Reporter's Notebook: Reflections on Havana

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016 – 11:35 p.m.

Havana, Cuba

We just finished our last live shot from Havana; the end of three great days of discovery, adventure and reporting. My producer, Rochelle Young and our photographer Chris Blake were amazing to work with. We all had each other’s back every day. The hours were grueling, but that’s to be expected on an assignment like this.

I can safely say that I have never been to a place in the world like Cuba. It’s hard to describe and harder to figure out. On one level, it’s a lot like any other island in the Caribbean. Tropical and kissed by trade winds. The architecture is incredible and in ruins at the same time. You can just imagine how great this country looked in its prime. Walking along the Malecon – the legendary seaside drive where angry waves crash into rocks and a seawall – is a stunning sight. Sometimes they slam into the wall so hard they splash into the roadway and drench cars and pedestrians in sea water.

Look across the water and you see a Fortress built hundreds of years ago to watch for pirates and other marauders. Your imagination sees wooden ships with tall masts gliding into the harbor. It’s a very surreal experience.

Cubans are proud of their country and they have every right to be. The culture is so rich. Great music. Home of the Salsa, the Mojito and the Daiquiri. Great cigars too, although I don’t smoke anymore. But most of all, it’s an island filled with great people. It’s not their fault the government in power rules with an iron fist, putting dissidents in jail. They have no control over that. Like any other people all they want to do is live a peaceable life, raise their children and enjoy the fruit of their labor.

I had no agenda going into this assignment and I have none as I leave it. My goal was to tell stories about the people and how they’re dealing with the Castro regime, the trade embargo and the hardships of life because of it all. I think we accomplished that goal.

Monday - March 21, 2016 - 11:41 a.m.

Havana, Cuba

The longer I’m in Cuba, the more I’m getting comfortable with it. Life is not in the fast lane down here. It’s just a feeling I get while I’m out on the street gathering material for stories. People aren’t in a hurry. That doesn’t mean they’re not taking care of business, it’s just the way they take care of business. No rush.

President Obama’s making a big impression on the common folk of Cuba. They see him as a friend and a rescuer. Someone who’ll help make life better for them. The President is big on entrepreneurship. He thinks growing small businesses in Cuba will grow the economy.

I visited a hot, new restaurant tonight called El Carbon in Old Havana tonight for our 11 o’clock story. The young entrepreneur who put it together did so with money borrowed from his relatives. Money he says he’ll gladly pay back. You see, there’s no small business loan available in Cuba. This is a total cash society. No credit cards either. But that’s going to change once the banks feel confident about the trade embargo being lifted. Banks are federally regulated and until the embargo goes they can’t do anything to circumvent the sanctions that have been in place for the past 55 years.

Technology is also something in big need in Cuba. Only about 5% of the population has access to the internet or wi-fi. It’s not unusual to see millennials camped outside hotels trying to use their wi-fi connection to surf the net or get in touch with family members back in the United States.

There are many companies interested in bringing more technology onto the island to serve the growing population. A very well educated population too. Cuba boasts an almost 98% literacy rate. Some of that may be because education is free all the way up to post-graduate work. Pretty neat wouldn’t you say? Hard to call a nation “impoverished” that provides free education and free health care.

Sunday – March 20, 2016 – 11:33 a.m.

Havana, Cuba

We just wrapped our day that started at 4:00 a.m. It took us four hours to get through Miami International Airport and onto our charter for Havana. Upon our arrival at Jose Marti Airport, we quickly learned it would be at least two hours to get our luggage. The airport is woefully understaffed and overwhelmed by the sheer crush of traffic. I really wonder how the airlines are going to fly 100 planes per day in and out of this airport without a major upgrade to the facilities. Yet, as bad as that was, Cubans took it all in stride, as if this was normal.

Driving into Havana reminded me of a saying I came across about the city. “When you come to Havana, don’t ask questions, just keep an open mind and be prepared for a long, slow seduction.” The city is by turns, breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly broken. 50% of the city’s water service is lost to leakeage. Only 5% of the population has access to the internet or Wi-Fi. Yet, Cuba boasts an almost 100% literacy rate, plus free health coverage and free college.

The ongoing U.S. trade embargo has also brought some bizarre problems to this island state. We used restroom facilities today in a modern building that had no toilet paper. Anywhere. The residents simply blamed it on the embargo and let the matter go.

Havana is a very safe city, we’re told, with a very low crime rate. I would have to agree because at no time during our travels did I feel unsafe. People are very friendly and helpful. Some speak English and even if they don’t, they try to communicate with you nonetheless.

Our drive to the CNN news bureau for our 11:00 a.m. feed was an incredibly involved ordeal. We had to go through at least a half dozen checkpoints to get to the bureau in Old Havana. Most of the security people didn’t want us to go any further than their checkpoint. It seemed like all of them had a different policy on dealing with news reporters. But we finally got in, sent our story and that’s all that matters.


Sunday, March 20 - 5:00 a.m.

Miami International Airport

We're standing in line to board our charter to Havana. Dozens of Cubans are gathering in the queue with loads of shrink-wrapped luggage to carry back home, where it'll be a one hour flight.

We are preparing for a full day of shooting, but there's rain in the forecast this morning, but should clear out this afternoon. All the hotels have long been booked in advance. Fortunately, we found a three bedroom apartment to rent for the next three days.

We just learned that Starwood Hotels and Resorts just signed a deal to renovate and manage three hotels in Havana. The city will need that and more with the explosion of tourism that'll be unleashed following the normalization of relations with Cuba that President Obama has opened.

We'll be working out of the CNN headquarters, but the internet service is sketchy; something else this island state needs desperately.

Should be a total adventure! Talk to you again soon.


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