Students fill the reporting gap in Cuba

Jonathan Mejia, left, interviews a tour guide in Havana while teaching assistant Danny Mortimer films. Photo courtesy of Carlene Hempel.

Paxtyn Merten marched through the streets of Havana during a downpour that flooded the streets with almost half a foot of water. Merten, notebook in hand, had scheduled an interview with a priest and she wasn’t going to let the rain stop her from getting the quotes she needed for her story.

“During the first few days, the rain destroyed some of my notes,” said Merten, a third-year journalism major at Northeastern who spent a month in Cuba reporting on life on the island as part of a Dialogue of Civilizations program. “After that, we all started hauling our stuff around in plastic bags.”

Merten and her fellow student reporters functioned as an international press corps, looking for interesting stories about Cuban culture and politics. This was no easy feat since Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The stories we did, no one else is doing. There aren’t reporters running around in Cuba. That’s what made the experience so special for the students—they were writing about something for the first time.

Carlene Hempel, Teaching professor in the School of Journalism

The students published their reports in an online magazine, several of which were picked up by mainstream news organizations. The Washington Post ran Alejandro Serrano’s story on Cuba’s musical legacy, while The Ground Truth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to training the next generation of foreign correspondents, published the stories that explored the growing role of faith in Cuba.

The students overcame several hurdles in order to file their reports, including a language barrier and the island’s spotty internet connection.

“Journalism existed before the internet,” said Hannah Bernstein, a third-year journalism major who reported on the United States’ embargo against Cuba. “But my generation relies on the internet so heavily that this was a lesson in extroversion and getting the story anyway you can.”

Riley Robinson walked the streets of Havana looking for small business owners to profile. Merten, who was working on a story on the interplay between Santeria and Catholicism in Cuba, kept an eye out for Santeria worshipers, who often dress in white. Serrano looked for Cuban rower Ángel Fournier Rodriguez at his training gym, but ended up finding the rower on WhatsApp, a popular messaging app in Cuba.

Northeastern student Riley Robinson profiled small business owners such as Roberto Caraballo Lopez, who runs  a barbershop. Photo by Riley Robinson.

“There were obstacles you couldn’t see coming but you had to roll with the punches and keep going,” said Serrano, a fourth-year journalism major.

Carlene Hempel, a teaching professor in the School of Journalism who led the dialogue, said that her students uncovered stories that no other reporters are writing about.   

“The stories we did, no one else is doing. There aren’t reporters running around in Cuba,” said Hempel, who’s led international reporting dialogues in Jordan, Spain, and Greece in addition to Cuba. “That’s what made the experience so special for the students—they were writing about something for the first time.”

Northeastern student Alejandro Serrano wrote about a Cuban rower named Ángel Fournier Rodriguez. Photo by Riley Robinson.

Students said they were not sure how they would be treated in Cuba. Bernstein thought that some Cuban people would be unfriendly as a result of the embargo, but instead they were welcomed by people whom she described as “resourceful and resilient.”

“My goodness, the way the Cubans accepted us and interacted with us, it was a gift,” Hempel said. “Every day was a gift and everyone knew it.”

Merten echoed Hempel, but said it was hard to write about culture without mentioning the embargo because “it impacts everything.”

“It’s an island full of paradoxes,” Serrano said. “It has an innate beauty and its people have an open mindedness that is unmatched, but there is also a lot of internal conflict and we heard some heart wrenching stories.”