well, he noted. In 2003, he wrote about how the government rounded up more than a dozen journalists and sent them off
to prison.

Eaton’s time in Cuba left him somewhat conflicted about the nation — on the one hand trying to understand its repressive and dictatorial grasp on the people, and on the other marveling at the Cuban people’s resourcefulness, pride, generosity and resilience.

There’s a much greater sense of community there — of culture and of unity — than you find in many other countries, he said. His wife is Cuban, and that has also given him greater insight into the island.

“People are poor in Cuba, but everyone is poor. You don’t have the rich exploiting the poor,” he said.

It would be great if you could take what’s good about capitalism and what’s good about their system and combine them.”

He recognizes that’s probably wishful thinking, and that change will come to Cuba — in many ways it has already started. The bigger question in his mind is in what form it will come, and how much it will change a “strange and special” island that has become so close to him.

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