Next stop, Old Havana and Plaza de San Francisco, where dozens of government-owned tour buses drop off tourists to see the more scenic parts of Havana. Buildings reconstructed with fresh paint, hostels, restaurants, cobbled streets, nothing like the part of Havana we just saw minutes before. It's beautiful; it certainly is. It's what all of Cuba could be.
We ended with a stop at el Malecón. As Bill filmed, I took a moment to breathe in the cool Caribbean breeze... feel the warmth from the sun on my skin... waves crashing up alongside the sea wall were so soothing, the crisp blue water inviting. It's no wonder people come here to unwind, detach. I couldn't help snapping a shot of a young couple sitting together, snuggled in silence. With the faint sounds of Cuban music playing somewhere in the background, I looked out into the water that looked as if it went on forever... towards South Florida... a world that feels so far away.
TUESDAY, March 27 - 8:00 AM - (from Jen Herrera) - So today's the day. The Pope comes to Havana and we are anxiously waiting. "We" as in the media. We are everywhere in the Hotel Nacional. Our credentials worn around our necks a dead giveaway. There are TV stations here from Houston, Chicago, New York and from other countries all around the world as well.
It's interesting, every time someone asks us where we are from and we say South Florida, there is an immediate reaction. Everyone knows covering Cuba and being from South Florida is so much more for us. Cuba is a part of our culture. A part of our every day. Even if you have no Cuban blood in you, living in South Florida it somehow becomes a part of you. Like it or not, South Floridians hear Spanish every day. The influence seen in the architecture, in the food ... it's everywhere.
Our crew has had a huge responsibility to cover this story in Cuba and to cover it well. But I must say it's been difficult. At times my eyes tell me one thing based on what I'm seeing. This island is beautiful. The people are beautiful. They are warm, inviting, friendly, bold, passionate. But then my brain reminds me of the reality.
It's also difficult because we (as in the media again) are spoiled by what Cuba does have to offer. The nicer hotel, we can eat at restaurants considered too expensive for the locals. Look, I'm blogging... I can get on the internet.
For our visit, but most importantly of course for the Pope's visit, Cuba is putting its best foot forward.
This place is clean. Super clean. And locals tell me the nightclubs and bars are all closing early as of last night so there are no drunk disorderly people around. And that their internet access has been turned off. Reports are also saying that worshippers were mandated to go to yesterday's mass in Santiago and the same may be the case for tomorrow's mass in Revolution Square.
So my question -- and I won't be here to see it is -- what happens when we all leave?
MONDAY, March 26 - 9:30 AM - (from Jen Herrera) - I was shooting a story the other day, and this man started talking about how broken the government is here and how he would love to come to Miami... and surprisingly I started to feel uncomfortable. Not because I disagreed with him; but because I became scared for him. The journalist in me wanted to keep asking questions and get him to say more... but the the human side of me just wanted to tell him to stop... don't say anymore... you could get in trouble. It's quite bizarre having that internal battle. And never have I ever wanted someone who I was interviewing to stop giving me such great soundbites, but that was my honest reaction.
The censorship is probably what I'm having the hardest part getting past. That and the pictures of Che Guevara everywhere. In the gift shop of our hotel there are books on Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Jesus Christ.
MONDAY, March 26 - 7:00 AM - (from Calvin Hughes) - Saturday morning we learned from a friend of Local 10 that 300 Cuban Jews from West Palm Beach were in Havana to drop off food, clothing and other items to the city's largest synagogue. Unfortunately, when we arrived they were already gone. It turns out WPLG VP of News Bill Pohovey had visited the synagogue with Local 10's Glenna Milberg in the mid-90s when the building was in tatters. The roof was missing, windows blown out and the place was a mess. Today it is a much different story. The Temple Beth Shalom has been fully restored. Worshippers walk on marble floors, sit in brand new wooden pews and the roof never looked like it saw a bad day. David Prinstein was happy to tell us that generous US donors helped restore the synagogue. There are 1500 Cuban Jews on the island, but they don't have a rabbi. Prinstein told me that leaders from other synagogues in other countries come to Havana to help them.
In the lobby of the synagogue, I saw pictures of both Castro brothers and famous Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. He also wrote a letter of support. Two years ago, Raul Castro celebrated Hanukkah at Temple Beth Shalom in Havana. And after John Paul's visit in 1998, Fidel Castro lit a menorah at the synagogue. Some worshippers told me that they openly practice their faith and if not for John Paul's visit they weren't so sure that that would be the case. The first papal visit brought about some change, release of political prisoners and religious reforms. The Church calls them "baby steps" but there is still a long way to go.
SUNDAY, March 25 - 10:45 PM - (from Calvin Hughes) - It has been a while since I've expressed my thoughts on being in Havana, Cuba. What better time to blog than now on this Sunday, a day of reflection and before heading out to the Malecon to talk with young people about their future hopes and dreams. Since Thursday, we have been crisscrossing the island in search of the most enterprising stories we can think of. Our news team set a goal before the trip to broadcast original, compelling and human stories to interest people on both sides of the Florida Straits.
So far we have tried to show many sides of Cuba. The good and bad. The irresistible clutch of Cuba's charm, beauty and historic features such as its classic, 60-year-old cars on road (that is for those who can afford them).
And there is no forgetting the voiceless. We are aware of their struggle and daily plight to survive. I met a man named Agustin in Old Havana last week and he showed me his home and his rough hands. He's been a bricklayer for most of his life, and said he was tired and wanted a better financial future for his family.
The father of two young children refused to blame the government out of fear that he would soon get a knock at the door from police. In fact, as we got ready to pull away in our car, Agustin ran out of his house to press us about when our story would run in South Florida. I don't think he was asking about the story because he forgot to put on makeup powder and his nose was shiny.
SUNDAY, March 25 - 5:30 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - "Con miedo no se puede vivir, y con miedo no hay libertad" (translation: You can't live in fear, with fear there is no freedom.)
I've seen their images on TV. Dozens of ladies dressed in white, marching silently in the streets of Cuba. I've also seen images of these same ladies being arrested, harassed, beaten and physically kept from getting out into the streets in protest.
PHOTOS: The Ladies in White
Today, a much more peaceful picture outside Saint Rita Church from Havana's Miramar neighborhood, in the flesh. The woman I've seen speak so passionately for the rights of political prisoners and all Cubans, standing right in front of me, sharing her battle with the foreign press. I was beside myself.
"We are here...while political prisoners exist, there will be Ladies in White visiting Saint Rita Church praying for freedom for Cuba, freedom for political prisoners, and for human rights ... and we will walk in the streets of Cuba for the rights of these men," said Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White.