Federal Government

Frazier’s Time With Fidel Castro

Yesterday’s death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro brought back memories of one of my biggest international photo assignments nearly 40 years ago as I accompanied Senator Frank Church on a historic visit to Cuba in 1977.

Fidel Castro  August 1977

Fidel Castro August 1977

I had a friendly relationship with Sen. Church and managed to get the only photographer seat on a flight he made to Cuba in August 1977 to visit Castro as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The NY TIMES, TIME MAGAZINE, and UPI all gave me assignments to cover the visit.

Upon arrival in Havana at Castro’s office, Sen. Church made a little speech saying the trip was a historic event as it marked the first time a U.S. Government aircraft had landed in Cuba in 17 years. Castro raised a finger and interjected, “legally that is.” The remark drew chuckles from all present.

Castro was a charismatic figure who dominated the room wherever he stood. Dressed in a combat fatigue uniform, complete with sidearm pistol, I found it telling that he wore handmade designer boots with square toes and zippers.

During the three day visit, Castro became more and more comfortable with the senator and the media. At one point he confessed that he had a bet with Nikita Khrushchev during a fishing trip off the Cuban coast. The Russians were to provide a foreign aid grant if Castro caught the most or biggest fish. Unknown to Krushchev, Castro had a security agent in scuba gear attaching fish to his line and giving it a jerk. He told the story to the senator while visiting Hemingway’s house where “Old Man and The Sea” was

Castro and Church at Hemingway's house in Cuba

Castro and Church at Hemingway’s house in Cuba


He told of shooting mortars at the Bay of Pigs. One round was short, the second sailed past the target vessel. Just as Castro’s men fired the bulls eye round he realized the vessel was abandoned. “I could have had a nice boat,” he said as he smacked his forehead with his hand and grinned.”

When we visited a cattle ranch, Castro confided in Church that the USA embargo of goods to Cuba was not all that good. He bragged that his prize herd of black angus cattle came from North Dakota via Canada in the form of semen.

Highlight of the trip and a memorable moment for me came when we ran out of time one day when I had planned to get a shot of Church and Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Castro came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, apologized for leaving and said, “I will make it up to you tomorrow.”

The private moment

The private moment

Tomorrow came and during the visit to Ernest Hemingway’s home Castro said, “OK, here I am. What can I do for you?” We slipped outside and with security guards nearby we did a brief photo shoot.

On the day of departure I found a bag of bling on my hotel door knob. Inside were two bottles of Cuban rum, a box of Cohiba cigars and Fidel Castro’s business card. The rum has long since been consumed, I impressed my friends with “Castro’s cigars,” and have one dried up stogie left for show and tell.

Castro bling from 1977

Castro bling from 1977

Comments & Discussion

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  1. A very nice story thank you.

  2. Jason W. Smith, Ph.D. (Archaeology)
    Nov 26, 2016, 5:42 am

    Fidel Castro was the strongest influence in my life from the time that I ran away from home barely 16 years old until the present day. As I have described in my autobiography in the Boise State library. -And in the lectures at the ABC’s of Communism website on You Tube dealing with Cuba. Fidel will be missed in a way not easily describable.

  3. I wonder if the ol’ dictator still wore “handmade designer boots with square toes and zippers” with the Adidas jogging suits he seemed to favor in his declining years.

    Dave, you never cease to surprise me! Did Johnny Cash write that song “I’ve been everywhere” about you? Ha!

  4. Great memory. Thanks

  5. This is a well done piece that could go into your memoir/ autobiography. Also, I want to read Jason Smith’s book. May have to buy it. Happy Holidays. Reading, “The Making of Asian Americans,” by Erika Lee who references Minidoka. Glad we could do that trip. Dave Zarkin

  6. I am glad to read that this editor is not celebrating Fidel’s death as mainstream media.
    In most parts of our world, one is raised to not say bad things about a dead person.

  7. A friend and I visited Cuba in 2015. Curiosity took me there, knowledge will keep me from ever returning. Why would I want to visit a country where 55% of the residents want out (see Washington Post Poll)


    Cuba is a disaster. The gaunt horses that pull urban taxis are symbolic of an economy gone awry.

    The environment in Cuba seems as abused as the people and beasts.

    The air and waterways are polluted. There is no pressurized or chlorinated water supply in the country. Even Cubans drink only bottled water.

    Eighty percent of Cubans rate Obama as a good leader. Only 44% rate Fidel as a good leader (above poll).

    The people are great and are very optimistic but I am do not share their optimism. Normalization of relations will benefit a lot of American corporations, but little will trickle down to the Cubans.

  8. A brutal, Communist dictator died.

    On Thursday, a US military man died in Syria fighting against terrorists created by another brutal dictator.

    Let’s love and fight for the world that doesn’t have any dictators or tyrants.

  9. Reading about Senator Church, from the www of wikipedia:

    “On August 17, 1975 Senator Frank Church appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, and discussed the NSA, without mentioning it by name:

    ‘In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. (…) Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.
    If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. (…)

    I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return'”

  10. We need so many more like Church
    Nov 28, 2016, 6:29 pm

    I’m happy for your experiences Editor. I look forward to a book someday. You were doing an excellent job as a journalist and Senator Church an excellent job as a Senator when meeting with Castro.

    As for Castro, I wish the flies would have feasted on his carcass in the 1950s. Evil lives and walks among us… sometimes justified and glorified by handlers such as the case with Castro (and many other villainous cold war puppets). Castro’s only purpose was to be a Soviet irritant to the USA… all the people he harmed and killed just grease in the wheels… could have been any of us… still might be one day.

    Eastie, what Church said is foretelling… Snowden showed us that it came true. The American mainstream media becoming so biased they willfully lost credibility is just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly hope we never again have a president who states his hatred for the culture of more than half of our country or favors a global government over our sovereignty… the fact that we survived 28 years of just such disloyal leadership is quite a testimony to the vision of the founding fathers. However, until we sever the cozy relationship between political spymasters and free press we remain in the grave danger Church worried about. The media must be the true measure of what is real and what is not.

  11. Dave – Thanks for sharing this story. You were lucky to have known Frank Church, he was a true statesman. I agree with those who are saying it’s time for another book.

    Thank you as well for giving me one of those cigars back in 1977 from your trip!! I’ve had several Cuban cigars since then during my international travels, none compared to the one from you.

  12. The conditions in Cuba are a result of the American embargo, not a failed political system. I hope Cuba has the good sense not to let the corporations run amuck now that Fidel is dead.

    Below is a great documentary about how Cuba became largely self sufficient with the help of some Permaculture folks from Australia.

    The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is an American documentary film that explores the Special Period in Peacetime and its aftermath; the economic collapse and eventual recovery of Cuba following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the dramatic steps taken by both the Cuban government and citizens, its major themes include urban agriculture, energy dependence, and sustainability. The film was directed by Faith Morgan, and was released in 2006 by The Community Solution.[1]…

  13. Yossarian_22
    Nov 30, 2016, 1:40 pm

    Great story Dave! Sometime I will share with you my own Church info. He was my 3rd cousin.

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