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

Article excerpt

Scenes from Havana's Jose Marti 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.

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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. …