Reporting on Cuba’s historic changes

By Ron Howell

Carolina Hidalgo/JWW

HAVANA – Journalism Without Walls came here at a special time in the history of this country. Some leaders here say that Cuba is no longer a communist nation, but the word communist still shows up in the title of the ruling political party, and the broad teachings of communism are still adhered to, even if superficially and waningly.

Stony Brook University’s students arrived at a watershed moment where capitalism is meeting socialism and where U.S. democracy is bumping heads with what student Chris Cloonan, in one of his articles, calls the “one-party democracy” of present-day Cuba.

Student reporter Philly Bubaris explains to our web visitors, in her news video, how a November 2011 decree has made it legal — for the first time since old Soviet-style communism was established half a century ago — for Cubans to buy and sell their houses and condominiums.
Truly extraordinary.

“People sold homes before, but it was always with their heads down, quietly and on the sly, because of fear that an agent might be lurking nearby,” said 64-year-old Adalberto San Miguel, who has been helping people sell and swap homes for nearly two decades.

“Now there is no longer fear.”

Student reporter Kevin Lizarazo went around the capital speaking with Cubans about the thing that has made so many of them famous over the past century -– their music.

Cuba is acknowledged as the home of Latin music and it is impossible to understand the country without understanding its rhythms, melodies and lyrics.

Kevin, fascinated by cameras and a wonderful writer, also went around asking Cubans about Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the country.

Health care was on the students’ minds also. They knew from their extensive reading and preparation that Cuba’s medical system was the pride of the revolution.

Adam Khorasanchi, Frank Posillico and David Morris focused on the primary care network that even communism’s detractors acknowledge as outstanding. They and the other students spent a memorable afternoon conversing with 10 American students attending a Cuban medical school known as ELAM, the Spanish acronym for the Latin American School of Medicine.

The U.S. students at ELAM are studying there for free, as is the case with Cuban students from elementary school all the way through graduate school.

Paul Harding and David also immersed themselves in the history of the Cuban revolution as they spent precious time in the home of an 80-year-old journalist who covered the 1953 battle between Fidel Castro’s rebels and the resulting trial of Castro and his compañeros.

Ethan Freedman, who several times invited himself to play piano or drums with Cuban musicians, interviewed Cubans about the Internet and their phone network. He also developed a fascination with the revolutionary icon Che Guevara and wrote a lovely article about him.

We need to mention that Frank and our graduate teaching assistant Carolina Hidalgo had the singular experience of photographing dissidents expressing discontent with their treatment in Cuba. The two gathered with other members of the media for the Ladies in White’s weekly demonstration on the Miramar neighborhood’s Fifth Ave. Students became very much aware of the complex issue of dissidence in Cuba.

Our young journalists from Stony Brook University handled themselves throughout the experience with professionalism, working long hours and treating each other as team members whose journalistic victories were accomplished in a partnership.

And how could we forget to tell you about the pastime that is an integral part of the Cuban character? Chris and David spent time with baseball players from Michigan’s Grand Valley State University team, which had spent several days in the country playing against Cuban counterparts and touring the island nation.

Those games were historic events, and Stony Brook’s stories about them were published in the Detroit Free Press and the Grand Rapids Press. Numerous web sites also picked up the stories.

American journalism, now sailing through heavy seas toward a land still not clearly seen, will be stronger and more prosperous because of these students from Stony Brook University’s Journalism Without Walls project.

With the students were Ron Howell, a visiting professor who is also on the faculty of Brooklyn College; Rick Ricioppo, Stony Brook University School of Journalism’s professor of electronic and video journalism; and Carolina Hidalgo, an alumna of the school who is a great editor and freelance photojournalist.