By Vanessa Bauz� | Sun Sentinel
I arrived in Havana in January 2001 with my cat under one arm and a boxed bike under the other. The rest of my life was tucked into a stack of duct-taped, clear plastic boxes—along with supplies of mini cassette tapes, notebooks, extension cords, reference books, files, computer equipment and a motley assortment of other materials to start up the Sun-Sentinel’s new Cuba bureau.
Now, more than four years later, as I get ready to leave for a one-year journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, I carry much more with me: memories of Cubans’ legendary resilience, irrepressible ingenuity and fierce pride. Their unrestrained spontaneity and infectious humor. Life-long friendships.
Cuba is a country of contradictions. Young communists decry U.S. “imperialism,” shouting “Socialism or death!” at massive rallies, while coveting the latest Nike trends. Plastic surgery is free but disposable gloves and X-ray film can be difficult to come by.
Cuba comes to you in stages. It’s in the farmer who generously fills your empty gas tank with diesel fuel from his tractor when you are stranded miles from any service station. It’s in the state security agents who pose convincingly as dedicated dissidents.
It’s in the mothers of rafters lost at sea who push their sons’ and daughters’ photographs into your hands, desperately clinging to the hope that their loved ones might still be alive, somewhere.
Cuba hasn’t stopped testing me. About a half-dozen American correspondents are permanently based in Havana and we are often regarded with a wary eye. Information and access to sources is limited. The fact that I work for a South Florida newspaper has at times been an additional hurdle, especially now when U.S.-Cuba relations are at their lowest point in years.
During an interview an elderly man once politely inquired how he could be sure I wasn’t a CIA infiltrator. Others have declined to comment for a story saying “Eso esta complicado,” a common euphemism meaning something is politically sensitive or complicated.
But for every person who has shrunk away as I pulled out my reporter’s notebook many others have opened their homes and hearts to me, generously sharing their experiences, hopes or dashed dreams; patiently explaining the wrenching compromises brought by the past decade of economic hardship and the exhausting burden of being caught in the crossfire of an enduring Cold War with the United States.
It has been my privilege to write about this important time in Cuban history; to peel away the layers of rhetoric on both sides of the Florida Straits and write about a country that is so close yet inaccessible to many.
My greatest reward has been to step into the lives of ordinary people and find the moments and details that make their stories universal, familiar, binding.
Cuba is now the place against which I measure others. Anyone who has spent any time here knows it gets under your skin.
I feel a tug in my heart as I pack my things to leave, not to mention a little bit of trepidation at facing that frigid Michigan winter weather. But mostly I leave with a sense of pride in having helped establish the Sun-Sentinel’s Havana Bureau, a lasting legacy to record Cuba’s present and future.
Thank you for taking the journey with me.
SUN SENTINEL EDITOR’s NOTE: The South Florida Sun-Sentinel will continue to have staff writers on site in Cuba while is on her fellowship.