Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge writes about his experience reporting from Cuba on the Elián González story and recounts a nerve-wracking encounter with the Cuban government.
Jan. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, which we noted in our Worldfocus radio show on Cuba this week. The show looks at the island’s past, present and future.
My connection to Cuba actually began in Panama in November of 1999, when I was covering the handover of the Panama Canal. The day I left, I stepped out of my room and over a newspaper headline that caught my eye: “Cuban boy found in waters off Florida.”
Little did I know, an international soap opera had just begun — one that would consume two nations and much of my reporting life for the next eight months.
The diplomatic tug-of-war over 6-year-old Elián González witnessed a huge role reversal. The U.S. government actually supported the Cuban government and went against the wishes of many Cuban Americans.
For many reporters, the story became one to loathe. Much like the Middle East conflict, the Elián story was highly emotional and very polarizing. I remember covering a rally in Miami by Cuban Americans protesting against returning the boy to his homeland.
At the time, I worked for CNN, which was despised by many in the Cuban-American community because it was seen as favoring Fidel Castro’s regime. This impression was bolstered by the fact that CNN had opened a bureau in Havana. To many in the crowd that night, CNN stood for the “Castro News Network.”
The protest would also lead to one of my favorite oxymorons. A man, very angry with my presence at the demonstration, got in my face and shouted, “The first thing we are going to do when we bring democracy back to Cuba is throw CNN out!” The fact that freedom of the press was one of the basic notions of a democracy didn’t seem to matter.
I ended up spending three months in Cuba, and I will always be grateful to Elián for that. It is a beautiful place, and in many ways unspoiled by over-commercialization. The people are exceptional as is the music, the food and the art. It’s the government I’m not a fan of.
I was reminded why I didn’t like the government the day Elián was seized by U.S. federal authorities from the home of relatives who had been refusing to give him up to go back to Cuba. The phone rang very early in my hotel room at the Habana Libre on April 22, 2000, telling me of the news and to get up to the bureau to start reporting on the Cuban reaction.
The news was all over U.S. cable and television stations, but the average Cuban doesn’t get those, so most were unaware. The only Cubans who did know of the Elián grab were working in hotels like the Habana Libre, where cable television was available for the tourists. So we interviewed a number of employees, including a young woman who said she felt sorry for the little boy because he looked so frightened when federal SWAT members pulled him from the home. Soon, the network began airing our interviews.
A few hours later, another employee came to me. She was very anxious and spoke in whispers. “They have taken her away,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Maria — the one who said she thought Elián was scared.” I was dumbstruck. I should have seen this. Apparently, the Cuban government didn’t approve of her concern for the child’s emotional state, since her words implied a criticism of the U.S. action. Maria was now in the hands of police.
My fear was the propensity for CNN to run interviews on a breaking news story over and over. The more the Cuban government saw her interview, the more they might likely take it out on her and her family. I had to get CNN to stop running it, but I also couldn’t let Cuban government officials know I had been tipped off by the hotel staff.
Normally, this would be a simple phone call to Atlanta. But in Cuba, we believed the office and the hotel were bugged. We talked about what to do amongst the bureau staff on the balcony, hoping to avoid eavesdropping. Finally, we just called CNN and said they had to stop running her bite. “Why? It’s good!” was the answer from the International Desk.
“Just do it…please,” I said. I think it was the combination of begging and the note in my voice that convinced them.
I saw Maria the next day, much to my relief. She said it had been no big deal. I could tell by her eyes she was lying. Ever since that day, Cuba lost some of its beauty to me.
– Martin Savidge