"On Being a Foreign Correspondent," University of Florida, 2001


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"On Being a Foreign Correspondent," University of Florida, 2001
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On Reporting and Writing
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Burt, Al
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Al Burt Papers

University of Florida Libraries

Florida's Roving Reporter and Miami Herald Columnist

"On Being a Foreign Correspondent"

Professor Kurt Kent's class, Department of Journalism, University of Florida, August 29, 2001

I got into foreign correspondence by accident. In 1961, I was night city editor of The Miami
Herald working the 1 to 10 shift, laying out the local page. I came to work one January afternoon about
12:30. By 3 o'clock I was on the plane to Havana.

There was a crisis. Cuba had just broken relations with the United States. This was about three
months before the Bay of Pigs invasion but already there were lots of rumors that something of that
sort was coming.

Ordinarily, a city editor would not go on an assignment like this, but these were unusual
circumstances. It was considered dangerous. I got my chance because I was single then, and because I
had spent some time in Cuba. I wanted to do it because it was fun twice as much fun as being city

Let me set the scene a bit.

During the 1950s, there were flights to Havana from Miami every half hour. You could fly to
Havana round trip for $26. Flying time was about 20 minutes. Cuba was a playground for tourists; there
was free, open, casual exchange between the two cities. I went there often on holidays. On a few
occasions, I flew over for dinner and a night of partying and flew home the next morning. I didn't even
need a hotel.

That, essentially, was my Cuban experience.

When I arrived in Havana that January, Cuba had posted artillery along the Malecon and there
were armed militia everywhere. Private businesses were being nationalized. Churches, if not closed, had

armed militia posted at their doors and few dared enter. Foreign correspondents were being arrested
on any excuse.

I spent a week there, watched the U.S. Embassy being closed, saw a ship loaded with U.S.
personnel sail out of Havana harbor. It was an exciting time and I had good luck with my stories. I won
the Ernie Pyle Award for my stories that week and about a year after that became Latin America Editor
of The Herald.

I returned to Cuba several times in 1964 and 1965. I met Che Guevara, talked with Fidel Castro,
and got arrested twice for taking pictures of people standing in line to get exit visas. Each time I was
held only a few hours and released, but they kept my film. Even for a few hours, though, being held
under arrest in Cuba gives you a lot to think about.

During the 1960s I travelled over most of Latin America but paid special attention to the
Caribbean Islands and Central America. In 1965 I watched Castro pitch a baseball game and then later
spent about five hours interviewing him at Varadero Beach.

I covered the Panama Canal riots 1963, several military coups in Guatemala, and a Venezuelan
rebellion in 1963. I interviewed heads of state in Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, most of Central America and
the islands. I covered the Bahamas and Jamaica as they received their independence.

That's how it was in the old days a little loose and freewheeling.

Things are different now. Now, unless you get really lucky, you have to know what you are doing
before you begin. It's not often now you get the chance to learn on the job as I did.

In effect I auditioned for the job and got it, but it didn't happen immediately.

It was an interesting time for a young newsman too much and too long ago to tell now but I
want to share three small personal stories with you that give you a flavor of what it was like then for me
as editor (by then). The choice between going to the Washington bureau and being Latin editor was an
easy one.

So I ask you please to remember that "my time" was a long time ago (35 to 40 years ago). You
are talking to a dinosaur. You have to sort out for yourself how much of this stuff is still relevant.

We didn't have computers. Sometimes we mailed stories in. Sometimes we would get an airline
stewardess to carry a story back to Miami for us. Sometimes we would use the phone, sometimes the
cable if we could find a cable office and if it was open.

[Professor Kent asks a few questions: What does it mean to work as a foreign correspondent? What do
foreign correspondents face that domestic reporters don't?]

I'll deal with both of these questions at once.

It means travel. It starts out being glamorous and after a few years it becomes a grind. I was
away from home a lot. Also, health hazards on the road (for example in Recife, Brazil I could only drink
out of a water bottle). While traveling in effect you work 24 hours a day. I was in Costa Rica in the early

60s covering the eruption of a volcano, Irazu, blanketing the country with ash, "oir ceniza." It coated the
mountainsides. An offshoot of the volcano: flash floods down the mountainside wiping out homes and
even villages, killing a lot of people. In these kinds of situations you always have to live responsibly; you
have no relief.

You live well stay in good hotels, go to good restaurants but you tend to drink and carouse a
lot to relieve the pressure, and that's a real health hazard. Most correspondents I knew ended up after a
few years with health problems.

You're dealing with entire nations and heads of state much of the time not city councils or
legislatures and mayors or governors.

Everything you do takes on double pressure -the hyped need for accuracy, fairness,
understanding of local law and custom, not only the in-country situation but what role and influence
U.S. policy plays on all this. The knowledge that a mistake could cause an international incident or that
in some small countries, a story can even encourage a coup or change in government that's real

What advice for those who want to work as foreign correspondents? Be fluent in the language
of the country you are in. For example, though English is spoken most places in Latin America, you're
dealing in a foreign country predominantly with a different language, different customs, different
attitudes, different laws. You have to adjust for all of that.

Also, be a student of history. You essentially are writing current events but to do it properly you
need to try to see that news in the perspective of history. Equip yourself so that you recognize
significance when you encounter it. You will be expected not only to write stories that are news in the
country you are visiting, but that also analyze and interpret that news in a way that the folks back home
can understand it, and can know how or whether this is significant in their lives or in the affairs of their
own country.

Be aware that you are expected to report knowledgeably, if not expertly, on an entire country -
not just on one phase of life or in one specialty as domestic reporters often do and you are supposed to
write it well. With all those things in mind, let me tell you a few personal stories.

Haiti (May, 1963) "The Card"

I was in Port Au Prince in the spring of 1963 when there were attempts to throw President
Duvalier out of office. There was a state of siege, and a dawn to dusk curfew. No outright battles, but
many instances of violence. The Tonton Macoutes who were a sort of ragtag militia with Duvalier's
license to do pretty much as they pleased were a major force, and they had a reputation for violence.
Most of them were illiterate.

One day I went to the National Palace to hear Duvalier speak. He had made the event sort of a
national holiday to show support, and had trucked in peasants from the country to fill the Palace yard.
Rum was distributed freely and the crowds chanted, "Duvalier or Death."

Duvalier spoke on the Palace steps, and I stood a half-dozen steps below him, listening and
taking pictures. I remember that he had one gold tooth in front. One of the Tonton Macoutes stood next

to me, shouting that same "Duvalier or Death" in my ear. I took his picture. He was a little tipsy and
feeling good.

For some reason, my picture-taking pleased him. He decided I was a friend and insisted on
giving me an official-looking card about the size of a driver's license. It turned out to be a small
laminated 1958 calendar with Duvalier's picture on it. The cards had been passed out to Duvalier
followers just after he took power.

I kept that card, and it proved to be valuable. Later that day I was able to make my way past
roadblocks and past guard lines by flourishing that card as an ID. It worked, and I began to keep it with
me at all times.

Most foreign correspondents in Haiti then worked in pairs for protection. I often worked with
a man from the Washington Post Dan Kurzman. The city was full of rumors and they were difficult to

Late one afternoon, Kurzman and I received notice of one of those rumors and drove out to
double check it with a leading rebel figure. A man named Clement Barbot had been killed. Some
Haitians believed that Barbot because he had escaped so often had magical powers. They believed
he could turn himself into an animal and slip away.

So anyway, late this afternoon Kurzman and I took our car and went out to see if the rumors
about Barbot were true. But at the edge of town, we were turned back by Tonton Macoutes, who
communicated by leveling their rifles at us. By the time we made our way back to town it was getting
late and we were at risk of being out past curfew.

Somewhere, in those darkened Port Au Prince streets, we took a wrong turn and entered an
area near the Palace. The first thing we knew, a row of powerful spotlights flashed on and blinded us.

Tonton Macoutes surrounded the car and shouted strange things at us in Creole. We heard
mechanical clickings that we assumed were guns. Following directions, we raised our hands, and got out
of the car, with a dozen gun barrels pointed at us. They searched us, searched our car, made me open
the trunk, pulled out the car seats, and looked under the floor boards.

They were about to haul us away, to one of those infamous Haitian dungeons, when I pulled
that 1958 calendar out of my shirt pocket the one with Duvalier's picture on it and waved it
authoritatively. The change was magical.

The Tonton Macoutes smiled, slapped us on the shoulders, shook our hands and welcomed us
as brothers. They apologized. Then they escorted us back to our hotel, one car in front and one in back,
and said good night.

This was how it was in Haiti then (1963) unpredictable, bizarre, and dangerous where a
wrong turn could mean death and a 1958 calendar might lead to a long life; martial law, curfew, (and
thankfully) the card.

Eventually I was expelled from the country because a Haitian soldier, acting as a censor at the
cable office, didn't understand that my visit to an embassy where Haitians were in asylum was in the
company of an authorized mission from the OAS.

In early years, correspondents felt safe felt they had an immunity from violence because of
their position. That changed in the 1960s: Viet Nam, Panama, the occupation of the Dominican Republic.

The Shooting Dominican Republic, May 6, 1965, 10:30 a.m., George Washington Blvd.

[The text of this portion of the talk, missing from the transcript, has been supplied from a 1999
oral history interview with Al Burt by Dr. Jean Chance, Florida Newspaper Project, Samuel Proctor Oral
History Program, University of Florida, October 6, 1999; copy on file with the Al Burt Papers, University
of Florida Libraries].

"In 1965, the Dominican Republic began heating up. I had been there in April as things had
begun. In the period leading up to that Rafael Trujillo [former dictator] had been assassinated, and there
had been a series of governments eventually giving way to Juan Bosch, the first democratically-elected
president in about thirty years. Bosch went into exile. He was the figurehead of the forces trying to throw
out the militaryjunta. It set up a situation in 1965for a civil war to break out, with one side representing
the Bosch ideals loosely and the other representing the military and more conservative side. In April,
there had been a [military backed] civilian triumvirate that was in charge of the country... I spent a lot of
time talking to Donald Read Cabral, [a member of the triumvirate and] spokesman for the government. I
had been back in Miami just a short while I think it was April 24- when President Johnson sent in the
Marines, because civil war broke out. The stated purpose was to protect U.S. citizens and U.S. property in
the Dominican Republic....

My stories were trying to tell people what it was like there, what was happening. I had not
gotten into much of the policy part of it, yet. Photographer Doug Kennedy was with me. On the morning
of May 5, during the cease-fire, Doug and I hired a car and driver for a couple of days. We wanted to go
over to the Constitutionalists' side. You have to understand that the situation in Santo Domingo [during
the cease-fire] was that people were going back and forth between the Constitutionalists' side and the
U.S's side and the military positions [more or less] freely....

So, the next day [May 6] when Doug and I were inside the rebel sector, we decided to go back to
that position where Doug and I were the previous day.... a position on George Washington Avenue,
which is a seaside boulevard there, at a checkpoint were the people coming down from the
Constitutionalists' side... had to stop and turn right before they would be allowed to go into the [U.S.]
sector. At that checkpoint was an armored personnel carrier with a thirty-caliber machine gun on top of
it as a barrier, and there were marine as well as paratroopers... As we approached that position in our
car, a little blue Rambler, it had taped across the windshield two large words, nine or ten inches high
each; one said PRENSA, and the other said PRESS... to identify ourselves and what we were up to. As we
approached that checkpoint, coming down the boulevard, a Marine stepped out on the side and signaled
us to stop. On one side [of us] was water. On the other side was a sidewalk and a low wall and then some
large buildings that previously had been homes. I think one had become an insurance company. So we
stopped, and then they gave us conflicting signals: come forward, go back, come forward, go back....

So our driver, who was a Dominican, after about the third conflicting signal telling us to go back,
he put the car in reverse sharply. I cannot remember whether the tires screeched or not, but it was very

sharply. As he did that the Marines opened fire on us. Doug was in the front seat next to the driver. I was
in the back sort of looking between them. The first shots blew out the windshield. I hit the floor, and the
car just rolled backward sideways [with] the rear wheels against the curb away from the water so that
the car was at an angle toward where the Marines were. They continued firing the machine guns, [and]
the Marines [also used] M-15jungle rifles. They later became the thing to use. I don't know how long it
when on, but it seemed like a lifetime.... You couldjust feel the car shuddering. I was lying on the
floorboard in the backseat. The driver got hit. His doorway was on the side away from the U.S. forces. He
rolled out of the car and came around the side and ran off. All he had to do was cross a sidewalk and
there was a wall he could get behind. Doug was hit seriously with the first shots. One came across the
top of his head and tore a little furrow in his scalp. His leg was broken, and he was hit a number of times
and bleeding badly. As I was lying on the floorboards in the back with my right side angled toward the
Marines, I could feel the bullets hitting me all up and down my right side. They were coming through the
car with loud noises.... It is hard to estimate time in a situation like that. It seemed like a long time, [and]
I rememberfeeling I was going to be killed for certain. I did not see anyway... These are things that just
sort of go through your mind."

Dominican Republic "La Gringa"

In the fall of 1965, the open fighting had stopped. There was an official ceasefire, but there was
still violence. Bodies washed up on the beach, or were found in ditches. At night, guns still sounded.
Violence became commonplace, expected even. Dominican house wives, listening to the gunfire, soon
learned to tell the caliber of the weapons by the way they sounded.

News correspondents moved back and forth between the two sides. It became a propaganda
war, too.

In this bizarre setting, with a U.S. gunboat hovering offshore, and sand-bagged gun
emplacements blocking some of the streets, the rebels held a luncheon for the press at a seaside Italian
restaurant named Lina's. An American who worked with the rebels played the piano and a pregnant
American woman assisted the rebels with the food. The American press sat elbow to elbow with a
Dominican editor who had called for Communist unity and a prolonged war. Civilians in the rebel sector
were being fed with U.S. surplus food. Rebel leaders mingled in the crowd.

The scene was surreal. The main dish was roasted pig. The head of the pig bore a name tag -
"Gen. Antonio Imbert" (he was head of the opposing military). While everyone ate heartily, a shot
sounded outside. One of the rebel frogmen had drawn his revolver and shot himself in the leg.

The next day, the members of the press developed stomach distress. They complained to the
rebels, who thought it was funny. Nothing to worry about, they said, and they had a new name for the
old malady. They took it from the old derogatory term, Gringo, and called it "La Gringa."

Havana, Cuba (January, 1965) "The Awful Tooth"

I had a classic tooth ache. The jaw swelled out like it held a golf ball, and pain throbbed like a
neon light. I could not eat because of the pain. After several sleepless nights and memories of strange
things happening in Cuban medicine, I went to the Cuban foreign office and asked for a dentist. A man
named Roberto Aulet escorted me to a hospital: "Wouldn't it be ironic," Aulet said, "if we didn't have
any painkillers to give you because of the U.S. blockade?"

At the University of Havana Dental School, a man in a white jacket led me to the second floor.
"You should be complimented," Aulet said. "Fidel's own personal dentist will be seeing you." Other
dentists examined me. Finally, after they were sure I fully understood the terror of a patient without
anesthetics, one of them gave me a shot of "un-blockaded painkiller."

Shortly, in a procedure that took about 10 seconds, Dr.Manuel Garrido a former army officer -
pulled the tooth and sent me on my way. The people at the Foreign Office enjoyed my experience
greatly. Ramiro del Rio, chief of the Press Section, suggested my tooth should go to a museum placed
among the relics and fossils, and labeled "Imperialist Tooth."

After that, I better understood the Cuban view of the U.S. blockade.

Other Stories

San Pedro Sula, Honduras: there I found people, especially children, dying from drinking bad
water. It turned out that it was an annual occurrence then. Each rainy season, the waters flooded
human wastes into the drinking water and people died. The local doctor could not persuade people to
change this. When he showed me around the hospital, it was full of patients who were victims of
machete fights; apparently they would get drunk and then fight with machetes. That was grim stuff. I
think that's a significant story because it explained a lot about the conditions in the country.

Canal Zone, Panama (1963): There were riots in the Canal Zone. Houses were fired upon, people
were making homemade fire bombs; a lot of bizarre things. I heard a story of a used car salesman who
tried to become a guerrilla in the mountains. He failed, and he simply came back to the capital and sold
cars again.

Havana, Cuba: I returned to Cuba several times in 1964 and 1965 and on Halloween night in
1965 I had a five hour interview with Fidel Castro in the company of three other correspondents. We
talked about baseball, and Castro asked me about being shot by Marines.

Castro himself seemed to me to be a complex, focused, and charismatic man, a true chameleon
- shifting positions without changing his long-term goals. He really is remarkable, if even for no other
reason than having survived though eight or nine U.S. presidents who tried to oust him. No other Cuban,
and in truth, no other Latin leader has survived that degree of pressure.

After the shooting, I tried for awhile but found that physically I no longer could travel Latin
America the way I had before.

In the early 1970s I took over the job as a roving Florida columnist. I took on the task of covering
Florida just as I would have taken on the task of covering a Latin America nation for the first time.
Although I had lived in Florida nearly all my life, I tried to see it with new eyes, as though for the first
time. My goal was to be aware of its history at the same time I keep track of its current headlines -
and tried to look for things that suggested how it really was to live in Florida for the mass of Floridians.

I looked for situations and people and conflicts and dilemmas that influenced lives, though
sometimes in subtle ways things that don't always leave big tracks and don't always make big noises

and don't always attract big crowds, the things that suggest values and lifestyle. My personal goal was to
accumulate material that one day could be put into books and it has worked out that way.

I have written five books but the last three The Tropic of Cracker, Al Burt's Florida, and
Becalmed in the Mullet Latitudes represent a trilogy based on my travels in Florida. Each of those titles
represent an honest but hopeful view of the state and its people. The books deliver one man's vision
after almost a lifetime observation.

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