Learn how-to build your own website, create your own content, do your own social media and SEO. Do it better than any "expert" can do it, faster than any "expert" can do it, & for ZERO-COST! - Dan Baker

Clients called me a "Mercenary with a Camera". I prefer to think of myself as an eccentric renegade.

Fidel Castro was like a “rich uncle” to me

Everybody should have a rich uncle.  That slightly weird oddball uncle that’s absolutely loaded.  The guy who has so much money he doesn’t even know how much he has.  The crazy uncle nobody really wants to be around because he feels so creepy, but everybody still hangs around because he has so much money, and they hope some of that money will come their way.  Some of that money came my way from “Uncle Fidel”.  In fact, a whole lot of money came my way.

That’s why I say Fidel Castro was my rich-uncle.  I’m not related to “uncle” Fidel.  I’ve never even met him.  However I have seen up close and personal the results of his dictatorship.  I’ve seen Cuban migrants by the thousands as they fled communist Cuba any way they could, on anything that would float (or fly in a few instances), risking their lives to get to the Florida Keys which was 90 miles away.  That 90 miles might not seem a long distance, but when you’re hanging on to a piece of styro-foam the size of a basketball with two of your friends, for three long days, hoping that God will deliver you to freedom, that 90 miles of the Gulf Stream can be hell on earth.

On the second night one of those three desperate migrants couldn’t hold on to that basketball sized piece of styro-foam any longer, and he slipped below the waves and disappeared forever.  The third morning a fishing boat spotted the two remaining Cuban migrants several miles south of Islamorada Florida, offshore of the upper Florida Keys.  I was at the Islamorada Coast Guard Station when the radio call came in, and I rode along on the 25′ Boston Whaler as it raced past the coral reef as fast as it could go, knowing that every second could mean the difference between life and death.

I had rode along on many such rescue missions in the Florida Keys with the Coast Guard.  Over the years that I lived in the Florida Keys, people in the TV news business who bought my video, estimated that I had videoed 20,000 Cuban migrants as they tried to reach the Keys.  Many of them made it to land before they made it in front of my camera, but there were lots more of them that were spotted in the water by fishermen and dive boats, and who Coast Guard boats raced to the scene to save their lives.

I was pretty emotionally hardened before that day, and was used to seeing migrants who have been at sea for 2-3 days in the tropical sun, often times with no food, and sometimes without any drinking water since they left Cuba.  Severely sunburned and dehydrated migrants by the thousands had been in front of my lens.  But when the Coast Guard boat pulled up to the scene that day, what I saw was in a whole different league than anything I had experienced before.

One of the migrants was so weak that he couldn’t stand, and the Coast Guard guys helped him aboard the Whaler.  He looked like he was barely alive, but he could still speak a little.  He told us about they’re other friend, who had slipped beneath the waves only a few hours earlier.  The second migrant, was so weak he could neither move his head or speak.  His eyes were rolled upward and staring into space.  We could see he was still alive, but just barely. My camera was recording as he was picked up and brought aboard.  He was still alive as the Coast Guard guys started performing CPR.  The camera never stopped filming them giving CPR as we raced towards Islamorada and waiting paramedics.

We came alongside the Coast Guard dock as fast as could be done without crashing.  The first migrant was helped off the boat and onto a waiting stretcher. I kept the camera running on the second migrant who was still receiving CPR, while looking off to the side to watch the first migrant getting medical help from paramedics. Thru his extremely sunburned skin, with open sores covering his emaciated body, he still had the strength to manage a small smile, with tears running down the cracked dried out skin of his face. He had made it to freedom.

The Coast Guard had never stopped doing CPR on the second migrant, as his body was lifted up off the boat and onto the stretcher.  Only when the paramedics took over CPR did the Coast Guard stop.  The first paramedic took over CPR as the second checked his pulse.  There was no pulse.  His eyes were still rolled upward staring into space.  But the life was gone from his body.  He had died while I was standing two feet away from his limp body, with the camera running.

I shut the camera off and sat down on the dock, and cried.  The four guys that were on the Coast Guard boat with me were also sitting on the dock, and every single one of them were crying. That’s Fidel Castro as I knew him.  I’ve never met him, and I never wanted too.  I think he was a despicable human being who didn’t deserve to breath the air on this planet.  He’s finally dead now, and I can only hope his soul burns in hell for all eternity.

Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba was only 90 miles from the U.S., but has been embargoed  by the United States since he seized control of the island country many years ago.  Many tens of thousands of Cubans have made it to the U.S. over the years, and south Florida has a very large Cuban exile community.  Every Cuban in Miami has relatives still living in Cuba, so news from Cuba is of major importance to all of South Florida.

Everything of any major importance that happens in Cuba is of extreme interest to south Florida TV news.  News of hurricanes that hit Cuba, or Castro speaking on television to the Cuban people, are things that south Florida news stations are desperate for.  But there’s one small problem.  Cuba was a very poor country, and their television stations transmit with very low power transmitters.  The signals from Cuban television are too weak to be seen in south Florida.

There was only one way to get Cuban television in the U.S., and that was to fly towards Cuba in an airplane, stringing out an antenna, and recording Cuban Television.  Then make copies for all the Miami Stations while flying copies of the “pirated” Cuban Television News to Miami.

What should have been something with no value, recording free Cuban Television over the airwaves, turned into something very valuable.  It was sorta like water in the desert.  Water is usually worth nothing because it’s everywhere in abundance.  But if you’re stranded in a desert without water, then water becomes very valuable really quick.  Thanks to the United States embargo of Cuba, Cuban Television became a very valuable item.  Nobody outside of Cuba could receive Cuban Television broadcasts.  Except me!

I flew that plane recording Cuban Television, taking off from the Marathon Airport in the middle of the Florida Keys, at 7:30pm, whenever major news was happening in Cuba.   On average 2-3 times per-month I flew south over the ocean towards Cuba, in a single engine plane, at night, to watch, and record, Cuban Television.  I did that for more than 15 years, until Ted Turner, who created CNN, gave Fidel Castro satellite uplink facilities.  Then my gig was over.

Over those years I don’t know how many times I “pirated” Cuban TV, because I never recorded those flights in my logbook.  There were Cuban supporters in south Florida too, and I was advised by certain people in the know, who worked at various government agencies, to keep a very low profile.  Ken, who trained me to take over the Cuban TV business when he retired, estimated that I probably had 2,000-2,500 hours flying a single-engine airplane over the ocean between the Keys and Cuba, at night by myself.  Not one single hour of that flight time was ever logged.

The story of “pirating” Cuban Television has never been told.  Fidel Castro has finally died, may his soul rot in hell forever. And Ken, who was more like my dad than my own father, has passed away.  Ken and I both agreed that only after Castro was dead, and one of us has died, would it be safe to tell the story. Ken wanted me to tell the story when he was gone, and now is the time to finally tell this story.

I had a total monopoly on Cuban Television for many years.  Every station paid me a day-rate whenever they bought Cuban TV from me.  There are four English language TV stations and two Spanish language stations in Miami.  So anytime I “pirated” Cuban TV I usually got six day-rates.  And if the story was big enough that the network news wanted it too, they also paid me a day-rate, but a much bigger day-rate than the local Miami stations..  So on big stories I could make ten day-rates. And if the news was of interest to foreign networks there could be even more day-rates.  Sometimes as I was flying over the ocean, at night, by myself, the drone of the engine almost sounded like it was going Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching.  But I was probably just imagining things…

This went on for more than 15 years.  It was just a side-hustle.  My main gig was a freelance cameraman shooting news stories in the Florida Keys.  That little side-hustle earned me several hundreds-of-thousands of dollars over the years.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be worth a few million dollars today.  Not too shabby for a part-time side-hustle.

Fidel Castro was very, very good to me.   He was the rich-uncle I never had.

 

 

 

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