The evening of Monday, July 31, a hospitalized Fidel Castro handed over control of Cuba to his brother. It was the biggest news out of Cuba in a decade: Fidel Castro, America’s arch enemy, was stepping down after 47 years in power, longer than any other living leader.
But after the announcement, Cuba didn’t allow reporters onto the island. How do you cover big news in a country that’s closed its doors?
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has been to Cuba nine times since 2000. He said a journalist should always try first to follow Cuban law. That means applying for a journalist visa from the Cuban Interests Section at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C.
“There’s an art to filling out the application form,” he said. “On my second trip to Cuba, I wanted to do a story about how Afro-Cubans were being shut out of the lucrative tourism industry. ‘You can’t put that!’ a friend at the Interests Section told me. ‘Say instead that you’re going to explore Afro-Caribbean culture.’ So that’s what I wrote, and that’s what got me the visa.”
The Cuban bureaucracy can take months to approve a request, and Robinson wasn’t always willing to wait. On several reporting trips for his 2004 book on Cuban music, Lance Dance in Havana, Robinson entered as a tourist — American vacationers can enter Cuba freely — then registered as a journalist once in Havana at the International Press Center. That let him enter Cuba on his own schedule and still abide by Cuban law.
The strategy backfired badly after Fidel’s handover of power. Robinson couldn’t get a journalist visa, so with the blessing of his editor, he flew to Havana anyway via Cancun. He was caught at customs and spent the night on the floor of the Jose Martí International Airport.
“Everyone in Cuba went to default position: Don’t take chances; be cautious,” Robinson said. “And the default position on foreign journalists is to say no.”
An estimated 150 foreign reporters were similarly turned away at customs.
But many others snuck through, including Ginger Thompson, then Mexico City bureau chief for The New York Times. On Aug. 4, she contributed to a page-one story by Juan Forero about the ties between Cuba and Venezuela. Her byline didn’t appear, though this tagline ran at the end of the piece: “An employee of The New York Times who could not be named for security reasons contributed reporting from Havana for this article.”
The phrase “security reasons” raised some eyebrows. While Cuba has jailed its own independent journalists, the worst it has done to foreign reporters is kick them out of the country.
Ethan Bronner, Deputy Foreign Editor at The Times, said the paper concealed Thompson’s identity because she would get kicked out if she was discovered — which is exactly what happened seven days later.
“In retrospect,” he says, “I would have deprived readers of that bit of information, because it probably tipped off the authorities in Cuba to Ginger’s presence there.”
Journalists who sneak into Cuba — breaking that country’s laws — clearly choose access over candor. That runs counter to the movement in journalism today toward greater transparency. But are journalists obliged to respect a country’s blanket ban on reporting? Bronner said he didn’t wring his hands over the ethics of sending Thompson to Cuba.
A trickier issue is the more practical one: Once you’ve snuck in, how do you do your job?
To get into Cuba as a tourist, you must dress the part. That means leaving behind cell phones, notebooks, badges, cameras, recording equipment, even laptops — anything that might identify you as a journalist. Once inside, you have to avoid getting caught by one of the most sophisticated police states in the world. That means staying away from other reporters, taking notes discreetly and using public phones and Internet cafes to communicate with your newsroom. Assume you’re being listened to and watched. One undercover correspondent suggested avoiding the popular hotels, which also happen to have the island’s best Internet access. In other words, when you sneak in, your reporting wings are clipped; you can’t even get official comment on a story. You’ll need the help of colleagues back home to provide perspective to your coverage.
There’s another problem: The Cuban authorities sometimes jail locals who talk to reporters. Experts agree it’s your obligation to protect your sources, even if it hurts your coverage. That could mean including only a first name, leaving out identifying details, or even dropping a juicy quote.
The Miami Herald is an expert at covering Cuba. The Communist government considers the paper a mouthpiece of Miami’s Cuban exile community and, therefore, an enemy. But Cuba is the Herald’s biggest foreign story, so it’s found ways around that ban. Miami-based foreign editor Juan Tamayo and his reporters don’t rely on the obvious sources of Cuba news. They troll little-known Internet resources, comb through dispatches from independent Cuban journalists and tirelessly work the phones. The cold call to Cuba takes the place of the man-on-the-street interview. And scraps of information can yield big news. On Aug. 2, without having a reporter on the ground, the Herald broke the story that the Cuban military was mobilized to quash any unrest.
Score one for the underdogs.
Dan Grech is the Miami-based Americas reporter for Marketplace, the public radio business news show produced by American Public Media. He worked as Argentina correspondent for The Miami Herald and has contributed to The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. He is a native of Philadelphia, a graduate of Princeton University and a Fulbright scholar.