LATE IN 1983, a few months after the Toronto Sun bought the Houston Post, the new owners decided to take advantage of a treaty that would allow them to funnel their U.S. profits through Barbados and back to Canada, to lower their tax obligations. In order to do that, they needed to establish a shell company in Barbados and that company needed to have at least one employee in that Caribbean nation.
This was not long after Reagan had invaded the tiny island of Grenada, about 90 miles from Barbados. There were also a lot of conflicts in Central America, with wars raging in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
My Canadian bosses thought about all this and came up with a plan. Instead of hiring a Bajan (a Barbados citizen) to sit in an office in downtown Bridgetown all day, doing nothing, why not send a reporter down there. That reporter could use Barbados as a base from which to fly to Grenada and other Caribbean nations, Central America, and South America to report on the conflicts, elections, etc. They apparently looked at a map of the Caribbean and decided it would be easy to fly from Barbados to all those hotspots.
So, now that they had this brilliant plan, they needed a reporter. They had three criteria: the reporter must be single, must have a passport and must speak Spanish. Of all the people in the Houston Post newsroom, only one person met these requirements: moi.
My initial instict was to say, “Hell no!” I have never been a very adventurous person. I liked living in the United States and I had never harbored any ambitions of being a foreign correspondent. Maybe, if they had asked me if I wanted to report out of Paris or Rome or Madrid or even Mexico City, I might have jumped at the suggestion.
But Barbados? (Or The Barbados, as the Canadians referred to it.) I am not sure I had even heard of Barbados before I was approached. A quick look at the map told me that it was the easternmost of all the Caribbean islands. Why would I want to go there?
Well, check it out, my editor said. Take a trip down there, talk to the guy who is managing our affairs down there, and see what you think. So I did. I flew to Barbados a bit before Christmas and spent a few days there. Barbados is not the most beautiful island in the Caribbean, but it is an island. In the Caribbean. With perfect weather. Aside from its being a million miles from home, what’s there not to like?
I returned to Houston and told the editor I would do it. It wasn’t that I was convinced by the beauty of the island or the possibilities of the assignment. Rather, it was that I decided that if I turned down this job, which many other reporters would kill for, it would ruin by chances of getting any other promotions or positions I would seek in the future. Like returning to Washington, where I had gone to graduate school, and where I had worked for USA TODAY briefly after it was launched. Or like becoming a columnist, an ambition I was harboring even back then.
SO I AGREED to go to Barbados, but I told my editor that I had one request: that I wanted him to promise me that I would be seriously considered for any possible future vacancy at the Post’s DC bureau. He agreed, and I prepared to start my career as a foreign correspondent.
I made a final trip to my hometown and, because I knew my mother had no idea where Barbados was, I bought a globe and took it to her. I pointed to the tiny dot in the Caribbean and told her that that was where I would be living. I don’t know why I thought that would make her feel better. It didn’t.
A few days after the New Year, I arrived in Barbados and a taxi took me to my new home, an apartment in resort about a mile and a half from the beach. I think it was called Barkley Resort, but I am not sure. One of the first things I did once I’d settled in was to go into Bridgetown to talk to a travel agent about my first trips. The first thing I learned was that, contrary to what my bosses had thought, there was no way I could fly from Barbados to Central or South America – or even some other Caribbean countries – without having to fly back to Miami to catch connecting flight.
This worked out great for me because I had joined Eastern Airlines’ frequent flier club and I ended up racking up a lot of miles (Eastern was bought out by Continental). In addition, most of the time I had to overnight in Miami before making the connecting flights, and that allowed me to eat American food and watch American TV and call my friends and family in this country. However, the extra cost of flying anywhere out of Barbados I’m sure ate up into the profits on which the Canadians were counting.
DESPITE MY MISGIVINGS, it turned out to be a great adventure, mostly. I traveled to and wrote stories out of Grenada, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. I covered the Pope’s visit to the DR and Puerto Rico and I covered a United Nations population conference in Mexico City.
I did not do any real war reporting (thank God!) but I did venture out one day on a helicopter to the mountains outside San Salvador with an army colonel who was seen as a rising star in the Salvadoran army. We trekked up and down mountainsides and only once did we hear gunfire in the distance, and that evening I returned to the comfort of my San Salvador hotel room. A few weeks later, that colonel’s helicopter exploded in mid-air and all aboard were killed.
I also drove up into the mountains north of Managua (which became my favorite city) one day with a reporter for USA TODAY. He seemed like a decent fellow but once we got out among the people in the rural areas, he behaved like the classical ugly American. He was so bad that I kept praying for the Contras to come out of the woods to kidnap him!
I had been told by news people familiar with the area that reporters in the region would welcome me with open arms and be ready to help me as much as they could. That turned out to be pure fiction. Most reporters wanted nothing to do with me. Fortunately, there were a few reporters who took it upon themselves to reach out to me and take me under their wings. Without them I would have been lost.
Ricardo Chavira, who was then with TIME magazine (and later worked with the Dallas Morning News), was the first to reach out to me.
June Erlick, who was a TIME stringer, also was extremely helpful. June, who has written several books on Central America, became a good fr
iend and we still keep in touch. She is now is the editor-in-chief of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America.
ALL IN ALL, it was an experience I’ll never forget. And, if I say so myself, I wrote some damn good articles for The Post, and took some pretty decent photos that were used with those stories.
This great adventure ended, however, a year after it had begun, when my editor proved true to his word and asked me to fill a newly created position in the Washington bureau. It was a good thing, for many reasons. One of them was that by this time Houston’s economy had started to tank and soon there would be no profits to flow through Barbados and on to Canada, which meant that the reporter who followed me was not allowed to travel anywhere near as much as I had travelled and so he ended up spending most of his tenure there stranded in Barbados. Poor guy.
(I started writing this as an introduction to a letter I wrote from Barbados to a friend shortly after my arrival on that island. She recently found that letter and sent it to me. I was going to post it with a short introduction but the introduction turned out longer than the letter! It’s not a great letter, but I think you might find it interesting when I post it in a few days.)