From Cuba to Chicago–It’s Not So Far

In 1994 Castro relaxed the police vigil along Cuba’s northern shore, and some 30,000 balseros, or “raft people,” took to the seas. Many would die there. On a pitch-black night in mid-August, Jorge Luis Mota, then 32, was one of 15 Cubans riding out a storm in an open 15-foot boat with a broken engine. “I remember myself watching this huge wave coming to me, like a picture–boom,” says Mota. “Suddenly you are vomiting. You are taking water out of the boat, you are grabbing strongly the edge of the boat. But at the same time you lift your eyes and you see this huge, almost vertical wall, deep blue, in front of you. You start climbing that thing–it’s less than a second–you go all the way up to the top of the mountain, and then you see the abyss, the huge abyss. In those glimpses, those sparks of consciousness, of awareness, what I felt was astonishment, amazement. ‘My God, this is so amazing.’ You are basically floating on the hands of God. He can turn that boat upside down and that’s it–you’re finished.”

Mota had grown up in Cuba. He’d gone to an elite boarding school attended by the children of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, studied medicine in college, and become a writer for the state radio. Every word he wrote was vetted by an “analyst” for ideological correctness. His wife was an architect who designed hotels for tourists that she, as a Cuban, would never be allowed to stay at. The lives they led were driving them crazy.

“You have to decide between killing someone or killing yourself,” says Mota. Better himself, he decided. “When I left I wasn’t thinking about even coming to the U.S. When I jumped at the water, in that little boat, my psychological state was that this was the only way I had to protest. I was so stupid that I thought when the people see thousands of people jumping on the water–”

They’d rise up?

“It didn’t work that way. Nobody cared. But that was why I jumped on the water. I wasn’t really thinking about surviving. I didn’t think I would survive. If I was keeping in my mind surviving maybe I wouldn’t have had the balls to jump in the water.”

The storm didn’t frighten him because he’d already declared himself dead. His mind wandered. “You have memories that come like flashes, deep memories from far away in time to when I was three and four years old. Very crazy stuff.” There were flashes of compassion for the other 14 people in the boat: seeing his wife shake with sickness and exhaustion he swore at himself for being unable to do anything for her. But ultimately, she was alone with her thoughts and fate, and he was alone with his. Later his wife told him that during the storm she and an old woman on the boat had both seen the Virgin floating on the water. “I don’t want to be a skeptic,” says Mota. “That’s what happened to them. I haven’t been judging. It’s so personal–the whole thing.”

They were on the water two days before they saw land. They paddled in and discovered they had reached a Cuban island.

The Cuban coast guard told them that President Clinton had announced the United States would deal with the flood of Cuban refugees by sending everyone to Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo would be hell, but if hell was what they wanted, they could go ahead. The engine was repaired, and the Cubans set out again, though not before consulting a psychic. This time an American coast guard cutter intercepted the boat off the Bahamas, and on August 29 Mota and his wife arrived in Guantanamo.

The first three months were hell, says Mota. They lived among multitudes packed into tents behind barbed wire. Occasionally there’d be a riot. But conditions slowly got better. He and his wife spent 17 months at Guantanamo before leaving for Virginia. They were sponsored by Julian Crews, an ABC reporter from Norfolk who’d met Mota in the camp. (Mota and his wife would separate in 1999.)

Mota says he left Guantanamo a changed man. Before, “I was more a kind of dreamer–always dreaming of this, always dreaming of that. I believed destiny was everything in life–destiny and fate. And now it’s different.” The days on the high seas and the months in the refugee camp had stripped him of self-importance. “I don’t lie when I tell you I feel that experience is 20 years of my life, not a year and a half,” he says. “Before I was a little more–with a lot of prejudgments. I got my point of view. When you’re 18 or 25 you feel you own God–like we say in Spanish, you grab God by the beard. My escape, that changed that mentality for me forever.”

His eyes open to the world, he became what he is today, a journalist. “I think I got some kind of madness, which is to see a story anywhere,” he says. “I think a lot of time our own prejudgments stop us from writing some stories, and the good thing with my whole newborn spirit is I eliminated a lot of that. I am very more focused on just getting the stories, listening to people’s lives and finding the interesting twists, and putting it out.”

After a year in Virginia, Mota decided to move to a big city with a Spanish press. Crews, by then a WGN TV reporter, urged him to consider Chicago. It turned out Exito, a Spanish-language weekly owned by the Tribune Company, had an opening, and Mota began working there in September 1997. There he discovered that he could be a tenacious investigative reporter. Occasionally he teamed up with Tribune reporters on stories that ran in both papers. Though Mota insists he no longer prejudges, he certainly judges, and he has come to some hard conclusions about journalism in America.

To begin with, he says, whenever he thought of an idea for a story he believed the Tribune would be interested in too, he’d pitch it to a reporter there, not to an editor. “It’s easier to talk to the guy who has the imagination to see the story right away,” he says. “With editors, it’s a different story.”

Journalistic middle management in Chicago reminded him of the oppressive analysts back in Havana. “You don’t take risks,” he says, naming no names. “I always got the feeling the lawyers were putting too much into the decision. In Cuba the reason was totally political. ‘Don’t hurt the government. They’re your employers. You could lose your job and end up in jail.’ Here the reason was, ‘Don’t hurt the paper. We can end up losing readership, end up losing advertising, end up losing money.'”

He has no quarrel with lawyers who vet copy for possible libel. He thinks they only make a story stronger. “But sometimes the advice goes beyond that,” he says. “It’s tricky. It’s just a perception that sometimes it’s too much. [Lawyers] always suggest. But sometimes management takes it more as an order than a suggestion. With the censors in Cuba it’s the same. They never say, ‘You have to.’ I got a suggestion. ‘You know, this could bring you consequences.’ Or ‘You could put this in a different way that doesn’t hurt anybody.’ But it feels to you like an order because you can feel the consequences.”

Mota also draws parallels between Mayor Daley’s Chicago and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. “The fact that only one political party dominates both,” he wrote me in an E-mail. “And the fact that the person in charge behaves like a king, trying to keep a family dynasty in place. The most important political concept in both places is loyalty, not efficiency, feeding this patronage society where some people get jobs in exchange for political work.”

He went on, “But at the same time in Chicago there is still terrain for opposition, and the media can play a big role in that.”

This fall Mota was hired away from Exito by Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network that runs Chicago’s Channel 44. In his last big Exito story, Mota and Tribune reporters Laurie Cohen and Andrew Martin collaborated on an investigation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization. The story both papers carried on October 31 called HDO “a vast army of city workers and others who hope to land jobs at City Hall [that] has become a major force in the mayor’s political arsenal.”

A few days before the story ran, the mayor visited Exito to discuss the new budget. It’s an annual visit, and apparently it never goes well. “He gets pissed off every year for one reason or another,” says Magdalena Garcia, Exito’s managing editor. Mota says the ground rules for this year’s meeting were laid down ahead of time: no questions about anything but the budget, and definitely no questions about the HDO. He called someone he knew on the Tribune editorial board and asked if the mayor had made the same demand when he visited there. The mayor hadn’t. Mota decided he’d ask Daley about the HDO.

The mayor arrived “very red and tense,” says Mota. But he loosened up, and when he fielded some innocuous questions off the subject of the budget, Mota felt more entitled than ever to bring up the HDO. So he did. “It was like a bomb,” says Mota. Furious, the mayor stood up and walked out.

Again, Mota compares the mayor to Castro. “The way they explode,” he muses. “That’s tied to their arrogance, I guess. There’s something very childish about the way they react. They don’t like criticism. They hate it. They simply hate it.”

“He does that to everyone,” says assistant press secretary Rosa Escareno, speaking of the mayor’s eruptions. “He can get very passionate about things.” She says Daley was willing to talk about the HDO, but not then and not there, because his message was the budget. Yet Laurie Cohen says the reporters submitted a list of questions on the HDO to Daley and he didn’t answer them.

Garcia says there was nothing extraordinary about the mayor’s 2002 visit to Exito: “A couple of years ago I’d say he got even more pissed off.” An editor had asked him about criticism that as a mayor he was turning into his father. “He banged on the table and got red in the face like you wouldn’t believe,” Garcia says. “We have a whole archive of photos of him banging the conference table. We just have a field day every time he comes, and we wonder if he’s going to come back. But he always does.”

Even given that archive of table-banging photos, this year’s, taken by Exito’s Antonio Perez, is “the best picture ever,” says Mota. Cohen says, “It’s on my wall. It’s wonderful.” To the deep regret of both reporters, neither paper published it. Mota thinks Exito would have run it if the Tribune had agreed to run it too, but the Tribune didn’t. Cohen says the decision was made by public editor Don Wycliff.

Wycliff was out of town and unreachable for comment, but apparently he decided–no doubt with good reason–that the picture was unfair to Daley because he’d been bushwhacked.

The HDO story got good play, but Mota has brooded about the photograph. “If I’d been the managing editor I would have published it,” he says. “The limitations they were putting, the rules they were asking, were related to the fact they knew we were doing that investigation. I would have published it.”

He adds, “Every year he gets angry for something, it’s true. But not every year we were working on an investigation. I think he’s a great actor, a performer–like the other one in Cuba. They both are geniuses. That’s why they stay in power so long. But I definitely believe this time he got angry because of the question.”

If Mota could go back to Cuba as an investigative reporter, what stories would he like to do from there?

“The intervention of the Cuban government in the narco-invasion of the U.S. in the 80s. That would be a good one. Of course they would kill me. What happened really with Camilo Cienfuegos. He was a leader of the Cuban revolution at the beginning. He was more popular than Castro. He died in a plane accident, and his body was never found. I’d love to investigate what really happened. People are not aware there’s a prohibition for people from other parts of Cuba to immigrate to Havana. It’s created an underground population of ‘Palestinian’ Cubans from other provinces. I’d love to write about that. I’d love to report about the unions in Cuba, the way the labor, the people, the workers wound up so unprotected.”

Meanwhile, Mota is taking enthusiastically to television, a medium he knew nothing about. In 2004 he wants to do a documentary about the 15 balseros on his little boat. He thinks he can find them.

“Jorge was a great loss for the paper–the paper broadly,” says Cohen, meaning not just Exito but the Tribune. “A huge loss. Jorge contributed immensely to our coverage of City Hall.”

Hot Serial

Among the many reasons to admire the series of articles by Ken Armstrong on the late attorney Dick Cunningham is the imaginative form in which it appeared in the Tribune. Cunningham specialized in death penalty cases. He lived hard, “hungered for mercy,” in Armstrong’s words, and 23 months ago was stabbed to death by the psychotic son he loved. “Don’t hurt him,” he told a policeman with one of his last breaths.

Armstrong’s series ran in short daily installments in the Tempo section, ending Christmas Day. But that’s not how he turned the story in last September. “I’d left it as more of a traditional format–four long pieces, the kind of series you’re accustomed to seeing,” he says. “Some of the editors were a little wary, thinking the chunks might be too big.”

The series was a labor of love and Armstrong’s swan song–after eight years as a Tribune legal writer, much of it spent covering the death penalty, he left the paper in the fall to teach a semester at Princeton before joining the Seattle Times. Editors weren’t sure what to do with the series he’d left behind.

The four pieces were so long they were daunting, and there were too many of them. Armstrong understood as well as anyone that he’d lose his readers. “One of the things I’ve always wondered about,” he says, “is the second double-truck in a long series.” A two-page spread in the Sunday paper won’t intimidate readers who care about whatever the subject is, because they’ll find time to spend on it. But on Monday morning they won’t have the time, and many readers facing another two-page spread will give up. This isn’t necessarily a problem if the point of the project is to edify a select readership and win prizes. But Armstrong had a compelling story to tell, and he wanted an audience.

Writing from Princeton, he tried reshaping his story into three parts, then two. But nothing worked. Then he mentioned his original crazy idea–to serialize Cunningham’s turbulent life, telling it in as many as 15 short chapters. “Our first reaction was ‘Too much. Who’d read it?'” says Tempo editor Tim Bannon. “But we talked about it some more, and we realized this was a story that could work at that length.”

In the end Armstrong wrote 11 chapters. The editors wanted to boil them down to 800 words a day but settled for 1,200. Tempo got the series because that’s where it seemed to belong. “This felt more like a feature than a news story,” says Bannon, “and Tempo’s a section where we’re able to take more chances than the news section.”

Two years ago, before former Tempo editor James Warren returned from Washington to take over the features department, Tempo couldn’t have even considered the Cunningham series because the section was limited to arts and entertainment. “Now,” says Bannon, “there’s nothing that’s off-limits.”

Serialization has been tried from time to time in other cities, but it’s new to the Tribune. Bannon says readers liked it. So did Tempo’s writers. “We had one of our weekly writers’ meetings the Monday after [the serial] started,” Bannon says. “That was the first really strong response. We realized this is an effective way of telling stories.”

Will he do it again?


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.