With the death of Fidel Castro last week came the end of a ruthless life that more than all others voiced to the world the captivating spirit of the Cuban people.
As dictator of the Caribbean island, he allied his nation tightly to the Soviet Union, giving rise to a Cold War standoff that persisted for much of the last six decades.
While Americans yearned for the island’s cultural excitement - its salsa dance, Afro-Cuban jazz, preeminent art and literature, famed cigars - all this was denied them by an embargo, only slowly and recently relaxed.
The excesses of Castro’s Soviet-style, state-run regime heightened the pain felt by the Cuban-exile community in South Florida, and kept the two countries warily watching each other’s every move.
Certainly not as much as Miami, where Cubans rule as in no other lands of their exile, but if ever another Florida city can attest to that blend of fear and allure Cuba has possessed in American’s eyes, it is Apalachicola.
Nowadays, curious travelers from throughout Franklin County and the rest of America are flocking to visit Cuba, eroding the travel ban in place throughout Castro’s years in power.
But six decades ago, within the first three years after his revolution assumed absolute power in Feb. 1959, two Apalachicolans each paid visits to Castro - one to shake his hand in person as a young beauty queen, and another to wave from high overhead in the cockpit of an experimental spy plane.
The first visit, in May 1959 by Lynn Wilson, was part of a short-lived charm offensive waged by Castro, newly named as prime minister, to reach out to the Americans.
The second one, in Oct. 1962 by the late Col. Richard “Steve” Heyser, piloting a U-2 plane that snapped pictures of Soviet military build-up on the island, was the opening round in a crisis the entire world feared could careen into a nuclear war.
Wilson, now married to Bill Spohrer, former owner of a Miami-based cargo carrier, nowadays divides her time between Miami and Apalachicola as owner of a world-class design firm. Fifty-seven years ago she was a freshman on scholarship at the University of Miami, studying architecture by day and dancing at fancy nightclubs on Miami Beach at night.
In the fall of 1958, months after graduating Miami High, 18-year-old Wilson happily hoofed her way to the Miss Hialeah crown, enabling her to compete in the Miss Florida pageant, where she was rivaled by the likes of starlet Faye Dunaway, a Bascom native who attended the University of Florida.
“The Cubans (in Miami) were very much upset that I wasn’t Cuban and I won Miss Hialeah,” said Wilson.
In fulfilling her duties to pageant sponsor the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce, she rode on the New Year’s Day Orange Bowl float in the annual spectacular parade. During halftime of the game, when Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners had a 14-0 lead on the Syracuse Orangemen, she and her fellow beauty queens – from Miami, North Miami, South Miami and Miami Beach - rode in on chariots with six white horses.
Six weeks later, 90 miles to the south but soon to become worlds apart, Castro was sworn in as prime minister after a bloody overthrow of the regime of Gen. Fulgencio Batista, and he embarked on an earnest attempt to woo American support for his fledgling Marxist-leaning government.
But with so many of the educated, affluent classes fleeing to Miami, Castro found it soon necessary to cut off the commercial flights that had long ferried vacationers to and from Havana’s casinos and clubs.
“Americans at that time didn’t really see Castro as so bad, they saw him as possibly good for Cuba,” said Wilson. “(The exiles) were still thinking they were going to go back.
“He didn’t show his true colors, he was so pleased and overwhelmingly proud of himself. He wanted to be admired by everybody,” she said. “He was measuring his next steps very carefully. I think he really thought at the beginning he would be accepted as a leader.”
In early May Cubans were to mark both the workers holiday May Day as well as Carnival, an annual spring festival where the island comes alive with celebration.
Castro decided that it would help rally his countrymen behind his revolution by their reveling in the giant parades that engulfed Havana. He also figured five Miami beauty queens leading the parade could fit in well with his desire to stop the sudden drain of brains and talent that emigration was costing his nation.
“He really wanted to be accepted, he did it as a good will gesture,” said Wilson. “On the one hand he was very kind by paying for everything, and the Americans were honored, as we were the first people back in there since they closed the country.”
Because the last Eastern Airlines flight had been stopped weeks earlier, Castro dispatched a camouflaged C-47 troop carrier to Miami Airport, where it picked up the American entourage, Wilson included.
“There were no seats in it, it was just for paratroopers,” she said. “I sat in the jump seat in front, behind the pilot. It had straps on either side.
“By the way it was my first flight ever,” said Wilson. “I’d never been on a plane before.”
She recalled several signs of the military overtones of life in Cuba, but no evidence of fear or concern for safety.
“Everybody went to Cuba to have fun. My mother allowed me to go to Cuba which meant we were all a little bit naïve,” she said. “At the time there wasn’t much in the news that an 18-year-old would pay attention to, and at that time Miami wasn’t quite as Cuban as it is now.”
A guerrilla war had taken its toll on the landscape, a contrast to the enormous growth Miami had experienced in the post-war Eisenhower era.
“For me there’s all these buildings that are blown up and all these women in army fatigues,” Wilson recalled. “The machine guns, that was quite curious to me, and our personal bodyguard with pearl-handed pistols, shined to the hilt, around his waist. He was very proud of them.”
The week gave Castro an opportunity to bring home the popularity he had attracted after an April visit to Washington arranged by American newspaper editors. Castro had donned the mask of friend to all, visiting Yankee Stadium, placing a wreath at George Washington’s grave, and storming out of a conference when questions from foreign policy experts irritated him. He seemed not to care that Ike shunned him, or that his meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon was chilly and unproductive.
But in May 1959 on the streets of Havana, hope flowed like sugarcane juice, and people flocked to meet the beauty queens, who were all over radio and TV. “I didn’t speak any Spanish,” said Wilson.
The queens toured the Bacardi family’s rum making facility, the famed Tropicana nightclub, and cigarmaking factories throughout, and lunched with Castro’s cronies at the elite private beach clubs and lavish mansions that had been newly confiscated by the Castroistas.
“This was all part of this screwy charismatic dictator plot and I was an innocent 18 year old beauty queen being manipulated as a political pawn in Castro’s efforts for legitimacy,” said Wilson.
Whatever innocence America possessed in those early years of Castro’s ascent to power soon evaporated. Within a year Eisenhower had set in motion plans with the Central Intelligence Agency for the Bay of Pigs invasion, that would be launched during the Kennedy administration to disastrous results.
In 1959, Heyser, a young Air Force officer, was celebrating his fifth anniversary of his marriage to the former Jackie Glass, a young teacher who he had married in June 1954.
Heyser was soon picked to be a pilot in a highly classified experimental spy plane program, one of an elite group of aviators entrusted to take on these dangerous missions.
And in Oct. 1962, Heyser would fly one of these U-2 plans high above the clouds over Cuba, and take what would become the Cold War’s most famous military photographs.
Stay tuned next week for Part Two: Cuban Missile Crisis grips America.