One reporter's journey to Cuba and how to get the story
The announcement came as a total surprise. The United States and Cuba would normalize diplomatic relations, ending their half-century-old Cold War stalemate.
It was a big story. Even bigger in South Florida. They don’t call it Little Havana for nothing.
As a Miami-based freelancer I knew that all of the local TV stations would want more than what the networks would offer. They wanted stories catered to their market. And because of their connection to South Florida and el exilio, I knew Cuba wouldn’t let most – maybe not any – send one of their own in.
I had been to Cuba a dozen times as a reporter. I covered Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island for Fox News. Most recently, I supervised the South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune Company’s Havana bureau.
I sent an email immediately: “How would you like to be the first local station to get your own stories out of Havana?”
I got the job the same day.
That’s Rule #1: As a freelancer, you have to know your market.
Rule #2: Have a plan.
I landed two days after the announcement. Havana was already crawling with foreign news crews. I was alone – on purpose.
They walked in groups of twos and threes – a reporter and/or producer, a videographer and a sound technician – swimming through crowds with boom microphones dangling overhead like lures on fishing rods, trolling for audio. I carried a small Canon that fit in the palm of my hand. They wore government-issued badges, credentials authorizing them to work as journalists. I did not.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Their credentials gave them access to official sources and, perhaps, to the interiors of government buildings I couldn’t enter. But I didn’t want a government “handler,” visible or in-, trailing along and watching me. And I didn’t want to risk having the people I spoke with questioned or possibly harassed after they did. The downside: I could be arrested and, possibly, imprisoned for violating Cuban law.
My plan was very much like what I would do for a hurricane or an earthquake: Take what you need. Get what you can. Get out.
Gear: I carried a Canon HFR 500 with two extra batteries and a charger, six 64-Gigabyte flash cards, and a lightweight tripod. I also had a clip-on lavalier mic with extra batteries for my standups and my iPhone earbuds to check my sound. It all fit in an over-the-shoulder bag.
Preparation: I had promised three stories in English and three in Spanish to the local Telemundo and NBC stations. Before I left Miami, I put a shot sheet on my iPhone of things I knew I needed: Street scenes. Crowds of people. Decrepit buildings and antique cars. Cigars, of course. Images I felt represented “Cuba.” Those were general shots. I included Havana’s famous seawall, the Malecon, and the iconic fort overlooking the harbor entrance.
One story was about the pope’s involvement in the negotiations, so I knew I needed a church and churchgoers; a mass where I could get natural sound and cover shots of parishioners and clergy; religious statues and icons.
Another story was about the hopes of the people: Who benefits if the trade embargo ends? The answer involved economics and politics. I needed shots of private stores and government shops, of the restaurants known as paladars that 20 years ago operated as well-known secrets in people’s homes and now compete publicly in prime locations along streets bustling with tourists.
The third was about how long it might be before there would be any real change. That called for people, lots of them, and symbols of government control, like uniformed police, images of Che Guevara, revolutionary slogans.
Execution: To save time later, I logged video as I went. The way the camera was set up, it counted each time I started recording as a separate segment. I would make a note on my iPhone of what each contained as soon as I could. It might say, “Seg 241 – street scene, kids playing soccer under Che sign.”
At night I logged interviews and checked video. Accidents happen, and did. Times I thought I was recording, I wasn’t. I hadn’t pressed the record button, or I double-pressed it, turning it on, then off before I got what I wanted.
I’d also recheck my shot sheet to see what I still needed.
It took a lot of walking. My iPhone fitness app logged about 17-1/2 miles walked the first day, around 15 the next two.
Rule #3: Be flexible, keep your eyes open and seize the moment – luck is a big part of it.
The gods of journalism smiled on me repeatedly. Once, I shot a standup in front of the rickety commuter ferry and a couple of cargo ships as I said, “the people of Havana dream of a day when this harbor is filled with cruise ships.”
The next morning, I went up to the fort overlooking the harbor so I could get some skyline shots of the city. As I looked down, I saw a lone cruise ship docked at the terminal below. Apparently, it came in during the night. If I hadn’t gone up to Morro Castle when I did, I might have missed it.
More luck struck when I was working on the story about the pope’s involvement.
When I went by Havana’s cathedral to check what time mass started in the morning, I learned there was a Christmas concert that evening. The exuberant choir provided exactly what I needed to start the piece.
Then, when I came back for mass Sunday morning, I discovered that Havana’s cardinal, Jaime Ortega, was officiating. That not only gave me plenty of great video, but he also delivered some strong sound bites in his homily.
After mass came an even bigger piece of sheer luck. I saw the parish priest shaking hands with parishioners and turned on my camera. Then, right next to him, Ortega appeared. He was surrounded by a small gaggle of European reporters thrusting recorders at him, asking questions in Spanish and French. I squeezed in, camera on, and got what I needed in Spanish.
Then I leaned in close and asked him a question in English. He seemed surprised. English is not the best of his multiple languages, but he answered. Then the priest pulled him away.
It was a coup I couldn’t have planned. His answer was about the steady deliberateness that led to the historic U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. But it seemed to say something about journalism, also.
“I think that history is not made in big steps,” he said. “It is achieved with small steps.”
Big stories, too.