Rewind to 1989: The contradictions of life in Cuba

The late Harry Reasoner covered the overthrow of General Batista in 1959 and returned to Cuba 30 years later for an update on the revolution

This week President Obama began talks to lift an embargo that, 54 years ago, severed ties between Cuba and the United States.

Watch the excerpt in the player above to see the late Harry Reasoner report from the country in 1989, 30 years after the Cuban revolution.

Even back then, as Mike Wallace says in the introduction, Fidel Castro was "one of the longest-running dictators in the world."


The following is an excerpt from "Cuba 30 Years After," which aired on January 1, 1989. Harry Reasoner was the correspondent.

If you're of a certain age, 30 or so, it must seem like there never was a time when there wasn't a Fidel Castro. Even to those of us old enough to remember the day he came to power in Cuba, it sometimes seems he's been there forever. Well, that's because Fidel Castro is one of the longest-running dictators in the world. Before there was a Castro in Cuba there was a Batista, General Fulgencio Batista, a dictator who ran Cuba with such an iron fist that he paved the way for Castro's Communist revolution.

When Batista, who had turned Cuba into a vice capital was overthrown on New Year's Day, 1959, Harry Reasoner was the CBS News correspondent who reported the event, so it seemed only fitting that Harry go back to report on Cuba 30 years after the revolution. What Harry found was a changed Cuba, some say for the better.

Alberto Perez: It's a sense of pride, of dignity, and that's worth much more than any material goods in the world. You understand? Here, I'm a citizen of this country. And there I'm a spic, or a gook, or a chink. You know, I could have money, but I will always be a Cuban.

Alberto Perez is a radio and television reporter in Cuba, a staunch supporter of the revolution. We asked him why over a million Cubans have fled over the last 30 years.

Harry Reasoner: Why are they swimming away from this earthly paradise?

Alberto Perez: That is a good question. Here we don't have luxuries. You can--

I don't think that's a secret. And we do have a very difficult economic situation.

There's people that are not ready to accept those sacrifices, sacrifices that I think are necessary in order to provide a lot of free stuff here for people. And it's true, a million people has left. But I might remind you that 10 million have stayed.

While many of the older people in Cuba have no desire to travel or emigrate, it's no secret on the streets that many young people are yearning for a change, and a chance to leave.

Harry Reasoner: And you think the revolution has worked?

Alberto Perez: I think so, yes. I think the Cubans have a sense of dignity, have a much better life. People here have jobs, secure jobs. You don't see scenes of drug trafficking on the streets.

And, as far as we could see, Alberto Perez was right. The streets of Havana seem safe. But we did find fear. We were approached by people who criticized the government, its restrictions and ideology, who were afraid to say so on camera. One person who didn't hesitate was this man, Elizardo Sanchez, a former professor, part of a growing human rights movement inside Castro's Cuba.

Elizardo Sanchez: We Cubans have gotten tired of being afraid. At some point, you decide you're not going to be afraid any more. We have gained a certain amount of political space by challenging the government. We oppose the negative things about the government.

Alberto Perez: I don't think there has been an instance of brutality of torture here. I don't think so.

Harry Reasoner: But there are political prisoners.

Alberto Perez: It depends what you call political prisoners. A political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience, is, I go out in the streets, and I say, "I don't like the revolution, I think Castro is an incompetent fellow," for instance, and I go to jail. No one goes to jail for that.

Elizardo Sanchez: In 1980, the political police came to my house and arrested me in the library of my own house, seized my publications and books, and charged me with counterrevolutionary propaganda.

Elizardo Sanchez was imprisoned for five years by the Castro government.

Alberto Perez: We are speaking about different things when we speak about human rights. I think that human rights is the right to eat, the right to work, the right to get medical attention, the right to education.

That may be true, but Cuba still has its problems. Today the Cuban economy is plagued by a lack of productivity, by shortages, long lines, the peeling paint on its once-stately homes. But it is a Cuba where, in spite of the problems, the average worker we met was quick to boast about his country's accomplishments.

1st Cuban Worker: Today there is education. There is hospitals. There is housing.

2nd Cuban Worker: Before, there was racial discrimination. Now it is gone, and there is work and education for everyone.

Cuba has made strides in medicine, education and housing. Apartment blocks and construction projects are everywhere. Today, Cuba has created a system of free medicine, with new hospitals and 25,000 doctors.

Medical Worker: Medicine in Cuba is free. I mean, the patient don't have to pay nothing when they come here.

Returning to Cuba, walking out on the streets of Havana, is like taking a step back in time. Old cars are everywhere. Antiques by our standards, they are necessities in a Cuba that has been embargoed by the United States for the last 30 years.

Alberto Perez: We don't harbor any- any ill feelings towards Americans. In fact, your crews have roamed through Havana, no problem. If you say you're an American, people here go the extra mile to be friendlier with you, because they want to show that we have nothing against the American, against Americans as a whole. We have something against the policy that doesn't even sell us medical drugs to treat cancer patients.

The failure of the United States and Cuba to see eye to eye on human rights, and Castro's support of revolutions around the world, prompted the Reagan administration to stiffen our stand on Cuba. The Castro government responded in kind. And in public on this billboard in downtown Havana it says, "Yankee imperialist, we are not afraid of you." The U.S. has no embassy in Cuba, but there is a U.S. infra-section in the Swiss embassy. Jay Taylor is its top man.

Harry Reasoner: I think a lot of Americans are puzzled by the fact that we seem to have normal relations with China, with the Eastern bloc countries, with the Soviet Union, but not with Cuba, which is essentially an old neighbor. What's the policy on that? What's the justification?

Jay Taylor: I think our relations with all of these countries have to be taken on their own merit. Each one has their own history, and it's quite different.

Harry Reasoner: Is Cuba still classified by the United States as a terrorist country, like Iran and Libya?

Jay Taylor: Yes, it is.

Harry Reasoner: What does that mean? Are they charging them with taking hostages, or hijacking planes or what?

Jay Taylor: I'd have to refer you to the National Security Council and State Department on that question.

We took that reference. We asked the State department in Washington, and they told us that Cuba has been officially labeled terrorist since 1982, because of its overt and covert support of left-wing Latin American guerrillas. Another thorn in the U.S.-Cuban relationship is this: the huge U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, carved out of the island by the American military at the turn of the century.

Harry Reasoner: We're still sitting with armed forces in Guantanamo, although I guess has been officially requested to leave, or at least is presumably not welcome. But we pay rent for that, don't we?

Jay Taylor: That's right. We pay an annual rent-

Harry Reasoner: Of?

Jay Taylor: Under the treaty, it's about $4,000 a year.

Harry Reasoner: Not bad.

Jay Taylor: No. We give them a check every year, but President Castro keeps it in his desk.

Harry Reasoner: They haven't cashed the checks?

Jay Taylor: No, not yet.

But they do cash checks from the Soviets, who subsidize Cuba to the tune of $6 billion a year in oil, heavy equipment and military supplies. Eleven thousand Russian advisers, technicians and their families live in Cuba. This, the new Soviet embassy, is a concrete monument of their presence. There's no doubt about Cuba's close ties to the Soviet bloc.

Alberto Perez: Listen, culturally we are very close to the United States. We laugh at the same jokes, we watch the same movies, we live more or less similarly. We respect these people because those people helped us when we were in need, when the United States blockaded Cuba. They sent oil, and they sent food and they sent everything we needed.

For 30 years, Cuba has had mass rallies. This one drew a half-million people, and included another living monument, Fidel Castro, now 61, doing his thing, speaking for hours on end into the night. Fidel Castro announced, while we were in Cuba, that in spite of reforms in the Soviet Union and new liberal policies throughout the socialist bloc, Cuba will, as it has for 30 years, go its own way.

Sol Landau: People should not expect that Cuba's going to go the capitalist way, or the way of glasnost or perestroika.

In Fidel Castro's audience, Sol Landau, a paid consultant to 60 Minutes on Cuba and a leading expert and supporter of the revolution.

Mr. Landau: Fidel's speech last night was certainly a message to Gorbachev. It was a message that said we have a tough line. It was also a message to George Bush. He paraded the troops, he paraded a few weapons, he assembled a half a million people shouting rah-rah-rah, and "George Bush," he was saying, "you better know that if you try anything with us, the price is going to be very high." So it was a message to the leaders of both superpowers.

Harry Reasoner: If Cuba and the United States have gone different ways, is it still possible to be friendly?

Alberto Perez: This might seem a crazy thing to say, but I think that Cuba is friendlier as a whole, than the people to the United States than some other people in Latin America, places in Latin America. We only demand respect. That's the only thing we demand. We choose our own way. You choose your own way. We don't try to overthrow you. Please don't try to overthrow us. We're small but proud, sir.

Mike Wallace: While the Cuban government allowed Harry to travel and report freely, with only a few restrictions, he was not allowed to film in a Cuban prison, nor a military installation. And no Cuban official would talk with him on camera.