EDITORS' NOTE: The transcript of this interview was prepared by a Cuban stenographer, and both the rendering of Barbara Walters' English questions and the translation of Fidel Castro's remarks from Spanish were, in many instances, rough. The material in these excerpts has been edited to read smoothly, but the original substance and tone of the conversation have been preserved.
Castro released 11 American prisoners in June 1977. According to State Department estimates, at least 20 Americans remained in Cuban prisons on various drug, hijacking, or political charges. In August, Castro said he would permit the Cuban families of 84 U.S. citizens to leave Cuba.
In May 1975, I was one of a group of reporters who accompanied Senator George McGovern (D.-South Dakota) on a trip to Cuba. At that time I met Fidel Castro, who had a way of popping up and disappearing unexpectedly somewhat in the fashion of the Lone Ranger. During one of his appearances, I asked whether I could interview him at length. Castro agreed that if at any time in the future he granted a television interview to an American reporter, it would be with me. He promised to be back in touch with me within a year ... but he never said which year.
I waited for two years. Every few months I called or wrote to the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York, reminding them of Castro's promise. Finally, the answer came back "yes," and I returned to Cuba on May 16, 1977. That was a Monday, and I was told I might see the president on Wednesday or Thursday. But instead, only minutes after my arrival at the Hotel Riviera in Havana, I was told to be in his office within 15 minutes.
There I found a very courtly, somewhat portly Fidel Castro. He apologized for making me wait for two years and said that now he wanted to cooperate. Castro (who asked the entire production team to call him Fidel except during the interviews) suggested that he personally escort us on a visit to other parts of the country, and he gave me the choice of places. I selected the Bay of Pigs and the Sierra Maestre mountains, where he lived with his small army of guerrilla fighters for three years before coming to power.
On Wednesday, Castro himself came to our hotel to pick us up, to the amazement of the American tourists there. Then, driving a Russian-made jeep, he took us to the Bay of Pigs, where we boarded an armed patrol boat. We thus became, according to Castro, the first Americans to cross the Bay of Pigs since the U.S.-supported invasion there in 1961.
On Friday, we traveled in a Russian-built plane to the province of Santiago. There We again jumped into jeeps and, with Castro at the wheel of the lead vehicle, drove for five and a half hours through the mountains, the last two and a half hours on unpaved roads. Hung across the dashboard of the jeep was a rifle. Castro's belt with a .45-caliber revolver, his small box of cigars, a tin of hard candies, and a leather-bound copy of the selected letters of Ernest Hemingway rested on the floor of the jeep. Every time we crossed a stream (we forded 18 of them), J picked these things up, because water was seeping through the floor. Throughout our trip, we stopped at random, often at spots that J picked, to talk with farmers, tractor operators, or the people in small stores. Reaction ranged from cheers for Castro to a cool acceptance of the fact that he was making his first appearance in that part of the country in more than a year. This was the poorest part of Cuba. Castro has built schools and hospitals, yet the area is still extremely impoverished. There is little in the way of agriculture, but there are many lovely vistas and potentially fine beaches. Castro hopes to turn it into a tourist area, but that will be a long time in coming.
One security jeep full of soldiers drove far ahead of us and out of our view. There was no other security that we could see. The jeeps behind us were filled with our crew, including our two producers, Richard Richter and Tom Capra. Friday night we stayed at Castro's camp somewhere in the mountains, where armed guards surrounded us. For dinner ... roast pig and Algerian wine. Saturday we returned to Havana.
Our major interview was conducted Thursday night in Castro's sparse headquarters in Havana. For almost five hours, until 1:30 in the morning, we questioned each other, argued and debated. Castro speaks English haltingly and agreed to do so in answering my final question; but because he has trouble expressing himself in English, most of his answers were given in Spanish with a simultaneous translation. The questions -- none of which were submitted in advance, a few of which he refused to answer -- covered a wide range of domestic, international, and personal topics. Again and again, Castro referred to the Central Intelligence Agency. He seems almost obsessed by the CIA, which becomes understandable when he tells you of the dozens of attempts on his life of which he is aware.
Castro particularly wanted to make the point in the interview that he was a revolutionary and a Communist long before he actually came to power. He insisted that reporters who wrote otherwise were incorrect. He became a Communist, he said, through his own reading at college. Castro does not want Americans to believe that he would change his philosophy if relations between the United States and Cuba improve.
A one-hour special, "Fidel Castro Speaks," was presented by ABC News on the evening of June 9, 1977. But in an unprecedented action, Castro had Cuban television air almost all of our original five hours of discussion, including our arguments and disagreements. The only part he deleted was my question about whether he is married and his evasive answer. "Formally, no!" That is a matter he would apparently prefer not be discussed in Cuba. This was the first time Castro had ever shown Cubans an interview with an American journalist, or an interview during which he had been openly called naive (an adjective I used to describe his views of the American relationship with China).