We’ve been looking at Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, ex-husband of Jane Fonda, and ardent (if not terribly skillful) apologist for one totalitarian government after another. Last time around we pondered his 2005 comments on North Korea, which can be best summed up in his eloquent remark: “let’s give ’em a break.”
On to Castro. Castro has been a good friend of Turner’s, and a big part of his career. Back when Turner started CNN, it mostly restricted its coverage to U.S. news. But in 1981, as Ken Auletta noted in a 2001 New Yorker profile, CNN covered Cuba’s May Day parade and a Castro speech. Castro, a CNN viewer – he picked up the signal from a south Florida station – invited Turner to visit. In 1982, Turner went, and spent four days with the dictator, “smoking cigars, attending a baseball game, duck hunting, visiting schools, discussing politics, and night-clubbing.” Turner told an associate, “Fidel ain’t a Communist. He’s a dictator, just like me.” Castro told Turner that he found CNN “invaluable.” Turner actually persuaded him to tape a CNN promo (which Turner’s colleagues back home managed to talk him out of airing). Fidel “urged Turner to take his news service worldwide,” reported Auletta. The idea excited Turner: “I thought, if Fidel Castro can’t live without it, we ought to be able to sell CNN all over the world.” “Ted came back fired up,” a colleague told Auletta. Within a few months CNN had expanded to Asia; in 1985, it debuted in Europe. All thanks to Fidel Castro, whom Turner reportedly thanked for welcoming him to his “very progessive country.”
Turner later showed an interviewer pictures of his 1982 Cuba trip, while providing a running commentary:
I’m the only man on the planet ever to fly on Cuba’s Air Force One with their president and on America’s Air Force One with our president….People are not all that different – all thi killing and arms race is for nothing. Here’s the great commie dictator we’re so worried about – having a hot toddy….Here’s us hunting….I expected Castro to be a horrible person, but he was a great guy.
In 1997, eager to set up a CNN bureau in Havana, Turner gave Fidel a big thumbs-up in a speech at Harvard. “Castro is one helluva guy!” he exclaimed. “You people would like him! Most people in Cuba like him.” As one reporter noted: “Within weeks CNN was granted its coveted Havana Bureau, the first ever granted by Castro to a foreign network.” In December of that year, Turner and Fonda went to Havana to open the bureau and met with Castro, a move that didn’t exactly please Frank Calzon, head of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C. Calzon’s group, according to one report, had tried “to persuade Turner to donate satellite dishes to Cuba so that Cuban citizens can watch CNN.” Of course, the Castro regime forbade the Cuban people from watching international television.
That wasn’t Turner’s last meeting with Fidel: in 2000, Castro went to New York for a U.N. meeting and spent an entire night with Turner. “The dinner stretched past midnight,” reported Auletta, “and Castro was in the middle of a long-winded story when Turner raised his hand and exclaimed, ‘Fidel, this story is never going to end, is it? I got to go!’ Castro laughed as Turner exited.”