May 22, 2017 at 12:49 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
First Cuba-based local U.S. television reporter worked in D.C.

Hatzel Vela, gay news, Washington Blade

Hatzel Vela in Havana on May 14, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

HAVANA — The first reporter from a local U.S. television station who is based in Cuba once worked in D.C.

Hatzel Vela, who is a reporter for WPLG, a South Florida television station, and photojournalist Brian Ely have been based in Havana since January.

Vela — who was a reporter at WJLA from 2012-2014 — and Ely must return to the U.S. once a month as part of the agreement that WPLG has with the Cuban government. Vela told the Washington Blade on May 17 during a telephone interview from Havana that he is hopeful WPLG will be able to open a permanent bureau on the Communist island.

“That is our biggest hope,” said Vela. “We are hoping that eventually this becomes a permanent post where WPLG Local 10 can have a bureau and can report live here on the island.”

“But for now we are very appreciative of what we have,” he added.

Vela interviewed Mariela Castro last month

Vela — who was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami — has reported extensively on Cuba since then-President Obama in 2014 announced the U.S. would begin the process of normalizing relations with the Communist country.

Vela spent more than two weeks traveling across Cuba for a series of stories that aired on WPLG in 2015. Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in September 2015, Obama’s trip to the island in March 2016 and former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s death late last year are among the stories that Vela has covered.

Vela noted to the Blade that he and Ely arrived in Havana “a couple of days before” Obama ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed any Cuban who reached U.S. soil without a visa to remain in the country a become legal residents after a year. Vela was able to have a “one-on-one” interview with Josefina Vidal of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who led the Cuban delegation in the negotiations to normalize relations with the U.S., hours after Obama ended the regulation that the Cuban government strongly opposed.

“It’s actually an interesting story,” Vela told the Blade, recalling his Vidal interview and coverage of the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. “We get here. It was all low key because we wanted to do a big kick-off with a whole we’re in Cuba temporarily, living here, reporting here and then the end of ‘wet foot, dry foot’ occurs to our surprise.”

Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues as director of the National Center for Sexual Education, sat down with Vela late last month for an exclusive interview. He has also sat down with Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, and other high profile critics of the Cuban government who live in Cuba.

Freedom House in its 2016 report notes Cuba “has the most repressive environment for the media in the Americas.”

Maykel González, an independent journalist and LGBT rights advocate, said authorities detained him for three days last October while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in the city of Baracoa. Reports indicate authorities arrested González last month in the city of Santa Clara while he reported on the case of a student who was expelled from a local university.

Mariela Castro, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, leads an LGBT march through Havana on May 13, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Vela told the Blade that he and Ely have “been able to report freely” in Cuba. He said the Cuban government told them “we could do whatever stories we wanted to do as long as we are fair” and “the stories are a true depiction of what’s happening on the island.”

Vela said he has “received some negative” reaction from Cuban exiles in Miami. He pointed out the majority of the feedback to his reporting that he has received has been positive.

“A lot of folks are interested in wanting to know what’s happening inside the island, whether it’s good or bad,” said Vela. “People want to be able to see physically what’s Cuba looks like now: The buildings, the places, the sense, the stuff they remember as children they can now see for themselves.”

“It’s exile people who criticize us for being here,” he added. “But we feel it is important to be here because we need to be here to document what’s happening at what we think is an important part or phase in Cuba history.”

‘Every day you learn something new’

Vela told the Blade the government bureaucracy and “the culture of not being open to press as we have it in America” is the biggest challenge that journalists who work in Cuba face. He said the opportunity to meet Cubans and “see the challenges they face” is the most rewarding part of his work on the Communist island.

“It’s something that you don’t see in America and you quickly learn how we should not take things for granted,” said Vela. “Every day you learn something new.”

Vela also pointed out that Cubans frequently joke the way things happen in their country “may not make sense, but it’s Cuba.”

“It’s Cuba,” he joked.

Vela also told the Blade the fact that he is Latino, grew up in Miami and is part of the LGBT community adds to his ability to report on Cuba.

“It’s an added bonus,” he said. “I have a perspective that probably other journalists don’t, so I can see a wider range of stories and pick up on issues that maybe other journalists cannot.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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