The pope in Cuba: a reporter's notebook

| Mar. 29, 2012 | Havana, Cuba

Published by Christian Science Monitor

Havana's Nacional hotel has long had a romantic air: It was the haunt of journalists and spies in Graham Greene novels, the honeymoon destination of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and a hangout for prohibition-era mobsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

Every night this past week, the world's press gathered at the hotel's backyard patio, which spills out onto a well trimmed lawn and down toward the turquoise sea. Amid the many languages, the reporters all have one thing in common: A list of Cuban dissidents, their addresses and cellphone numbers.

As phone lines are often blocked and internet access difficult – and closely monitored when it can be accessed, claim activists – journalists in Cuba must embark on a tour of dissidents' homes, hoping they will be in and available to talk. This isn't always the case.

On top of this, many journalists enter Cuba on tourist visas, unable to obtain the necessary press visa, and if caught reporting they face deportation.

Indeed, one interview I carried out in the streets of central Havana was interrupted by police who interrogated both me and the interviewee as to what had been asked and why. In wriggling out by pretending to be practicing my tourist-sounding Spanish, it was a worrying reminder of the nature of the authorities here.

The day of the pope's arrival, the police followed me through central Havana as I asked Cubans what they thought about the pope's call for more freedom here. Very few were willing to offer anything other than the official line.

"The pope wasn't speaking about Cuba. He was talking about the entire world needing to find its freedom," says hot-dog vendor Margarita Florez. "I feel free here. I can do what I like."

Security in Havana was noticeably ramped up upon the pope's arrival and during his mass in Revolution Square. Many streets were closed with no explanation from police, which resulted in many journalists traveling here to report with little to show for it.

But beyond reporter's frustrations lies the real story: Cuba, for all its romance and beauty, remains an authoritarian state. Jammed phones, closed streets and painfully slow internet, when available, do nothing but exacerbate the challenges of free reporting and the ability of citizens to voice their opinion, or opposition groups to co-ordinate their activities.

The repression also extends to the economy. Sitting on a bench in a leafy park opposite Havana's capital building, a man named Ulises, who did not want his surname published, says he earns the equivalent of $10 a month working as a security guard.

"The pope might be able to help a little," he says despondently, showing off a patterned black t-shirt which he says cost the equivalent of $20 – paid for on credit over six months. "We fight for our lives. Us Cubans are fighters."