A Pope, Cuba and NBC

Isbel Diaz Torres

When they said their goodbyes, the NBC journalists and technicians gave me a lot of things that they didn’t need to take back, including this little mug.

HAVANA TIMES March 12 — When the previous Pope visited Cuba, I was able to earn $750 dollars. That was in 1998, so you can imagine what that money meant for a young Cuban biology student who was living in a Havana dorm.

Along with two other friends, I worked as a translator and an assistant for NBC, though back then I was unaware of its being a giant telecommunications company owned by the General Electric Corporation.

Though I was a member of the Young Communist League, I didn’t stop for one moment to find out what was supposed to be my relationship with the Pope (a figure about whom I’d never thought twice) or a capitalist corporation the size of NBC.

This little circle of my college friends was pretty “apathetic” when it came to such political issues, instead we spent the subsequent weeks in fierce debates about what we were going to do with all that money, which I ended up using to buy my first computer.

Notwithstanding, it was certainly an unforgettable experience. I learned first-hand about the technical quality of the Americans’ equipment and their lack of professional ethics – to cite just two examples.

One day a small group of us went up on top of the roof of the Santa Isabel Hotel in Old Havana to film a live procession. The journalist who was supposed to make the report, when seeing the statue of Christ of Havana across the bay and some people walking towards that place, asked me about the statue.

I told him the few things I knew about sculpture and he immediately turned to the camera and said something like “for the first time in nearly forty years, Cubans are being allowed access the Christ of Havana…”

I was flabbergasted to see how this veteran reporter, his name was Ike, could twist reality like that.

The other case was a young female journalist who seemed concerned mainly about her glamorous hair. Her parents were Cuban immigrants in Florida, so in her hotel room she hung a large sign that read “We will not stop until the Cuban people are free.”

That was something that struck me as kind of funny since she didn’t seem like putting up much of a fight with all that hairspray on. The point was that since she spoke Spanish, she didn’t require my services; she translated her interviewees herself.

When one of her interviewees was talking about poor housing conditions, he said “we settled for a shelter.” However she mistook the word “shelter” (Spanish: albergue) for hamburger, and from there gave a whole report on hunger and homelessness.

As for me, a simple worker, I had no right to an opinion, so I retained that enlightening experience for my own personal consumption. Today, though, I can attest to the bad practices that journalists practice daily both inside and outside of Cuba.

They concerned themselves little with the Pope himself. We went to the Plaza and shot what we could of the Mass, but the closest we got was the moment when he came to the Havana Cathedral. All of the NBC journalists were in a corner shouting excitedly over the sight of the Holy Father.

It was truly absurd to discover myself surrounded by all these people shouting “Oh my God…it’s the Pope, it’s the Pope!” when all I could see was the “popemobile.”

I was able to confirm that mass hysteria is contagious and that it’s recommendable to remain vigilant, lest we be dragged too far away from our own true selves.

Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

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2 thoughts on “A Pope, Cuba and NBC

  • Isbel, I have a question not related to this topic.

    What happens to a Cuban who leaves the country for longer than he was permitted to leave and wants to repatriate?

  • Great story Isbel. I wonder if you’ll be around for the second Papal visit? I would enjoy immensely, if you are,
    your views and opinions. Pax

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