FIU alum talks covering Cuba as a foreign correspondent

By: Joshua Ceballos/News Director


Hatzel Vela moved to Cuba to cover Miami local news.

Vela, a former FIU Student Media Editor in Chief from when the publication was called “The Beacon,” is the primary Cuba correspondent for Local 10 News. He’s been covering Cuba for over 2 years, and has lived on the island since 2017.

“In Miami, Cuban news is local news,” said Vela to Student Media.

With the large concentration of Cuban immigrants and first-generation Cuban-Americans in South Florida, people want to be plugged in to the goings-on 90 miles southwest according to Vela. As such, Local 10 wanted a person on the ground in Havana.

“We had relationships already with the Cuban government because  of coverage that we had done in the country before. We’ve covered papal visits, the first cruise ship that entered Cuba and the first commercial airline,” said Vela.

He and his station had garnered enough goodwill with the government, Vela said, that by the end of 2016, they were able to arrange to have a reporter in Cuba full time and in January 2017, he moved to Havana.

Vela and his team are based in the capital, although they’ve been all over the country in the past few years doing coverage on a variety of topics.

“We did a series where we went across the island and did stories in each of the 15 provinces,” said Vela.

When Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, he was able to see firsthand the destruction on the island and speak to the residents who were affected.

As a journalist who has covered both American politics in Washington, D.C. and in Cuba, Vela says the coverage of the two is as different as night and day.

“This is a one party system over here, there’s only the communist party,” said Vela. “There’s no candidates, no political ads, no campaigning, so the coverage is vastly different.”

The difference lies not only in Cuba’s political coverage but also in the approach that journalists have to take when compared to the U.S.

Whereas in Miami a reporter may be able to call up Miami-Dade County Public Works to ask about potholes and get a somewhat immediate response, the process is far more complicated on the island.

“There are definitely roadblocks to journalism. It gets challenging when trying to get any kind of information from the government about any issue, and you may not get any,” Vela said.

Despite these challenges, Vela said that Cuba is not exactly what the people in Miami expect it to be.

“There has been a slow-moving change in Cuba’s economy in the past few years, and people in South Florida may have misconceptions about that. The way of life has improved here in the past few years.


Photos courtesy of Hatzel Vela/WPLG-TV

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