AP’s long history of reporting from Cuba

As the United States and Cuba move to restore diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years, a look at The Associated Press’ long and unparalleled history on the island reflects the tensions that have marked the relationship between the two countries.

Valerie Komor, director of the AP Corporate Archives, prepared this account of the AP in Havana:

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the AP company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks' delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks’ delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

The Associated Press stationed a correspondent in Havana as early as 1870, when the Spanish authorities exerted complete censorship over all news dispatches. A seething General Agent J. W. Simonton, writing in The New York Times on March 16, 1870, declared “the business of the Company seriously embarrassed thereby.”

Francisco José Hilgert, who may have operated in secret for some years for his own safety, reported on the explosion of the battleship USS Maine on Feb. 15, 1898. During the ensuing Spanish-American War, a staff of about 20 used chartered boats to cover naval actions and carry copy to cable points in Haiti, Jamaica, Key West and the Danish West Indies. In 1916, AP announced a direct New York-Havana leased wire to serve its Havana newspaper members, which included El Mundo and Diario de la Marina.

Larry Allen and William Ryan were on duty on Jan. 2, 1959, when Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in a “blood-wet battle of tanks and guns,” as Allen described the scene. After Castro took power, reporting became increasingly difficult. As chief of Caribbean Services, Harold K. Milks, a veteran war correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief, ran the bureau from May 1959 until the spring of 1961. When the botched United States invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs began on April 17, 1961, Milks sought refuge in the Swiss Embassy until he and 100 others were flown to Miami a month later.

Shortly thereafter, Daniel Harker, a stringer out of Colombia, resumed reporting from Havana with instructions to “keep the AP doors open” and not antagonize the government. Ike Flores replaced Harker in mid-1965 and began doing interviews with Castro and his generals. Not surprisingly, Flores gradually became persona non grata and asked to be reassigned.

In 1967, John Fenton Wheeler took over. For a time, he seemed to be enjoying greater privileges. But after Castro directly attacked Wheeler in a speech, saying he had been reading “AP lies” since he had come to power, the end was just a matter of time. It came on Sept. 8, 1969, with a 3 a.m. phone call from the Foreign Ministry — and Wheeler found himself on a plane out of the country. “Don’t worry,” AP General Manager Wes Gallagher told him. “We’ve been kicked out of better places.”

During the height of the Cold War, AP’s Miami bureau made coverage of Cuba one of its priorities.

From 1961 to 1986, AP employed exiled Cuban newsmen to monitor, translate and write up the Radio Havana broadcasts.  In the summer 1965 issue of AP World, AP’s in-house magazine, the operation was described this way: “When Castro makes one of his four-hour speeches, the monitors take turns making notes. At the same time, the speech is taped as a backstop. Ted Ediger takes the reams of copy and cuts and molds it into shape for the wire. The radios are in the same room with WirePhoto. The bleep-bleep of the Wirephoto, the hysterical rantings of Castro and the rattle of typewriters blend into an unearthly racket.”

After 1969, it would be 30 years before AP could reopen an office in Havana, first because of Castro’s strictures and secondly because the U.S. government barred American news organizations from operating there. Years of effort by AP CEO Louis D. Boccardi paid off when the Cuban Foreign Ministry granted AP permission to re-establish a permanent presence in Cuba. Anita Snow reopened the bureau and was followed by Paul Haven (2009-13), Peter Orsi (interim) and Michael Weissenstein in 2014.