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PURE CUBA: Reporter's notebook, Chapter 1, The first step of a journey is often the longest

Apr 10, 2016

Plaza de la Catedral in Havana
Credit Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

When President Obama announced a resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in the fall of 2014, we kept our eyes and ears open for possible Michigan-Cuban stories to tell.

It didn’t take long to discover there are quite a few.  The Michigan Agribusiness Association has been wooing Cuban officials for years now, hoping to sell Michigan-grown produce in a new market.  You want black beans, Cuba?  We got your black beans in Michigan.

Michigan State University’s medical school planned its first trip to show medical students how Cuba’s health system -- deeply stressed as it is -- manages to keep the Cuban people as healthy as Americans, who spend much more on health care.

A Lansing-based firm with decades of experience in renovating historic buildings is helping Cubans construct its first-ever archive laboratory on the site of Ernest Hemingway’s Havana home, which is now a museum.

With all these connections and possibly more, Michigan Radio requested two journalist visas from the Cuban embassy in early January, 2016 to tell these and other stories during a trip between April 8 and April 17, 2016. 

The journalist visas arrived one day before we were scheduled to leave the country. 

This caused - shall we call it angst? -during the long wait, for which I blame Cuba’s slow bureaucracy, other journalists, the President of the United States, and United Parcel Service, in that order.

I was warned that it might take the embassy a very long time to issue the visas, especially because journalists are flocking to Cuba like it’s going out of style.  (I’ll discuss how that is close to literally true in a later reporter’s notebook.) 

And then, in February, President Barack Obama announced he would visit Cuba in March, the first time a sitting president had visited the so-close-and-yet-so-far-away country in nearly nine decades. 

Thanks, Obama. 

All hell broke loose in the Cuban embassy.  So I’m told by those who know the workings of the embassy well.  In the frenzy of preparations, Michigan Radio’s visa request likely acquired the urgency of a wee dust ball sitting out of sight behind the basement couch.  It could wait. 

In Havana, the Cuban government began moving several hundred people, including many Americans, out of Havana hotels to make room for the President and his vast entourage.

These Americans were sent to Veradero, which has beautiful beaches surrounded by hotels, and by the way, it’s illegal to go to a Cuban beach and just hang out and drink mojitos if you are an American.  That’s tourism – and despite the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, tourism in Cuba is still prohibited.

One assumes the U.S. government gave the unwillingly relocated folks a pass. 

The Obama visit was over, finally, the Friday before our departure, and the Cuban embassy informed us our visas were ready.  “Send your checks for the visas via Federal Express,” I was told. 

“Can I use UPS?” I asked.  (Michigan Radio has a UPS account). 

“Um….Fed Ex is better, but, ok, use UPS,” came the reluctant reply.

Big mistake.  It took UPS four business days instead of two to deliver our checks, and then deliver our visas to us.  And that only after we spent many hours on the phone urging UPS to please, pretty please, deliver those urgent packages which, by the way, we told you were urgent. 

“Oh, yes,” our Cuban embassy contact finally told us on Tuesday.  “UPS never waits at the gate long enough for us to come let them in.  Fed Ex always waits.”

Moral of the story:  When the Cuban embassy – an entity not particularly renowned for efficiency -- tells you to use Fed Ex, you should use Fed Ex.

Stay tuned for Pure Cuba, reporter’s notebook Chapter II: “Cuba, where even the chickens feel safe.”

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton and Mercedes Mejia are in Cuba this week to cover the connections between Cuba and Michigan and opportunities for the future. You can find more of their stories here.