It’s been years since Americans have regularly visited Cuba without much restriction, but for eight students from Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, getting their first taste of gathering and reporting real-world stories coincided with a rare trip to this island nation in January.
The students, who were accompanied by two Stony Brook professors of journalism, Rick Ricioppo and Ron Howell, and graduate assistant Carolina Hildago, stayed at Hotel Inglatero, the oldest hotel in Cuba, from January 7 to 14. Aside from minor issues such as substandard flushing, having to pay for toilet paper and slightly uncomfortable beds, the students gave their accommodations positive reviews.
“Considering that we were staying in a place that translates into ‘Hotel English,’ it lived up to its name pretty well,” said junior Paul Harding, a journalism major from Manhattan. The class also was surprised by the number of American television shows available, including CNN and ESPN broadcasts.
The class traveled as a group or in pairs, venturing out alone only when covering an assignment. Some students, such as Kevin Lizarazo, a junior journalism/political science major from Bayside, New York, are fluent in Spanish and were at ease in the unfamiliar culture. Others, such as David Morris, a journalism major from Hillcrest, New York, who graduated in January, used the program as an opportunity to brush up on their Spanish. However, for those students who possessed little knowledge of Spanish, the language barrier presented a challenge.
“Most of the people did not speak English, so we were forced to either depend upon an interpreter or utilize the few phrases we knew,” said senior biology major Adam Khorasanchi, from Glen Cove, New York.
Philly Bubaris, a junior journalism major from Nesconset, New York, said that what she learned from the trip is that a language barrier can’t stop two people from getting to know each other. “Even though we didn’t speak the same language, there is a communication that was able to happen between us that was really amazing,” she said, calling the entire experience, “journalism without walls.”
Prior to the students’ departure for Cuba, they were expected to read two books and write 500-word papers on various aspects of Cuban society, including its politics and economics. While in Cuba, they kept daily journals and collected photos, audio and video on the people they were covering. When they returned, the students put their notes together and wrote news reports, which included a multimedia piece and a print story, with an emphasis on whatever their concentration was — print, broadcast or the Web.
Ricioppo, a videographer, helped the students select their shots while in Cuba and sequence them together in the editing process. Howell, a print journalist who covered Cuba for several years and wrote for Newsday, helped the students come up with news topics and served as an interpreter during interviews.
One of the students actually got his story published in the Detroit Free Press. The Grand Valley State (Michigan) baseball team, only the second American college team to ever play a Cuban team, happened to be there for a three-game exhibition in Cuba while the Stony Brook students were there, and Howell knew that the School of Journalism would have “the field” all to itself because of the difficulty the American press would experience entering Cuba. “So the day after our arrival in Cuba I spent time trying to connect with the coach and his team,” said Howell. “I finally reached him, and Chris (Cloonan), David (Morris) and I sat down with the coach, the president of the college, and some of the other players. (Cloonan is a junior political science major from Coram, New York). “Chris asked questions and took notes and David filmed. Right away Chris indicated to me that he was interested in doing the article because he loved baseball and he knew its history. Cuba, as much as anything else, is about baseball. I knew Americans would love the story because it was about baseball and it was about a country that was supposed to be our enemy.”
Howell called it “a journalistic coup in the sense of a scoop,” because no one else had that story. “It’s good to know we beat them to the punch. I mean, we beat them to the pitch,” he said.
After their trip to Cuba, the students dispelled some myths many Americans believe. Ethan Freedman, a sophomore journalism student from Irvington, New York, said, “Cubans generally don’t harbor any animosity towards American citizens, but they do view the United States as this big, imperialist nation.”
Harding said that Cuba isn’t really as “controlled” as he thought it would be. “Coming to a communist country from one that is capitalist, you would expect that your every move would be watched, but it turns out most Cubans don’t suspect Americans of doing anything sinister or creating instability in their country.”
Khorasanchi added, “They don’t hate Americans but are just opposed to the embargo that the U.S. government put into place. Cuba is not a police state, and it seemed as if Cubans enjoy more freedoms than the average American would think.”
The students said they were most surprised to see that Cubans were intrigued by our cultural differences, citing the fact that Americans pay for healthcare. “They view healthcare as a basic human right, not a for-profit business,” said Lizarazo.
For Khorasanchi, a pre-med student, Cuba’s healthcare system was of particular interest. In fact, his favorite part of the trip was visiting a medical clinic where doctors live and work in the same buildings, are on call 24 hours a day, and make house calls to patients undergoing rehabilitation. “As an aspiring family doctor, it was nice to see how passionate the doctors are in terms of serving their communities,” he said, citing the fact that the infant mortality rate is currently 4.3 percent, a figure that ranks among the world’s lowest. “But that is still not good enough for these doctors, who are often outearned by hotel porters,” he said.
Two aspects of Cuban life all of the students agreed upon were the fun-loving spirit of the Cuban people and their appetizing cuisine.
“The food was amazing,” said Cloonan. “They have everything — pork, chicken, rice and beans, pizza, flan and steaks.”
Bubaris said her favorite part of the trip was the music. “It was cool to see people singing in the streets. Everyone I talked to in Cuba was just happy. They didn’t express worry about money, clothes and technology. And they seemed to live perfectly happy lives.”
Lizarazo expanded upon this. “As the cradle of Latin-American music, they take a certain pride in showcasing their finest tunes. You can always find a musician busking in the streets or a band performing in a bar. Sometimes you’ll hear a whole bar filled with people singing ‘Guantanamera,’ ” the nation’s best-known song and one of its most patriotic, “or maybe you’ll see a crowd of people dancing in the street to ‘Chan Chan,’ [a song from the Buena Vista Social Club recording by Cuban bandleader Compay Segundo].”
When it was time for the students to leave, there were mixed emotions. “Being away from the world-at-large was a blessing and a curse,” said Lizarazo. “I loved meeting people who had no idea what a Starbucks or an iPad was. To practice journalism in a country where the streets basically lack the essence of Americana is an experience I’d like to have over and over again. It is my dream, after all, to do foreign correspondence.”