Reporter notebook: Steve Daniels in Cuba

Steve Daniels Image
Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I wanted to share with you some reflections about our trip to Cuba and the backstory to the things you saw on TV.

First, my biggest takeaway. Cuba is a beautiful place with warm and welcoming people. You get the first taste of it at the airport, where the customs officers greet travelers with big smiles and friendly conversation.

The police officers in the Havana airport greeting area, were not quite as hospitable. As we worked to get video of a woman from Florida reuniting with her cousin, airport police questioned me and nearly detained us. It is apparently verboten to shoot video in the open-air public waiting area outside the airport.

I thought our trip was over, just as it was starting. We got the shot and eventually we were on our way to do our work.

We quickly learned, in communist Cuba, there are a lot of rules and no one dares challenge them, not even taxi drivers, who refused to stop to let us in or out of their cars, except in designated areas -- even if it meant losing a fare.

We never knew what kind of taxi we would have the excitement of hailing. A Soviet-era Lada, a 1950s Chevy or Pontiac, or if we were lucky, an air conditioned Hyundai, providing a break from the tropical Havana heat.

I will never forget a woman named Maria De Los Angeles. She allowed us into her tiny apartment and showed us how she uses a bucket to shower, in the same space as the toilet, just inches from a three foot by five foot area that passes for a kitchen. Seeing a Cuban food ration booklet was a stark reminder of the daily hardship facing the Cuban people. Despite the conditions, where Maria has lived for thirty years with her husband and daughter, she seemed content with life.

I was inspired by the Cuban-Americans, I met at the Miami airport, who wanted to help their struggling loved ones on the island.

They spend hard-earned money, transporting household basics, for family members in Havana, who earn an average of $20 a month.

This was my second papal event as a journalist. It is an intense experience to be surrounded by such spiritual energy. It is unlike covering any other event. The words of Pope Francis captivated tens of thousands of people packed into Plaza de la Revolucion.

When you've been doing what I do, for as long as I have been doing it, big news events turn into big reunions. It is great fun to reunite with old friends and colleagues.

I reconnected with a lot of friends from my years working in Miami -- a former co-anchor, a former reporter colleague, a former competitor, a favorite cameraman and a producer from my days at Dateline NBC.

Our guide, a young woman who is among the top of her law school class in Havana, helped us understand the subtext to Cuban society. She is content with socialism and proud of her country. Her views made me wonder if Cuban-Americans, who continue hoping for a crack in the Castro regime and an opening for democracy, may have a long wait ahead for political change, ninety miles from the shores of Florida.

Our guide also made an observation. She said, she's never seen people work so hard and work such long days, while making split-second decisions. Our work was no different from any other journalists, covering an event of global importance, but to her, it was a stark contrast to how people work and think in communist Cuba.

My favorite part of my work as a journalist is meeting interesting people. I connected with a lovely Wake County couple, Debra and Charles Bennett, visiting Cuba on a People to People tour.

Charles owned Bennett's Pharmacy on Salem Street in Apex, until his retirement a few years ago. They are among the Americans, who are flocking to Cuba, before there's a Starbucks on every corner. He and his wife Debra are hoping to return to Cuba.

I am grateful for the amazing opportunity as a reporter, to share stories with you about a country that is a mystery to most Americans and I am grateful for my colleague, Adolfo Ibarra, whose hard work, creativity and unstoppable energy created memorable stories on television and online.