Harry Hurt III :
Let us now praise famous men: Remembering Mickey Leland, and opening the door to Cuba

My dear friend, the late Houston congressman Mickey Leland, once declared: ‘I am as much a citizen of the world as I am of this country.’

harry and fidel sm

Harry Hurt III and Fidel Castro display each other’s books in Fidel’s Havana office in March 1983. Screen grab from television footage.

By Harry Hurt III | The Rag Blog | January 7, 2015

“Hello, Harry. This is your nigger congressman Mickey Leland. You want to go to Cuba?”

It’s a Monday morning in mid-March 1983. I’m at my writing desk in a rental house in Houston, trying to think up story ideas for Texas Monthly magazine. Mickey’s proposition almost sounds too good to be true. I immediately commit without bothering to get approval from my editor in Austin. Four days later, we’re on a private jet to Havana with a Houston television crew and three of his congressional staffers.

The official purpose of our Cuba trip is to negotiate the release of two American prisoners, a young white couple who hail from a Republican congressional district in north Houston. The Cubans suspect they’re marijuana smugglers, but there’s no hard evidence against them. Their plane crashed on the island, and the husband had the presence of mind to torch it before they were captured.

Mickey Leland may be their only hope. The U.S. has a longstanding trade embargo against Cuba, and no extradition treaty. In recent years past, Mickey’s visited Cuba three times and negotiated the release of five Cuban- American prisoners who took part in the Central Intelligence Agency’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He is one of the very few U.S. officials who knows Fidel Castro personally.

Which speaks to the second purpose of our visit: Mickey’s ongoing effort to maintain unofficial diplomatic relations with the Cuban dictator. Those efforts have sparked severe criticism from both left-wingers and right-wingers. Mickey has said many times, “I disagree with Castro ideologically, but I respect him intellectually.” While I can attest that’s true, I know he’s motivated by much larger concerns.

‘I grew up on the Christian ethic, which says we are supposed to help the least of our brothers.’

“I am as much a citizen of the world as I am of this country,” Mickey declared after his first hunger relief mission to Africa. “To hell with those people who are critical of what I am able to do to help save people’s lives. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but I grew up on the Christian ethic, which says we are supposed to help the least of our brothers.”

barbara jordan & mickey leland

Mickey Leland with Barbara Jordan in Houston, 1971. Mickey folowed Jordan representing Texas’ 18th Congressional District.

We land in Cuba about 3 p.m. At 8 p.m., we have an audience with Castro in his office at the presidential palace. While the exterior of the palace bears the baroque marble trappings of the pre-Revolutionary era, Castro’s inner sanctum is a surprisingly modest affair with linoleum tiled floors, some inexpensive couches and armchairs, a brown wooden desk, and a wall full of book shelves. I can see tomes on Shakespeare, botany, economics, and Latin American history, evidence of Castro’s breadth of intellectual interests. El Presidente himself is dressed in his trademark green arm fatigues; his casually-trimmed beard narrows to a sharp point at the top of his chest.

Although the Houston television crew is allowed to film our meeting, I’m not supposed to conduct a formal interview. But I’m a rebel if not a revolutionary in my own right. Castro is a fabled talker whose public speeches often run five hours long. We’re in his office. I figure he can either talk or cut me off as he sees fit.

To break the ice, I present Castro with a copy of Texas Rich, my biography of H.L. Hunt and his oil and silver dynasty. He flips through the pages with avid interest. I inform him that the late billionaire H.L. Hunt was a right-wing extremist who believed that he, Castro, plotted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There is an official translator sitting beside us, but Castro replies to me in Spanish before she has finished translating my remarks. “That is absurd,” he says. “Kennedy was my favorite of all your presidents.”

I arch my eyebrows in chagrin. The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 occurred under Kennedy’s watch as commander-in-chief barely three months after his inauguration. But the operation was actually planned during the waning days of the Eisenhower administration under the auspices of then-Vice-President Richard Nixon. The failure of the invasion was widely blamed on Kennedy’s decision not to provide air support, a sign of his deep ambivalence about the Republican planned undertaking.

Castro was in no way compelled to volunteer to me that Kennedy was his favorite president. I could only surmise that he understood the subtleties of Kennedy’s predicament in the case of the Bay of Pigs, and likewise respected Kennedy’s skillful diplomacy in the Cuban missile crisis the following year.

I try to ask Castro about a current potential U.S.-Cuba crisis: the week before our visit, President Reagan had alleged that the Soviets were again building missile silos on the northern coast of the island. The administration had even released aerial photographs that appeared to support its claim. At this point, Mickey vociferously reminds me there are to be no interviews, but Castro shrugs him off. “There are no missile silos being built anywhere in Cuba,” he assures me. “We have no interest in antagonizing the United States or for that matter, anyone else.”

Moments later, we are ushered over to a space in front of Castro’s desk for formal photographs. Castro autographs an English edition of his book The World Economic and Social Crisis and hands it to me. We pose side by side with me holding his book and him holding Texas Rich.

We tour the Modelo prison where Castro was held prior to the overthrow of the mafia-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The next morning, we fly to the Isle of Youth. We tour the Modelo prison, a gloomy, looming donut-shaped structure where Castro was held prior to the overthrow of the mafia-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista. Our guide tells us that during his imprisonment, Castro requested a copy of Das Kapital by Karl Marx. According to the guide, Batista’s guards granted his request because they mistakenly believed it was a book about the virtues of capitalism. Later, we visit schools where blue cotton uniformed exchange students from African nations are taught communist ideology.

On Sunday, we fly out to Santiago on the island’s eastern tip. Mickey is especially keen on visiting Santiago because it was the port through which African slaves entered the country in the 18th Century. The population of Santiago is still predominantly black. On our way to a local hotel, we passed through urban slums even more dilapidated than those in Havana, evidence of the black-brown racial social and economic divide critics of the regime complain about. Mickey boldly notes within earshot of our official guides that only two of some members of the nation’s ruling politburo are black.

Ironically, I gain a unique insight into some of the things that unite black Cubans and brown Cubans with each other and with Americans like me. Prior to a scheduled dinner with local officials, I join one of our guides for a quick respite at a local hotel that resembles a sepia-tinted Holiday Inn. His name is Fernando Mel, and he is the rough equivalent of the mayor of Havana. He was also second in command to Castro in the military operation that repelled the Bay of Pigs invasion.

A tall handsome fellow who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Fernando Lamas, Mel asks his assistant to pop open some beers. Then he switches on the television in our motel room and tunes in a baseball game between the local Santiago team and his home team from Havana. The score is 5 to 4 in favor of Havana, but Mel is on edge.

“Our pitcher has no soul,” he informs me in Spanish.

Sure enough, the Havana hurler gives up two runs in the ninth inning and Santiago wins the game 6-5.

A prominent Cuban Communist leader and I are engaging in the most American of pastimes, drinking beer and watching baseball.
castro cienfuegos baseball 2

Cuban soul: Ball players Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro.

As Mel and I commiserate, I get a cosmic kick out of the fact that an extremely prominent Cuban Communist leader and I are engaging in the most American of pastimes, drinking beer and watching baseball. That prompts an even deeper insight: I realize that men like Mel and even Castro himself have souls even if the Havana pitcher allegedly doesn’t. They are Cubans first and Communists second, and they have far more in common with gringos like me than they do with their Soviet patrons.

On our flight back to Havana that night, I pull Mickey aside and relate my experiences with Mel in the motel room, only half-jokingly predicting that if the U.S. would lift the economic embargo, Cuba would be capitalist in about five minutes.

On Monday, we get the white couple out of prison, and fly them back to Houston. I’ve seen enough in a single weekend to write half a dozen stories about Cuba, but Texas Monthly refuses to run even one story. The (white) editor in chief says he doesn’t see what Cuba has to do with Texas. His trusted (white) political editor declares that the trip was just a Mickey Leland publicity stunt.

 
This is the kind of poppycock Mickey got throughout his life. Born in Lubbock, Texas, on November 27, 1944, he was raised in Houston by a divorced mother who worked as a short order cook to earn her teaching certificate. He graduated with a pharmacy degree from Texas Southern University, where he led civil rights demonstrations and protests against the brutally racist Houston police. In 1972, he won election to the Texas legislature as a Democrat.

Mickey had the most dazzling green eyes I’d ever seen on any man or any woman, for that matter.

I met Mickey a few months later at a party hosted by an Argentina-born architect. Light-skinned and square-shouldered, he had the most dazzling green eyes I’d ever seen on any man or any woman, for that matter. He was wearing an Afro, a dashiki, and platform shoes. At my prompting, he recited “Mickey’s Message to the World,” a poetic precursor to what later became known as rap.

“Kinky-haired ‘boys‘ build arsenals of straw to hide slingshots and bottles of lawnmower fluid to prepare for guerrilla wars against blue-eyed tanks and blond-haired missiles and blanche-skinned militaries,” he declaimed. “And Caucasians? And Law? And Order? And justice? Genocide? Suicide? Or Life? Shadows are gaining substance much too slow! The Sleeping Woman she’ll never know!”

At the time, Mickey was going out with a white woman, and so was I. Like brothers from another mother, we double dated all over town. There wasn’t a part of Houston where we couldn’t (and didn’t) go. Together, we experienced racism, reverse racism, double reverse racism, and good times beyond race, place, and social disgrace.

mickey & alison leland

Alison, Mickey, and son Jarrett.

In 1978, Mickey was elected to Congress. He started wearing Armani suits and reaching across the aisle to find common ground with Republicans. In 1983, at age 36, he married Alison Walton, age 24, a Georgetown Law School student. Three years later, Alison gave birth to their first son.

In the summer of 1989, during a congressional recess, Mickey flew to Ethiopia on a relief mission in his capacity as chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on Hunger. Alison was pregnant with male twins destined to be born premature. On August 7, Mickey’s plane crashed during a rainstorm in the mountains. He and all 14 others on board were killed.

Mickey’s funeral was at St. Anne’s in Houston, the same Catholic church where I was baptized.

Mickey’s funeral was at St. Anne’s in Houston, the same Catholic church where I was baptized. The mourners included over 100 members of Congress, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Bianca Jagger. I cried over the loss of my friend on and off for three full weeks, and on random other days ever since.

 
I have to strive to stay dry-eyed as I drive to the Mickey Leland Center for World Peace on the campus of Texas Southern. His archives are housed in a handsome glass and brick building, but due to funding cuts and university administration scandals, relatively little progress has been made in collecting and cataloguing them. With the approval of Mickey’s widow Alison, I’m going to make a Flip video about opening a very special item — a legal size manilla envelope containing the personal effects recovered after Mickey’s plane crashed in Ethiopia.

The archive director Jew Don Boney, a professor and former Houston city councilman, escorts me into a back room equipped with sliding file cabinets. He shows me a folder that contains photographs of Mickey with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Kennedy.

“The kind of leadership Mickey Leland embodied is sorely missing from the black community today,” he says.

“No shit,” I blurt. “Same goes for the white community.”

A few moments later, Jew Don opens the manilla envelope. I turn on my Flip camera, and orally identify the artifacts as he removes them. The largest, most intact item is a leather bound congressional briefing book. It contains newspaper clippings and C.I.A. summaries about Ethiopia’s intractable hunger crises and related tribal wars between Tutsis and Hutus, testimony in black and white that man’s inhumanity to man is color-blind and universal.

mickey leland archive envelope

Manilla envelope with personal effects from the wreckage.

“Nothing’s changed,” Jew Don observes. “You could have those same headlines in the media today.”

The next item out of the envelope is a silver ball point pen smeared with brown dust. Then comes a black leather change purse, zippered with the barely legible logo of a casino in the Bahamas. Then there’s a disordered pile of passport papers, all of them charred by fire and curled at the edges.

And that’s it.

My dearly departed friend, George Thomas “Mickey” Leland III, has been reduced to a pen, a change purse, a passport, and a briefing book. My throat chokes, my eyes burn. I shut off the Flip, and tell Jew Don I need to take a break.

“It’s okay,” he says. “This is what happens when you do God’s work.”

All I can say is, “Amen.”

An earlier version of this article was published online as a chapter in Harry Hits the Road at harryworldofhurt.com.

[Harry Hurt III, an award-winning journalist and the author of six nonfiction books, co-hosts the Internet video program “Weekend Edition” on Yahoo! News. A native Houstonian who graduated magma cum laude from Harvard, Hurt was an editor at Texas Monthly from 1975 to 1986. Harry has been a business columnist for The New York Times, a correspondent for Newsweek, an editor at Travel + Leisure Golf, a contributor to publications including Esquire, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy, and a correspondent for ABC News and ESPN Radio.]

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