BLOG: Saying goodbye to Cuba

THURSDAY, March 29 - 8:30 AM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - "So when did you leave Cuba?," I asked the gentleman sitting next to me in the pew at the Cathedral in Old Havana for Archbishop Thomas Wenski's mass Tuesday, who was in a full-on tuxedo, I might add.  "I never left Cuba," he said.  "Oh, so you live here?," I asked confused.  "No.  I never left  Cuba," with a smile.  And the light turned on. 

That's the sentiment of all Cubans living in exile, isn't it? 

I know it's true for my parents, it's true for my family members living in the states, it's the same for all Cubans I've encountered throughout my life.  It never leaves you. 

This is my first time in Cuba as a journalist.  I've been in the past to visit family, but this time, from the eyes of the reporter, has been an amazing experience.  This time I've been able to show everyone what I see, the images, the emotion, the heartache.  Agree with the politics or not, the heart of the island does not lie. 

Take my family in Cuba.  I'll be 35 next month.  I didn't meet my aunt or uncles or cousins until about 6 years ago.  All those years, all the birthdays, recitals, school events, the snapshots, the kisses, the hugs, the laughter...they never existed.  And yet, every time I call them from Miami, every time I come to visit, it's as if they've known me all my life...seen me since I took my first steps or said my first words.  That's heart. 

Take our driver ironically named Chavez, hired by ABC to be on the clock, who waited outside the hotel in the hot sun all day waiting for our call, always ready to go with excitement, a handshake, a smile.  He could be a member of the family ... of my family ... he was so warm.  That's heart. 

Take the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who headed out to Revolution Square at 4 a.m. like we did to see Pope Benedict XVI give mass, disregarding the cold morning, their lack of sleep, singing songs, huddled together on the floor, that's heart. 

Take the Cubans we spoke to who know this island needs a lot of work, that it needs some change, but they don't lose hope and still express a deep love and sense of pride for their country regardless of politics.  That's heart, and the heart never lies.


WEDNESDAY, March 28 - 9:45 PM - (from Calvin Hughes) - We're minutes away from our last report in Havana. Our Local 10 Special, "The Pope In Cuba" is getting a positive response from many of our viewers. It's a great feeling after a trip that we set out to accomplish so much in a short amount of time.

We're wrapping up seven days on the communist island. Considering it granted us access, the government allowed us more latitude to report objectively about the "Cuban condition." Were we being watched closely by Cuban officials? It's likely. Did I ever feel threatened during the reporting or editing of our stories? Absolutely not.

My final thoughts about Cuba: It was a life-changing experience as a person and journalist. I'll have a story to tell my kids and grandkids. The Cuban people have taught me about resilience and pride in the face of a political system that has little room for tolerance. The Pope showed all of us never give up hope. Cuban-Americans like Carlos Saladrigas, Andy Gomez and Martha Perez and my colleagues Jen Herrera, WPLG Bill Damas and Michelle Lacamoire taught me it's ok to go home even though a chorus of critics disagree.

¡Adios Cuba por ahora!

WEDNESDAY, March 28 - 1:22 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - Envision throngs and throngs of people in Revolution Square...the media secluded on top of a platform.  Now squint and envision more than 200 yards away, two shining port-a-potties with halos overhead as saviors. For 2 girls with small bladders, that my friends, is the oasis! After being up for hours, Jen and I decided to hit the port-o-potties before things got worse with the crowd that was already growing by the tens of thousands, and eventually hundreds.  Of course, these portable restrooms are only meant for the press and the people involved with the mass.  The rest of the people have to hold it.  

So we tried to get out of our secluded press area that is heavily guarded by security when they stop Jen because she has her purse with her.  "Sorry," they tell her, "you have to leave your bag."  Jen: "What?  But, I have all my money in here."  Security: "Don't you have someone who can hold it for you?"  Frustrated, Jen storms back to our photographers to hold her bag.  We leave and enter the mob.  We make our way through, passing and stepping over everyone sitting on the floor, and me -- hearing all the cat calls for Jen of course -- hot chic from la "Yuma" (ha!) -- but we hit a barrier.  Again, we make our way back and find another opening.  Security there didn't want to let us through, but a nice lady noticed our badges and let us in.  

Now we are in the line at one of the two port-a-potties, with members of the choir who are also waiting.  One girl tells another, "I thought you went already?"  She answers, "No.  I attempted three times but every time the stench made me want to hurl and I couldn't."  Perfect! The line wasn't very long, but for some reason, it was going very slow.  In the U.S., you're used to portables running out of toilet paper, but here, it's non-existent.  The person before us finishes and warns, "Now I understand."  And now I'm nervous. 

With my portable toilet paper in hand (thanks Mom!) and a big breath, I head in.  I refuse to look at the toilet because I can tell from the corner of my eye that's it's pretty bad.  I finish quickly and am grateful for the clean air outside. 

"Don't look down, Jen," and with that, she heads in.  Jen said later she didn't look down and took a deep breath and worked as quickly as possible.  At one point she had to take a breath but covered her mouth and nose and didn't exhale until she got out, the stench following her for a few steps. 

"No es facil, chico, no es facil."  (Popular Cuban phrase:  It's not easy brother, it's not easy.)

WEDNESDAY, March 28 - 4:15 AM - (from Calvin Hughes) - Today is filled with much anticipation as we all get ready to hear from the Pope. It's the second papal visit in a couple of decades to the Communist island. John Paul II opened the door for change in Cuba. In 14 years, the time that has passed of the late pontiff's last trip, the Church in Cuba no longer has an icey relationship with the State. The first seminary in 50 years was opened in Cuba in November 2010. And, the Church has feeding programs to shepherd donations to Cuba's poor, elderly and sick. The Church even teaches business classes for people who are looking to open private enterprises. These would be advances in any society - open or closed -  but no question their steps forward for the Church in Cuba that were abandoned after "the Revolution." 

Our crews are getting ready this morning. I am up a little early and filled with "can't wait" energy for this historic moment. Talking with people like Dr. Andy Gomez, who hadn't been to Cuba in more than a decade, helped me more clearly understand what this means for the island's next generation. Though I haven't heard young Cubans here on the island express a desire  for a "Cuban Spring" it is in their hearts. Along the famous Malecon, they line up on weekend nights playing their music, dancing dreaming of a new life. One woman told me "I'd love to have more opportunities. I can't even visit Veradero beach or go to the Nacional Hotel." In spite of their harsh realities, Cubans - young and old, here and back in South Florida, there is still a lot of pride. I will tell their stories tonight during our half-hour special, which airs at 8:30 pm, that will also illuminate "Cuban ingenuity." It was fascinating to see how people here in Havana can keep a 60 year old car running, watches ticking and calculators working that should be in a technological graveyard. 


TUESDAY, March 27 - 4:15 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - Photographer Bill Damas and I headed back into Old and Central Havana. We headed down with our trusty chauffeur on San Lazaro alongside el Malecón

About every other building facing the sea wall is being renovated... a sign the city is getting some much needed upgrades.  But we wanted to go into the side streets and see what we may have overlooked. I've been here before and know what it's like.  But it's the first time for Bill, and he was amazed at what a difference a few blocks made.  Unpaved streets, tattered buildings, garbage in heaps on the floor, electric wiring sticking out...almost perfectly hidden from the rest of the city.  People walking the streets paid no mind.  Who knows how long they've been living this way?

We continued on towards Old Havana.  Bill asked to stop again to film the government billboards and paintings on the walls sprinkled throughout the city.  "Todo para la Revolucion" -- "Everything for the Revolution!"  "50 anos y seguimos para siempre" -- "50 years {referring to the Revolution} and we continue forever."  The locals just walked on by. Tourists were the only ones who showed any interest in the signs... snapping shots in their cameras. 

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. 

PHOTOS: Pictures of Cuba's Temple Beth Shalom

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.

So fearless, and so in control of this particular moment, Soler preached to reporters about their fight for change in Cuba as police officers watched on from a distance. She explains she wants just one minute with Pope Benedict XVI in hopes of sharing her concerns about the people of Cuba.

The meeting, like today's march, is a risk. The women risk their lives every time they march in unison. But it's a risk she said she is always willing to take.

"The love for our family, the love for our country, is stronger than a jail cell."

I was penetrated by her words just then. These women have such love for their country, a strong desire to see it at its highest potential.

And with that, the women entered the church for Sunday mass and headed out to march.

Two uniformed lines...the women holding gladiolas...silence. Only the hustle of the reporters chasing after them could be heard, and the honks from passing cars opposing the media coverage. No violence, no arrests. Just peace.

I was so honored to be alongside these women. They have taught me so much about being fearless and standing up for what you believe in. May they press on in peace, and may they live to see it reign.


SATURDAY, March 24 - 5:02 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - Today, we took a trip out to Old and Central Havana. It's been gorgeous weather--clear blue skies and nice ocean breeze. Jen, Bill our photographer, and I left early for the popular tourist thoroughfare, Calle Obispo.

This narrow stretch of Central Havana is a hot spot for tourists and locals alike.  Here you can buy jewelry, appliances, toiletries, and the classic tourist gifts and knick knacks.

Pretty much all the businesses are government owned. But there are many privately owned shops that are popping up, one of several reforms made recently by the Cuban government allowing Cubans to take part in private enterprise.  It's a step up, but there are many more steps to go.

As always, we attract quite a crowd and plenty of stares with our press passes and equipment. Many gave us long looks as they passed us filming; others joked about getting on camera and becoming famous in the States; others didn't even flinch.

We spoke with some store owners about having their own businesses. Clearly, they are happy to own something that is theirs, if only a portion of it.

We spoke with some of Cuba's youth about their hopes and aspirations.  One 18-year-old told us he's never traveled outside the country and wasn't anticipating the Pope's visit because he wasn't religious. There was sadness in his eyes and almost a sense of having given up on having any aspirations.

As Jen and Bill filmed, I stood back and watched the people go by about their business: the  little old lady whose back curved from so many years of hard labor, walking along with her "java" or plastic bag; the little girl rushing to a dance recital at the hands of her mother; the young couple walking hand and hand, wearing the brand names popular in the U.S; the waiters and waitresses standing outside tourist restaurants waiting to make their tips for the day; then, the long line of people waiting to get into the cellphone store to make a purchase perhaps; the crowd of locals standing in the hot sun to catch a packed bus. 

Life is hard here.  But it's truth, I think, is so tragic and so beautiful at the same time. 


FRIDAY, March 23 - 6:12 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - My mom was sent to live in the U.S. with relatives when she was 14 years old. The eldest of 9, the idea was to bring each child over one by one, and then her parents. The year was 1957. Two years later, Cuba changed forever, and my mother was left behind on this side of the Florida Straits.

I grew up without my aunt and uncles and my grandparents. But, I did grow up hearing stories of my mom and her siblings, what they were like, what life was like for a family of 11 who was so poor.

When the U.S. made it possible for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba, I jumped at the opportunity. I yearned to see what I grew up hearing about, longed to meet the family I have only learned about through old photos and stories. I've traveled here several times, and for me, it's not about politics.

I understand the sentiment that my U.S. dollar will help benefit the Cuban government, but how can I deny a right to visit my family? To hug and kiss them after so many years apart? I've seen what Cuba is really like. I can't say I know all of its harsh realities, but I am well aware of them. I'll keep coming back as long as they let me, because for me, it's not about politics. It's about family.

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 - 11:28 AM - (from Calvin Hughes) - We just wrapped up our meeting with Cuban government officials to talk about our "boundaries," but apparently, there aren't as many as we thought. We did request several interviews, including one with Raul Castro, Fidel Castro and Elian Gonzalez, and were promptly told to get in line. There are more than 800 journalists here from all over the world and each has put in the same interview requests. We did talk about the possible discussions with Cuban officials about Alan Gross, a political prisoner, and was told the situation is "complicated." 

Stay tuned. 

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 - 10:40 AM - The Local 10 crew in Havana will be sending back pictures all day. Take a look at what they're seeing in this slideshow.

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 - 10:33 AM - (from Calvin Hughes) - The long, arduous journey into Cuba was grueling, but expected. We were warned to anticipate long delays and searches at the airport. I thought this process would take maybe one or two hours. Turns out, retrieving our luggage took three times as long as our flight from Miami which lasted less than an hour. At Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, I was able to take in the moment. Listening and looking around at Cuban families and tourists who couldn't wait to see their families patiently standing in front of the airport. They were three to four rows deep. The reunions were filled with such raw emotion. Everyone cried, hugged and cried some more.  

There is a lot more to say but I'm being summoned to a meeting with Cuban officials to inform us about our journalistic "boundaries." Stay tuned. 


THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 3:27 PM - (from producer Michelle Lacamoire) - The reality of travels to Cuba: It takes 45 minutes from the moment the plane's wheels lift off the ground at MIA and land in Havana, but it takes the entire day to make it happen.  Checking in takes four hours. You have to wrap what you take and then form the long line to check in. Then there's the long security checkpoint and then the wait for the plane and the crew. Our flight is delayed. That is nothing new for flights to Cuba. We were supposed to leave at 3pm but it's 3:20pm and the crew has yet to arrive. With all our equipment, I envision us in Havana's airport for a while too. Again, 45 minutes to fly there... an entire day to make it happen.

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 2:35 PM - Calvin sent in this video blog before the Local 10 plane took off for Cuba.

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 2:03 PM - (from Calvin Hughes) - It's hard to believe the day has arrived. The Local 10 news crew including Rudy, Bill, WPLG News Director Bill Pohovey, Jen and I are hours away from landing in Havana, Cuba to cover the Papal visit. We will be the only local news crew from South Florida to cover this historic event! We understand an entire community will be clinging to our every word. And, within that same community, we will have those who will disagree. Their voices will not be ignored. Unlike Cuba, South Florida exiles are free to express themselves with various outlets. I look forward to reading and hearing their opinions. However in their native land speaking freely comes with a high price so I'll have to read between the lines for the next several days. Listen to what's not being said. And relay the images many in South Florida can't see, smell or touch. What a challenge.

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 1:54 PM - (From Jen Herrera) - Sitting at the gate now its finally sinking in that this is happening, we are going to Cuba. This is so exciting professionally, despite the fact that I was in tears this morning kissing my girls good bye. 

It's also exciting because I'm going back to the place where my family is from. My father was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1953, but he went back every summer until 1960. Up until now I have known very little about my father's side of the family. Now I know my grandfather made a huge sacrifice when he left everything he had ever known to give his wife and children a better life in the US. I hear the home where my dad spent many summers is still just outside of Havana... I can't wait to find out!

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 1:07 PM - (from Jen Herrera) - Check-in complete. $316 baggage charge, not nearly as bad as we expected considering all of the equipment Can't wait to see how bad it is on the other end. Interesting tidbit; like so many things in Cuba, they don't change the clocks the same time as the rest of us. It's an hour earlier in Cuba until they "spring forward" in a few weeks.

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 12:08 PM - As she and the Local 10 crew prepare to leave for Cuba, Jen Herrera put together this special "Behind the Curtain" video to show what a task it is to leave the country

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 11:53 AM - (from Jen Herrera) - And so the journey begins. Our crew arrived at Miami International Airport the required four hours before the flight to Cuba.  It's always amazing to see the lines of people checking in for the flights to Cuba. So many people traveling for so many reasons. We've met people going to see the Pope. We've met people going for vacation, but mostly we met people going to see family. And they don't go empty-handed. The four-hour check-in is due to the massive amounts of luggage people take to Cuba. Everything is wrapped in green plastic to ensure everything inside the bags on this end makes it to Cuba. We've seen plasma TVs in the luggage. You name it, someone is bringing it for a family member. The long duffel bags loaded with supplies are so common they are called gusanos, or worms, in English.  Anything over 44 pounds costs extra. Prices depend on whether it's food or medicine which is cheaper. Gift and clothes cost more. We  have 100 pounds of TV equipment and are just waiting to see how much we will be required to spend, but it won't be cheap!  More to come.

THURSDAY, MARCH 22 - 11:30 AM - The Local 10 crew travelling to Cuba is now at the airport, waiting to board their plane. There is a lot of anticipation ahead of the trip and the crew sent these photos before they fly off.