Producer Portia Siegelbaum On What It's Like Reporting From Inside Cuba

(AP)
We haven't heard much about Cuban President Fidel Castro's condition since the announcement last week that he was provisionally transferring power to his brother Raul while Fidel underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding and recovered. Indeed, gathering the facts about what's going on behind the scenes of a tightly controlled Communist regime is not easy, as CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum, who is based in Cuba full time, is well aware. Here, she describes the challenges in covering the biggest story out of the island since the Pope's visit there in 1998 – a story that the Cuban government was much more enthusiastic about sharing with the world.

There are no rules or guidelines for covering the news in Cuba except a really big one: If the government wants coverage, you'll get access. If they don't you won't.

Case in point: Fidel Castro's sudden mysterious illness and his temporary handing over of power to his long-designated successor Raul Castro just a week ago. As some anticipated the worst, media interest almost mirrored in size the Pope's visit to the Communist island in 1998.

Then, the government threw open the doors to 2,000 journalists—more than 1,000 of them from the U.S., along with an army of engineers and crews. The networks got carte blanche to bring in microwave systems, uplinks, computer networks, and even golf carts to zip around town. They stuck all their gear on a barge that sailed across the Florida Straits into the Port of Havana.

That's not the case now. From the moment Castro's operation for intestinal bleeding was announced on the evening of July 31, a thousand journalists from nearly every continent applied for press visas to enter the country. All were turned down.

So hundreds sneaked in. Without gear. Even a reporter's notebook tucked in a pocket raised suspicion.

Some reporters from papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are "undercover" in the Cuban capital. Dozens more hung out for days at the Cancun, Mexico airport hoping to slip in as tourists. Some, mostly Japanese, sneaked in past the Cuban censors only to face a dearth of information and the threat of deportation should they file stories. A team from a local Miami TV station made it as far as Havana's Jose Marti International airport only to be stopped by immigration officers and put on the next flight out.

This left us, the press corps, on long-term assignments in Havana. We're a small group. There are only four American outlets officially here. CNN, the Associated Press, and two newspapers, The Sun Sentinel of South Florida (which, to their chagrin, had no correspondent here at the moment the story broke) and the Chicago Tribune. The Dallas Morning News closed their Havana bureau last year for budget reasons.

The three major American networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, are here under a wink and a nod from island officials. I'm not allowed to hang a sign reading "CBS News" on the door to my office and there's no desk for a permanent correspondent.

Over coffee, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official blamed the situation on current U.S. policy. "Any decision to formally recognize the networks requires the proper political conditions, which have not existed for the past six years," he told me. One problem -- the U.S. networks have been kept out for more than four decades.

That's the core dilemma when reporting from this island just 90 miles from the United States. Nearly every story is overshadowed by the long-running feud between the U.S. and Cuba. One side's facts are immediately decried by the other as propaganda. And every word we use in reporting is loaded with connotations and open to misinterpretation and reinterpretation by both the left and the right. Sometimes neither side likes what we say.

Fidel Castro's health is just about the stickiest story to cover. Only in the last year have Cuban leaders begun to speak openly about a Cuba without the "Comandante."

Here, they push a line of stability, institutionalization of the revolution, and a peaceful succession—and don't tell us much more. In Washington, the talk is all about plans to hasten a transition to democracy. It's hard to get a handle on what's really going on, especially when reporting for CBS means depending on facts, not rumors.

The perceived threat from the United States, real or imagined, serves as a pretext to raise the barriers here.

It seems absurd to imagine someone coming out of abdominal surgery worrying about the spin the White House is putting on the story rather than focusing on his pain and discomfort. But don't forget Castro's famous fall two years ago. Instead of demanding his aides rush him to a hospital, the Cuban leader, sweating bullets, demanded a microphone to tell the Cuban public and the world that he hadn't been shot, hadn't a heart attack or anything but a broken knee and a fractured arm. Imagine a 250-pound injured football player doing that.

Now, in a note dictated from his hospital bed, a presumably pajama-clad Castro said, "In the specific case of Cuba, because of the Empire's [U.S.] plans, my state of health becomes a State secret that can't be given out constantly…."

That doesn't make my job very easy. The very limited information made public has come from Cuban officials traveling outside the country. Vice President Carlos Lage on visits to Bolivia and Colombia denied reports that the Cuban president had stomach cancer and said he'd be back at work in a few weeks. Health Minister and medical doctor Jose Ramon Balaguer in Guatemala also said Castro was recovering as expected.

But here in Havana, nada. None of the officials—and I can count them on one hand—who have spoken to us on the ground have personally seen or spoken to the ailing president. And acting President Raul Castro has not been seen publicly since his older brother stepped aside. So it's very hard to get a handle on just what the situation is.

But while there's a hermetic silence in Castro's inner circle, it's relatively easy to interview ordinary Cubans. As a people they're warm and friendly and easy to form friendships with. And while everyone is not willing to go on camera almost everyone will speak on background..

We've also have what to some might be considered surprising access to the anti-Castro dissidents. We have not been prevented from speaking to them either in person or by phone. However, as a rule, such interviews are hand-carried out of Cuba. Why? For the simple reason that the Cuban State totally controls all the technology normally used for transmitting information out of here.

To feed pictures to New York, I must book time with the Cuban satellite uplink company, ETECSA, which is also the telephone company that controls my Internet line, office and mobile phones. Who owns the company? The Cuban government. And the pictures must be fed from Cuban TV, another wholly State-owned and run company. For the most part our material goes out without a hitch, but I know that a government censor is copying my pictures as they are being sent and they could just as easily hit a button stopping the transmission.

While I have been unable to get official confirmation of it, my cell phone signal and that of others dropped out for 20 minutes as Castro's illness was being announced on television.

Cuba, at the best of times, has only three satellite paths out of here. That night and the next day there was only one available. And they could easily shut them all down and cut off our Internet connections at the same time. Video phones? Not allowed into the country.

Because we have a bare-bones office here, I've been scrambling to get the news out to all the shows, CBS Radio and of course to the Web page. That has meant coming in at 5:30 a.m. and leaving well after midnight. It has meant junk food instead of regular meals at normal hours and a maximum of four hours' sleep a night. I suspect I've burned a hole in my stomach from the frustration of not being able to get an interview with someone who really knows what is going on, as well as from downing double espressos of strong Cuban coffee. But getting the news out is what people in our profession thrive on.

Next month, the island is hosting the summit of the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement. Hundreds of journalists have already applied for visas to cover that event, at which Fidel Castro should assume the presidency of the Movement for the next three years. Whether or not he'll show up is in question, but the uncertainty has only increased interest in the summit. The Cuban government is well aware that a large proportion of the media invading Havana will be looking for stories on a post-Castro Cuba. How they'll deal with this dilemma remains to be seen.
  • Hillary Profita

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.