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From AJR,   October/November 2006  issue

Cuba Countdown   

Coverage of Fidel Castro’s illness and handoff of power underscores the challenges of reporting on the secretive regime and the island’s future.


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Scenes from Havana's José Martí International Airport at night, August 2, 2006:

Rain had leaked through the ceiling onto one of the seats near the departure gate. Birds were flying in through an opening in the roof. A group of international journalists waited for the first morning flight to Cancun.

One of them, Angel Valentin, says the overnighter in the airport was, simply, "interesting."

Not quite the way Valentin, a senior staff photographer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and his companions – including Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, two Getty Images photographers, a Dutch newspaper correspondent, a Spanish radio reporter and a Panamanian television crew – had envisioned covering a major news event that wasn't quite the big, BIG story, but a big story nonetheless.

For the first time in his 47 years as Cuba's president, Fidel Castro had put someone else in charge of the country, handing power primarily to his brother Raul. Fidel, who turned 80 a few weeks later, was recovering from intestinal surgery and requested that his announcement be read over Cuban television. Speculation was rampant – had Castro died already? Information was scant – his location was not released. And the media circus was not going to be able to put its act together.

Valentin, Robinson and many others who didn't have the pleasure of sleeping in the airport were turned away by Cuban immigration authorities, who said the visitors couldn't enter the country without journalist visas. These had turned out to be impossible to obtain quickly from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, an office that had not responded to many phone calls or e-mails or an in-person visit by Robinson.

Some reporters did slip in. One, tipped off that journalists were being deported, stashed reportorial gear in a Cancun airport locker and walked through Cuban immigration at the same time Robinson and Valentin were pleading for entry. The New York Times' Ginger Thompson flew in from Mexico without a hitch, until she was asked to leave the country a week later and escorted to the airport. Miami Herald reporters, veterans of working in Cuba without the journalist visas they're regularly denied, were still contributing to stories in late August.

Bienvenida a Cuba.

For decades, journalists have been trying to cover a country, whether from somewhere on the island or from afar, that is as frustrating an assignment as they come. It's tough to get in, to get an interview, to get "it" – an entire country filled with people wary of talking to anyone about how they really feel. The small group of foreign journalists who live there struggle to build trust with sources – and find sources they can trust. Others fly in on weeklong or shorter visas or work the phones, reporting methods that are never ideal for penetrating anyplace, let alone a venue as elusive as Cuba.

Whatever the technique, it's being put to the test as news organizations have gotten a taste of what it may be like to cover Castro's death and the fallout from such a historic incident. A succession – even if it turns out to be temporary – has occurred. "A couple of months ago I was bored, but now I'm pretty excited to be in the right place at the right time," Anthony Boadle, Reuters' Havana bureau chief, said in August. "It's what we're here for. It's the moment."

How long "the moment" drags on and what happens next is anyone's guess. Castro's illness and updates on his condition are considered state secrets by the communist country.

Boadle and the other Cuba-based correspondents, lucky to already be there, have the misfortune of walking around with expired press credentials. The Cuban government was supposed to renew them in April, but, bureaucracy being what it is, that has yet to happen. To avert potential problems, the International Press Center in Havana has issued letters for the press corps to present if stopped by police, saying that they are allowed to be in the country.

As far as frustrations go, this one is minor for journalists who operate in a country where there's no access to public documents, little in the way of quantitative figures and a general feeling that who you talk to and what you say is being monitored by someone.

Chronicling the latest news has proven to be no less difficult.

Some news organizations have drafted game plans for covering a major change in Cuban leadership – the Miami Herald has had one since the early 1990s. But Castro's nebulous illness was a relatively low-key event, making it a tougher assignment for the Cuba beat. "With everything, people are waiting, people are scared, but there's no news," says Gary Marx, the Chicago Tribune's Havana-based Latin America correspondent. "It's this weird story. It's a big story, but it's a story without news... That again is the challenge with Cuba."

Gary Marx was sitting in his office the evening of July 31, and he turned on the TV to watch the top of the 8 p.m. news. The broadcaster said Castro was going to make an announcement after the program. Marx, who arrived at the Tribune Cuba bureau in July 2002, figured it was something about Lebanon. But he stuck around.

A Castro aide read a statement, which began by listing the leader's many recent engagements, including a trip to Argentina and July 26 celebrations commemorating the day in 1953 when Castro launched an uprising against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Stress from such work had provoked a "sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding," which required that Castro undergo "complicated" surgery. The statement said he would need several weeks of rest and listed how his responsibilities would be divided among six men, with his brother Raul taking over the presidency.

"It was like a bomb dropping," Marx says. "It was just amazing, the way it was done and the abruptness of it."

He scrambled and wrote the story. About midnight, Marx ran downstairs to get some quotes from people on the street. A block later, he was detained by police. Marx had forgotten his press credentials. It was the fourth time he had been detained in three weeks.

"They can hold you anywhere from an hour to five hours," he says. "Fortunately I was able to call in my quotes that I already had."

Marx calls his job both the toughest assignment he's ever had and the assignment of a lifetime. Not many get to experience it. In September 1969, the last of the American news organizations from that era was kicked out of the country. The New York Times ran a three-graph Associated Press story, datelined Havana, that said the wire service's Fenton Wheeler was called to the foreign ministry at 4 a.m. and told he would be leaving Cuba in two hours. In particular, the government objected to Wheeler's report that it had accused a staffer in the Mexican Embassy of spying for the CIA.

Reporters are still expelled – or simply not allowed in – for what is deemed to be critical or unfair journalism. Reuters, which has continued to operate a bureau since the 1960s, has had people "pressured out," says Alistair Scrutton, the British company's editor for political and general news about Latin America. Three or four years ago, a Reuters stringer was publicly criticized by Fidel Castro, a sign that the stringer might not be able to stick around much longer. "We decided it was best that he leave," Scrutton says.

By the early 1990s, after the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had collapsed, U.S. news outlets began talks with Cuban authorities about reestablishing news bureaus there. One of the sticking points for the Cubans was reciprocity: The U.S. has not allowed Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service, to open a bureau in this country. But Cuba has softened on this point for certain news organizations.

In 1997, CNN got the go-ahead. A year later, the AP was back, and in 2000, after 10 years of talks with the Tribune Co., including visits by two different company chairmen, the Cubans granted Tribune a bureau, which includes correspondents for both the Chicago paper and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

ABC, CBS and NBC have "offices" in the country, but they have not been given permission to open full-fledged bureaus. Where the Cubans draw the line is hard to discern. CBS News has a producer and a cameraperson in Havana; NBC News Producer Mary Murray has been in the country since 1994; ABC has "editorial resources," says Paul Slavin, the network's senior vice president for worldwide newsgathering. Correspondent Marc Frank works for ABC and is a stringer for both Reuters and the Financial Times.

In 2000, the Dallas Morning News got permission to open a bureau, but closed it in 2004 amid a round of budget cuts. The News' bureau lasted less time than it took to lobby the Cuban government to allow the paper to open it.

The Morning News had been expanding its coverage of Latin America when it got the bureau, but four years later, its focus was on issues closer to home, such as the U.S.-Mexico border. "We moved the bureau to Texas," explains Editor Bob Mong, who says that in a time of staff reduction, "we felt that [the Cuba bureau] was probably a luxury."

Being there has immense advantages. Mong says covering the story from afar "doesn't bear any resemblance" to writing from Cuba. The Chicago Tribune was able to splash the story of a temporary succession across its front page August 1. The New York Times carried wire reports inside the A section.

For Ginger Thompson, until recently the Times' Mexico City bureau chief, it's been difficult to get a sense of what's going on in Cuba in recent years. Thompson, charged with covering Cuba from late 2003 until August, says the paper has been hampered by the inability to get visas for a substantial period of time. She has flown in on two- or three-day visas over the past few years. "I can't say that I've covered it for the New York Times in the last few years, because we haven't had enough access to cover it."

The night Thompson heard the news that Castro had ceded power, she decided to take a chance and go in on a tourist visa – something she had been reluctant to do in the past for fear that she wouldn't be allowed back in if detained by authorities. "This story was much too important to not take that chance," she says.

According to U.S. law, journalists regularly working for a news organization have a general license to travel to Cuba anytime they want for work purposes. (Freelancers have to get a special license from the Treasury Department.) The journalist visa is one required by the Cuban government for all foreign journalists to work in the country.

Thompson left Mexico City around noon on August 1 and had no problem at Cuban immigration. A week later, after the New York Times had run a story crediting an employee in Havana "who could not be named for security reasons," immigration authorities tracked down Thompson at her hotel.

Others have gone in taking greater precautions. In 1994, during Cuba's "rafters crisis," when tens of thousands of people tried to leave the country in whatever seaworthy craft they could construct, Tim Padgett, then with Newsweek, decided to fly in without the appropriate visa. "I made sure that everything I did was very, very discreet," he says. He filed his stories by writing a letter by hand on hotel stationery and asking the desk clerk to fax it to his bureau manager, Danny, in Mexico City. "The letter would say: 'Dear Danny, I'm having a great time here in Havana,'" he says. In the midst of his "wish you were here" note, Padgett slipped in information from his interviews, including those he did by hiring a boat to ride 10 miles offshore so he could talk to rafters rowing to the promised land.

Now Time magazine's Miami and Latin American bureau chief, Padgett did not go to Cuba this time. "We simply made the decision that not enough really seems to be happening there in terms of angst, in terms of military movements, in terms of unrest."

The crackdown on reporters coming into the country this time around is in line with what many journalists have seen as a tightening hold on information in recent years. Plus, it's hard to see how allowing more reporters in would be beneficial to the Cuban government.

Lucia Newman, CNN's Havana bureau chief from the opening of the bureau until this April, recalls an easier time when she first arrived in 1997. "There seemed to be this opening, this slight move to at least economic reform," she says. Foreign investors and tourists were welcome. She was granted interviews. A few years later, the climate shifted. "By the time George Bush became president, there was a different atmosphere altogether," she says. "A different political climate in Washington and a different political climate in Cuba. And I don't know if one necessarily led to the other."

In her early days on the island, Newman, now the Buenos Aires bureau chief for Al Jazeera International, says journalists were invited to nearly every event that Castro or his brother would attend. "Now, we're invited to far, far fewer events. We have to get our information from Cuban television a lot more." This regression has coincided with Castro's "battle of ideas," an effort launched in 2000 to instill the values of communism among young Cubans.

Getting an interview request approved by the government – and almost everyone in charge of anything is part of the government – can be a Herculean feat. Marx says 90 percent of his written entreaties are refused. As for cultivating sources, "I just don't think anybody really has [government] sources here, to be honest with you," he says. "The risks for a government official to talk to a reporter, I believe, are too great for them to do on a source basis... Plus, I don't know that you can believe a source."

Marx became acutely aware of how difficult Cuba can be within his first year there. He wrote a story about an independent journalist, only to learn a few weeks later that the man was an agent of the Cuban government who turned in his colleagues, accusing them of being spies for the U.S.

Other journalists talk of similar rites of passage when they realized how tough it is to trust anyone or how certain statements are assumed to be off the record without either source or journalist having to say so explicitly.

Reuters is often credited by other journalists with having some of the best sources. Boadle says it is possible to foster a relationship with lower-level officials, intellectuals who work in the government or aides to senior officials. And his bureau remembers a time when freedoms for the international press corps were fewer. "I think we have it easy," he says, compared with what it was like being a Western reporter in the '70s and '80s – a period U.S. outlets missed. In 1986, a Reuters correspondent was expelled after he interviewed Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an illegal but tolerated institution. Today, anyone can interview Sanchez. "He's the spokesman on human rights here," Boadle says, "and he's frequently quoted."

The first week after Castro handed power to his brother, a good chunk of the Miami Herald newsroom staff was dedicated to the story. "This is definitely the top story to the Miami Herald," says Juan Tamayo, the paper's chief of correspondents.

The Herald sent in staffers without visas, something the paper hasn't hesitated to do in the past on stories it felt it needed to cover – which means lots of stories for a paper based in an area that is home to more than 1 million Cubans, living a mere 90 miles from their homeland.

The strategy has been generally successful, at least in terms of getting people onto the island. "We've gotten in, I would say, probably most of the people that we sent, a very high percentage that we sent," Tamayo says, "but I think that we all understand that sending people in sort of under the radar is a limited reporting possibility. If you have to be continually worried about ducking the state security apparatus, it's very difficult." This time, one Herald reporter was stopped at the Havana airport and sent back to Panama.

Relations between the Cuban government and the Herald – and particularly its sister paper, El Nuevo Herald – have long been touchier than those of any other news outlet in the country. The paper has been granted visas; Tamayo says he's been to Cuba legally 20 to 30 times himself. A columnist traveled on a visa in 2004, but the last reporter was legitimately there in 2000 or 2001.

"I think the dynamics going both ways don't lend themselves to good understanding," Tamayo says. "As far as they're concerned, we're not an independent newspaper; we're just part of the Cuban mafia here. For our part, our coverage of Cuba has to be intensive and absolutely correct. We cannot afford to leave things out."

Tamayo compares covering Cuba at a distance to the old days of being a China-watcher in Hong Kong or a Kremlin-watcher in Washington. It's frustrating, he says, but also gives the Herald an advantage. "To be honest with you, people who do have visas, you know the Cubans are very tough on those visas," he says. "If you write almost anything that they do not like, they likely will not give you another visa... Unless that reporter is willing to forgo all future access to the island..they're going to be pretty careful in what they write." He cites two examples of stories the Herald broke before others on the island reported them: that the military was being mobilized after Castro ceded power, and that, in 1997, there were a string of terrorist bombings in Cuba.

Journalists on the island – even those on short-term visas – say they have never been censored and that they operate freely. Vanessa Bauzá, the Sun-Sentinel's Caribbean correspondent and its Havana reporter from 2001 until August 2005, disagrees with Tamayo's feeling that journalists on the island have to pull their punches. Cuban government officials "certainly were not happy with my coverage various times and would call me in and have discussions about the coverage and their feeling that it was more negative than it should be," Bauzá says. "They didn't ever threaten to revoke my visa or much less to close the bureau... I decided early on that if I chose to censor myself, then there wasn't any point in my being there."

For the networks, there is the additional dependence on the government for the uplink used to feed footage out of the country. In August, CBS News booked feed time with Cuban television, which the Cubans later canceled, saying that they needed to air a sporting event, says CBS News Foreign Editor Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews. AP Television News had booked time, and CBS was able to send its material that way. "That became very expensive."

NBC's David Verdi, vice president of worldwide newsgathering, says the network hasn't faced any censorship but is required to report on all sides of a story – "we don't go and interview a dissident and do a minute 30 on the dissident."

Coverage of the dissident community is what riles officials most. Bauzá says that dissidents felt the foreign media gave them a certain degree of protection. Even ordinary people, she says, were glad to have the media telling their stories, "that there was sort of a level of accountability that the foreign media provided."

David Gonzalez, a New York Times reporter who covered Cuba as the Miami-based Caribbean and Central American bureau chief from late 1999 to the end of 2003, knows how much coverage of dissidents won't endear you to visa-granters. Gonzalez had made 10 trips to Cuba, but in his last year in Miami, he applied for a visa four times and never got one.

When Gonzalez wrote, many times, about the jailing in 2003 of 75 dissidents by the Cuban government, he had plenty of contact with Cuban officials, but not for interviews. An official in the Cuban Interests Section in Washington called him a number of times to berate him for his work. A few months later, he received an e-mail from the foreign minister saying that the foreign ministry was going to have an Internet press conference and journalists should submit their questions. Gonzalez wrote back: "The only question I have is when am I going to get a visa to go into Cuba." Within a half hour, he got a response from an official in Havana, saying there was a process and he should submit an itinerary. He didn't get the visa.

The Times has not had a bureau in Cuba in many decades and hasn't pushed for one. Gonzalez says he and former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld talked about the possibility years ago, and they agreed there wasn't enough news there to justify a full-time bureau. The only reason to have a bureau, he says, is for the Big Story.

Leylveld says, through Times spokeswoman Catherine J. Mathis, that Cuba would have been a good base from which to cover the region, but plane connections and multiple-entry visas were problematic. He was also concerned about increased surveillance of a resident correspondent. And Havana authorities weren't interested in having the Times there.

Unfortunately for the Sun-Sentinel, its bureau wasn't staffed when Castro's surgery was announced. Since Bauzá left the bureau in 2005 to take a fellowship, the paper has been rotating reporters in and out and hasn't named a permanent replacement. The next on rotation is Doreen Hemlock, an international business reporter. She thought she might get a visa on July 31, and her bags were packed, but it didn't come through until early in the week of August 21. She plans to be in Cuba for two or three months.

Whether that will be long enough to witness the denouement remains to be seen. The Cuban leader's health has been questioned before: In 2001, he fainted. In 2004, he fell, breaking a knee and an arm. The CIA has said he has Parkinson's disease. No one has confirmed that report.

"It's beginning to turn into a grinding, long-term story and that perhaps in terms of coverage might be even worse than sort of a sudden change, because it really puts stress on your staff," says the Herald's Juan Tamayo. "We all have been working extremely long hours."

The Miami Herald's reaction plan may very well morph into winging it.