The BBC live in Cuba

Our colleagues Claire Bolderson and Piers Scholfield are in Cuba, and on Wednesday will broadcast the 1300GMT edition of Newshour live from Havana. It’ll be an extraordinary moment and one it was difficult to imagine while Fidel Castro was in power. Below is the daily diary that they have been writing, you’re very welcome to post questions or comments here for them to respond to and here is their photostream. How are things changing with younger brother Raul in charge?

Day Five by Piers Schofield

One of the biggest daily challenges to Cubans is transport. The buses are irregular at best and on weekends they don’t seem to exist.

On the country’s main roads you see dozens of people along the way, sheltering under bridges from the sun, waiting for a lift to or from work.

On our drive back from Vinales on Sunday we took a young lady back home 20 kilometres or so after her night shift guarding a laboratory in Pinar del Rio.

She’d already been waiting some hours. And after dropping her off, we picked up a policeman and drove him two hours back to Havana along the empty highway so he could start his shift – quite a commute.

The main driving hazard for visitors is a distinct lack of road signs. Confusion reigns and you need to rely on the kindness of strangers to get anywhere.

Claire visited a farmer today and took a few wrong turnings on the way. In the end the only way to get there was by picking up a local. Fortunately he turned out to be the farmer’s cousin.

I mentioned the mobile phone difficulty in my last post. Today I found out why those that do have them tend to slam the phone down as soon as possible.

They’re not being rude, I’m assured. But to simply receive a call on a mobile costs 50 cents a minute, almost as much as making one. It explains perhaps why many are reluctant to use one.

Day Four By Claire Bolderson

Vinales is only a small town but it has at least three “memorials” to the Cuban Five, the men who first got me into this whole trip.

They’re in prison in the US, convicted of espionage and in two cases, conspiracy to murder.

I interviewed one of them last year from his prison in California.

He acknowledged infiltrating the hard line anti-Castro groups in Florida, he said he had to in order to stop what Cuba calls “terrorist” attacks by exiles on its soil.

But he’s always denied conspiracy to murder and at least one US appeals court has raised questions about the fairness of the original trial.

It’s a huge issue for the Cuban government.

Hence the little road-side shrines with pictures of all five and references to them as Heroes.

Day Three by Claire Bolderson

We’ve been for a weekend in the countryside, staying with a Cuban family in a Casa Particular.

Those are the houses where families rent out rooms to tourists.

It’s a good way of earning some convertible currency and about the closest you’ll get to private enterprise in Cuba.

Our Casa, in the pretty town of Vinales, was welcoming and comfortable and the evening meal cooked in the tiny family kitchen was superb.

One of the good things about staying with a family is hearing their stories, like the fact that a daughter was a “Balcera”, literally, “a rafter”, one of the thousands of Cubans who risk their lives in small crafts to get to Florida.

She didn’t tell them she was going, the first they knew was a telephone call from Miami.

We’ve also learned about the whole Casa system.

You can’t rent out more than two rooms and you have to pay a fixed fee to the government regardless of the income you get from the business.

If nobody shows up for weeks, you still have to pay.

Day Two by Piers Scholfield

Hi, I’m Piers Scholfield, I’ll be editing the programme from Havana.

As Claire has already mentioned, there is an air of expectation in Cuba at the moment, especially ahead of Raul Castro’s big speech on July 26th.

Will he announce another reform? If so, will it mean a real change for Cubans?

Could it be another step towards what other countries see as normality? A couple of things have struck me in the couple of days we’ve been here.

Yesterday our taxi driver was genuinely astonished to encounter a (brief) traffic jam in central Havana.

It was about 8.30am, most people were on their way to work.

In Paris, Luanda and Bogotá, the streets would be bumper to bumper chaos – traffic jams are a way of life.

Not in Havana though, here the roads are virtually empty – there simply aren’t enough cars.

The restrictions on buying and selling your own vehicles might have something to do with it.

As a radio producer in the field, you spend most of your time ‘phone-bashing’ – calling people, following up contacts, calling again and again in order to persuade/charm/irritate people into giving interviews.

Here it’s slightly different. If you want to remember a world free of mobile phones, come and visit.

Foreigners and officials have them, but most Cubans only have access to a landline, if that.

It means a lot of scrambling around Havana to talk to people face-to-face.

More sociable, certainly. But a world apart from that of the 24/7 Blackberry.

Day One by Claire

My first ever visit to Cuba began with a kiss on the cheek by way of greeting from the President’s daughter, and ended with an offer of marriage from a cigar-chomping, rum-drinking interviewee who’d just told me with great passion about the economic changes under way in his country.

It might have been the rum talking of course, but I do detect a buzz in the air, in Havana at least.

Maybe I’ve been influenced by the blazing hot sun, blue skies and well-advanced restoration of much of old Havana.

It’s a much prettier place than I had expected, and of course the bursts of music coming out of just about every bar help lift the mood.

The economic reforms may be relatively modest so far – access to more consumer goods and to hotels previously off limits to locals, promises of productivity wage bonuses and less state control over agriculture – but it’s enough to make people feel the really bad times of the years post-Soviet collapse are well and truly over.

The question now is, how far will Raul Castro go? Certainly he’s raised expectations and lots of people are hoping there’ll be more in his big speech marking the anniversary of the start of the revolution on 26 July.

33 Responses to “The BBC live in Cuba”

  1. 1 Brett
    July 22, 2008 at 13:26

    What an incredible opportunity!

    What are Cuban’s feelings and demeanor towards outsiders?
    How is aggriculture in Cuba changing (if at all) under Raul, Energy policy and investment? Oh yes, and how is foreign investment changing if at all.

  2. 2 Dennis
    July 22, 2008 at 13:56

    I hope that the BBC programme goes off great…I will write a formal response later in the day.

    Syracuse, New York

  3. 3 Dennis
    July 22, 2008 at 14:12

    It was a challenge to get the Cuban government to allow the BBC in Cuba, to do the shows….

    Syracuse, New York [USA]

  4. 4 Ogola Benard
    July 22, 2008 at 14:27


  5. 5 Mohammed Ali
    July 22, 2008 at 14:39

    What an incredible news. I’ll to know from Clair and Mark how they got the permission to broadcast from Cuba? To the Cubans, how do they see this opportunity to talk to the BBC?

  6. 6 ZK
    July 22, 2008 at 14:43

    I doubt it was really that much of a challenge, Dennis. Perhaps you shouldn’t be saying it “was” a challenge if you don’t know what they had to go through. I don’t either, but Cuba has opened up a lot and a key thing is that the BBC isn’t American. And even then even CNN gets to broadcast from Cuba.

  7. 7 steve
    July 22, 2008 at 14:48

    Wow! Drink some Havana Club and smoke a cuban for me!

  8. 8 gary
    July 22, 2008 at 14:51

    Please disregard my last missive. Clicked the wrong button! Anyway, what I wanted to know was: Do the Cubans view their emigres as traitors to Cuba? Could a follow-up program set-up a virtual conference including Cubans and residents of Little Havana. Would the Cubans and Cuban-US citizens welcome such an opportunity?

  9. July 22, 2008 at 15:09

    Change is a compelling natural phenomenon. It will come when will come. There is a sweeping wave of change around the world. Cuba and Cubans can not ignore this. Not even the revolutionary turned dictator, Fidel Castro or his brother Raul.

  10. 10 Jessica in NYC
    July 22, 2008 at 18:09

    1300GMT! I’m will not have arrived in at work yet.

    Great opportunity, but I am skeptical on how authentic or with what freedom any media will be “allowed” to report by the Cuban government.

  11. July 22, 2008 at 20:28

    Because of the perseverance of the Cuban Five political prisoners in their struggle and that of the Cuban people in defending them, their case is getting out more to the world. However, in the United States there still exists a virtual media blockade about five men who were selflessly defending the Cuban and US people from terrorist attacks and the US-backed terrorists who commit those crimes.

    Thank you for mentioning their case. If the BBC audience would like more information and learn how to help win their freedom, please visit The National Committee to Free the Cuban Five (USA) website: http://www.freethefive.org

    By the way, it is important to remember that it is the people of the United States who are prohibited from seeing with our own eyes the reality of Cuba, due to the travel ban.

  12. July 22, 2008 at 21:04

    Will the BBC correspondents discuss the expulsion from Cuba of their colleague Stephen Gibbs last year? Will they discuss how this expulsion and may have affected BBC coverage of Cuba? Will they discuss how important it is for the BBC to maintain a Cuba bureau at all costs, even if that means kowtowing to the Castro regime?

    My guess is no on all three counts.

  13. 13 Jack Hughes
    July 22, 2008 at 21:55

    Next week we are in a time machine, visiting Munich in 1938.

    We admire the network of “Autobahns” linking the cities – and the government scheme to build a “people’s car” for only a few marks per week.

    Saffy will describe the feelings of pride during the massed rallies of uniformed workers and students.

    Ned Flanders will interview the information minister about the economic reforms taking place.

  14. 14 Marc
    July 22, 2008 at 23:28

    Reporting from Cuba: We know well about the restrictions of personal freedoms of Cubans on their island, I have been there 4 times. However I also encountered the way how western democracies (specifically I experienced it with Swiss authorities), close their borders for Cubans at any price, even if a visa demand is for a visitors/tourist permit for a few weeks only (e.g. to meet close friends, with prove of return ticket, financial guarantees by the host, strong family ties in Cuba), stating all sorts of often hypothetical general, unspecified reasons that make it, in their eyes, almost certain for almost all Cubans not to return to their country once they are in the west or whereever. They also allege, that Cuban authorities deny reentry to their citizens which leave Cuba for such a purpose. Maybe you could investigate on that issue with an official at a foreign Embassy in Cuba or ask Cubans that return from an Embassy about their experiences. After all our notion of freedom in the free world, probably out of necessity, is a selfish one. (I do not necessarily wish my statement being publicised on your site, I only tried to give a suggestion for your program). Thank you for your report, it can be a further small step in trying to open up civil liberties for the people an open up the mind of people.

  15. 15 Pangolin-California
    July 22, 2008 at 23:34

    @ Gloria- Please use the generally accepted terminology for discussing irregular military actions. Irregular forces that are paid or supplied by the US are termed “freedom fighters” or “contractors” while irregular military units supplied by governments not allied with the US are termed “terrorists” or “mercenaries.”

    If we don’t all use the same words how can we understand each other 😉

  16. 16 Nacho
    July 23, 2008 at 00:06

    Come on. the BBC has had correspondents in CUba all the time! No surprise here. I wonder if they will be asking the Cubans, the average Cubans if they have free access to the BBC and other media that is not the official one. I wonder if the BBC will ask if the Cubans have access to the web. I wonder if they will be asking why was the BBC correspondent Stephen Gibbs from Havana.

    Or is the BBC the new Granma?

  17. July 23, 2008 at 05:38

    Do you think it is a to tali taeria system or the last froties off kommunismens ideas

  18. July 23, 2008 at 06:16

    BBC LIVE FROM CUBA?..Where is Cuba? I have Never Heard of that place before in my life!………
    The Only thing that interest ‘s me is the BBC WHYS AWAYDAY in which Hannah (Moderator for Blank Page No,16) will be VERY LUCKY Enough to attend it!Unlike me which will be following the event’s from Millions of Millions of Miles Away!
    @ Hannah
    Please ask Mark why unlike many Editors in the world ,his email DOES NOT read!

    I alway’s wanted to ask him this question but I never Got the opportrunity to ask.

  19. 19 Lubna
    July 23, 2008 at 11:03

    Hi gang ! :-)… I do really hope to hear some Cubans, even if only one, criticising their own regime on today’s eddition of Newshour… With my love… Yours forever, Lubna…

  20. July 23, 2008 at 11:15

    I am a cuban living in Spain, I would like to know when internet will be possible for cubans inside the island. Thanks a lot.

  21. July 23, 2008 at 11:24

    Really interesting to know that Cuba is hospitable enough to accommodate the BBC. My perception of Cuba has always been of an intolerant society.

  22. 22 Felix Chapel
    July 23, 2008 at 14:03

    I’ve was listening to Newshour this morning “Live From Havana” and am very disappointed that the BBC let the Castro propaganda seduce them. Ironic in one story while visiting while grocery shopping with Juan Jacomino (who probably is the same Juan Jacomino that is the Programming Director of the English language service of Radio Havana Cuba – the propaganda arm of the Cuban govt) and blames the food shortages on the US embargo. FACT: Despite the embargo, the United States is the 7th largest exporter to Cuba. In 2000 the US lifted the agricultural trade ban with Cuba for food and ag exports. Food shortages due to the embargo? The truth is food shortages due to a failed economy. Ironically in the next segment while interviewing a farmer who now can sell his food products in the free market, the BBC correspondent reacts disappointedly to the potential of some people earning more money than others or as she puts it “the haves and have nots”. Shame on the BBC for not reporting the truth and while letting a mouth piece of the Cuban government slip in without making mention of it to your listeners.

  23. July 23, 2008 at 14:24

    I deeply think that internet for everyone will bring to Cuba a lot of economical development, and I ask, as a Cuban who loves his country, to international comunity, to help the Cuban government to accomplish this important task.

  24. 24 nacho
    July 23, 2008 at 14:26

    Newshour is still on and Claire just ask an economic adviser about Cuba going market-economic? Say what? Raul is not going market anytime soon and if he is, how about the freedom of the Cubans?
    Cuba is not an intolerant society, the Cubans are very welcoming and friendly.
    The goverment is a completely different story. The Cuban goverment does not allow for freedom of the press, outside the official line. However most foreign press media agencies have correspondents in Havana albeit they’re not 100% free to report whatever they want under threat to be kicked out of the country and their press permit revoked. Just ask what happen to the BBC own man Gibbs last year

  25. 25 Dennis
    July 23, 2008 at 14:29

    I hope that the show from Cuba, goes off great! I hope that the presenters asked the TOUGH questions to the Cuban Government…

    Syracuse, New York
    United States of America

  26. 26 John in Salem
    July 23, 2008 at 14:29

    Before Castro took power Cuba was the ultimate adult vacation spot for Americans outside of Las Vegas and was on it’s way to becoming one of the richest island nations in the world. I would like to hear from any Cubans who can remember life under Batista and how they might feel about their country heading in that direction again.

  27. July 23, 2008 at 14:42

    I think that US policy towards Cuba has been unproductive and irrational for quite some time. There have been many states, far more dangerous that we have come to terms with. The continuation of these policies through Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative administrations and the stance of both candidates for continuation of these policies is simply unexplainable. Obama would negotiate with Iran and North Korea. Bush achieved rapprochement with Libya but still no Cuba. I suggest it goes deeper. As long as there is someone in power in Cuba who was in power at the time of the Kennedy assassination there will be no change. Who killed JFK? The continued solidality of every American president and all major candidates since gives a strong clue.

  28. 28 Dennis
    July 23, 2008 at 14:51

    I have a question….Why is it takes so long for some of my comments to be moderating…


  29. July 23, 2008 at 14:52

    You said in today’s broadcast that in Havana there are many “pre-revolution Pontiacs, Chevys and Mustangs” on the streets. My understanding is, however, that the production of Ford Mustang began in 1964, some five years after the Cuban revolution… 🙂

  30. 30 Jean Ranc
    July 23, 2008 at 16:31

    This may be Claire Bolderson’s first trip to Cuba but I was there twice on educational tours for 2 weeks each: the International Film Festival in Havana Dec. ’01 & an architectural tour from Havana to Trinidad in April ’02…before the Bush Administration locked nearly all of the doors to travel in Cuba for American citizens. Talk about denial of basic human rights in Cuba?!? but now I’m denied the right to travel there.
    In May ’01 just after my second trip, Jimmy Carter was invited to visit Cuba by Fidel Castro and was basically given the keys to Havana and the island as a whole with access to television to speak to all of the Cuban people and also meet with dissidents who were petitioning the government for democratic reforms. In the midst of Carter’s visit, our infamous John Bolton then at the State Dept. & later to be named the US Ambassador to the UN, trotted over to the conservative Heritage Foundation and charged that Cuba was developing biological weapons…a speech clearly meant to sabotage Carter’s visit and any opening to more normal relations between the US & Cuba, not to mention the promotion of a more relaxed climate within Cuba…as the invitation & open doors to Carter seemed to indicate. Carter boldly took the international media/TV stage in Cuba to denounce Bolton’s false charge: declaring that he had been fully briefed by the State Dept. & Pentagon before his visit which had indicated no military or “biological” threat from Cuba. And in Cuba, he was immediately invited to personally inspect all biological and other scientific laboratories on the island to disprove Bolton’s lies.

    Never-the-less soon after, Bolton succeeded in placing Cuba on the US “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list and thus it remains…carved in concrete in the Bush-style foreign policy of “self-fulfilling paranoia”. The same as the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfield propaganda of more distorted “intelligence” and outright lies which led to the invasion of Iraq (turning it into a recruiting ground for Al Quada) less than a year later, March 2003. And what do you know? but the other countries on their “Axis of Evil” list (Iran & North Korea) reacted by cranking up their nuclear development to defend themselves against threatened invasions by the US. At the same time, Cuba (on our State Sponsors of Terrorism list) reacted against the latest US threat (remember our Bay of Pigs invasion 1961?) by guess what? by repressing the very dissidents whom they had freely allowed to meet with Carter less than a year before and throwing some 70 of them in prison. Note: this was about the same time the US began piling up 600-some “enemy combatants” (often picked up by well-paid “bounty seekers” in the Middle East) on the other side of Cuba in our own private off-shore-out-of the-American-justice-system…known as Guantanamo. And add to that the fact that the US has the largest percentage of its population in prison here in our own territory of any country in the world…all the while we’re pointing our finger at Cuba.

    Ah yes, we still believe that we have the right to interfere, not to mention intervene in Cuba…as we have been doing since we jumped into the Cuban war of independence against Spain…uninvited!…in 1898 then proceeded to take Spain’s place as a colonial power from Cuba to the Philippines, not to mention dominating & intervening at will in the rest of Latin America for decades. So what was it like under “our last man in Havana”, the dictator Batista? someone asked. Well, check out the film by Robert Redford to get a sense of the repression, torture of dissidents, prostitution, gambling and reign of US gangsters…on its way to becoming “one of the richest”? most corrupt and vicious regimes on earth…soon to be overthrown by the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, who, of course, subsequently became another dictator, repressing and often eliminating those who opposed him & his regime. But still by almost any measure providing a greater measure of basic human needs in the form of food, housing, health care & education than any other so-called developing country in the world during succeeding decades.

    The question at this point in history, is whether the US is “grown-up” enough to elect a progressive President and normalize relations with our neighbor Cuba…or whether it’s going to continue to regress and decline under an on-going McBush Doctrine.

  31. 31 Howard Ellegant
    July 23, 2008 at 17:34

    China is the model for Cuba to emulate. Not that I support the politics of either country. Having visited both countries (Cuba 2003) and China (2006) it is entirely possible to open the economy without giving people political freedom. Based on many of the BBC interviews I conclude that, “Its the economy stupid!” Demand for political freedoms may or may not follow. As one interviewee said that depends on the history, culture, mores, etc of the people. The National Rifle Association and the Cubans living in Miami have done more than most other lobbying groups to screw up US policy on two important fronts. My history with Cuba goes back to when I was a child. My aunt (mother’s sister) and uncle lived in Havana where he had a business. We would visit every year until 1955 or so. They came to Miami in 1960. 2003 was my first trip back in nearly 50 years.

  32. July 24, 2008 at 05:07

    Toward the beginning of her report, the journalist Claire Bolderson talks with a gentleman named Juan Jacomino, who she only describes a “Havana resident.” A simple Google research reveals that a Juan Jacomino is an official Cuban “journalist”. In 2003 he was described programming director of the English language service of Radio Havana. He’s been recently associated with ESTI Prensa. Jacomino has done previous interviews with the BBC and NPR. Bottom line is that Jacomino is a lackey of the regime and Bolderson didn’t mention it.

    Secondly she interviews “deputy foreign minister” Dagoberto Rodriguez who of course denies that Cuba has any political prisoners. They are all spies, you see. Bolderson lets Rodriguez get away with the accusation that the U.S., through the embargo, is engaging in a “genocidal policy” that uses “food and medicine as a tool for promoting political changes”. She did not challenge him or correct the record. Food and Medicine are currently exempt from the trade embargo as long as Cuba pays cash up front. The impression listeners got is that the U.S. is starving Cuba when the U.S. is actually Cuba’s largest food supplier to the tune of about $500 million annually.

    She also talks to other Cubans which all say that they simply want improvements in their financial situations but that they are “happy” with the political system. One of them is a “travel agent” the other is a “contemporary artist.” Both speak English. The artist explains that he’s been to London and didn’t like the number of closed circuit TVs that watch the city streets as if to say that Democracy is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Another regime lackey.

    Bolderson did go and speak with dissident Miriam Leiva who was very clear in explaining that despite all the hoopla about economic changes there really have been no meaningful economic reforms to date, only the lifting of “some absurd restrictions.” Leiva explains what Babalu readers know well, that the regime is cracking down on dissent but using more subtle methods. She also adds that the embargo is not to blame for Cuba’s economic mess. Despite the fact the Leiva knows the embargo isn’t to blame she argues the familiar argument that it has given fidel a propaganda tool. My question is if she’s smart enough to know the truth then why can’t others understand it also. Why isn’t she telling that truth. I never understood who we are trying to convince of this truth and why we need to convince them.

    And lastly Bolderson interviews the Cuban Crown Princess mariela castro, daughter of raul the munificent. mariela starts speaking in a gibberish that could only come from the mouth of a Cuban communist.

    All in all, a terrible report that does the BBCs listeners a great disservice. But better than Matt Lauer’s Today Show propaganda stunt last year.

  33. July 28, 2008 at 21:05

    In your recent article on economic reforms in Cuba, you state that “There is no real concept of private ownership in Cuba. You cannot buy and sell your home…”

    Yet when one searches for stats on home ownership in Cuba, one finds that Cuba has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world.

    Both statements can’t be true, so what is going on?

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