O’Brien Fellow reports from Cuba
Following the death of Fidel Castro, 2016–17 O’Brien Fellow Maria Perez knew exactly where she needed to be. A minority affairs reporter for the Naples Daily News in Florida, who is spending the academic year with the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Perez traveled to Cuba with another reporter from her newsroom to cover the immediate aftermath of Castro’s death, or as she put it, to “tell these first drafts of history.” The Daily News published six articles produced by Perez during her little bit more than a week there.
This wasn’t the first time the O’Brien Fellow traveled to Cuba. Last year, Perez traveled there twice, first to write on the expectations created after the announcement of the re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and later when President Barack Obama visited the island.
Other pieces she wrote from previous reporting trips to the island were on the expanded religious freedom, massive crowds that gathered for the historic Rolling Stones concert, a baseball game during Obama’s visit and the few Harley-Davidson Motorcycles found in Cuba.
Perez recently her experiences reporting on Cuba with O’Brien Fellowship program assistant Julie Grace, a senior journalism major in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette. What follows is an edited Q&A.
Q: What does it mean to have had the chance to report from Cuba?
A: It has been a both a challenge and a privilege to tell the stories of its people. For more than 50 years, Cuba has been, in many aspects, stuck in time. The communist regime hasn’t changed much, and especially after the Soviet Union fell and Cuba lost its economic support, the weak economy of the country has left many struggling. Human rights groups and dissidents still denounce the government doesn’t respect some basic human rights. But in the past few years there have been some slow changes. The Cuban government has opened a little the door to small capitalist businesses and self-employees, and has taken steps to attract foreign investment with the hope that it will help to boost its weak economy. Cubans’ access to Internet, and therefore their access to the world outside the island, has improved slowly — although points of access are still few and internet connection’s rates are way too expensive for the average Cuban. President Obama’s administration decision to loosen the embargo and his visit last March has given many Cubans in the island hope that the economic situation will improve. Some Cubans–and not only dissidents — say they would like to see economic and political reforms happen. Being able to tell all these stories from the point of view of the people who live in the island at a time that can be pivotal for the country’s future has been a privilege.
Q: How else had your prior Cuba reporting prepared you for this trip?
A: It was very helpful in the sense that I got to know a lot about Cuba before, so that I could write with more authority this time, and do a better job reporting and approaching people. It also allowed me to arrange faster the logistics that made it possible reporting there.
Q: I noticed that you began reporting on Castro’s death and pending funeral before you even returned to the country. Your first article, “Passengers on first U.S. flight to Cuba discuss future,” profiled the passengers of the first American Airlines flight from Miami to Havana. Was there any other particular reason why you got the assignment?
A: When Fidel’s death was announced, my newspaper decided that we should have someone there reporting about such a symbolic and historic moment. And because I had been there before, it was much easier for me to go back and report than for someone who hadn’t worked in the country. On a personal and professional level, experiencing and reporting on what was happening in the country those days was something that I didn’t want to miss.
Q: Other articles focused on the struggle that many people still face decades after the former leader’s death and Cubans visits to Castro’s remains after the day of mourning. What did you get out of this new experience? And what was it like leaving your fellowship work behind?
A: On this trip, we needed to make plans and arrangements and solve problems as we went, so I think I’m better at that now. I also saw another aspect of Cuba and talked with many people who helped me understand it better. It was exhausting, but it was very rewarding. Leaving the fellowship slowed down a little bit the progress I was making on my yearlong project, but I was out in total about one week and a half, and I can make up for it in the next weeks.
Q: Another article was about Cubans’ emotions as they watched a caravan carrying Fidel Castro’s ashes passed by. What challenges did you have in doing that reporting, or any of it, for that matter?
A: We needed to be flexible. One of the days, for example, I and the photographer who came with me got up at 3:30 a.m. to leave Havana before the caravan that was to transport Fidel’s ashes to Santiago de Cuba did. I had arranged for a driver to take us first to a small rural community through which the caravan was going to pass — and then to a second city where the procession was going to go as well, so that we could report about it, and then file from that city where, we thought, we would be able to find and hotels with internet to file. After that, we planned to continue to Santiago de Cuba with the same driver.
The procession was leaving Havana at 7 a.m. But when we got a few miles away of that rural community, at about 5:30 a.m., the road leading to it was already closed until the procession passed. So we needed to quickly think about another place ahead where the roads would be open, we could see the caravan passing, report on it, and find internet to file. We had no maps with us, and not a very specific itinerary either. After talking with a police officer, we figured out that our best bet would be Matanzas, and that’s how we ended up there. It was also pretty clear that the car that was taking us there wouldn’t be able to take us to Santiago de Cuba — it had problems starting and a tire blew up pretty soon and it only had a spare tire — so after seeing the procession pass through the community, we had to spend part of that day trying to find an alternative transportation to keep going. We also had to change our itinerary. And we struggled with the internet connection. But we filed the story.
Q: How might you look upon this experience years from now?
A: I feel it’s all very recent still to know. When you are on the field, you are constantly thinking about getting the job done, including arranging the logistics to make that happen. There are moments when it strikes you how important what you are covering is. But then you have to go back to finding a driver to go somewhere else, or finding an internet connection to file, or getting the story done to move on to the next one. What I know is that I will, for sure, have a ton of anecdotes to tell to my grandchildren — or whoever wants to hear them.