On Assignment: Havana, Cuba

Castro Photo

Reminders of Cuba’s Revolution Are Everywhere in Havana. But There’s Another Revolution Coming.

Communist Cuba is on the cusp of another revolution – but this one is all about modernizing its economy from its Soviet past.

Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana

This small island nation – just  90 miles from the Florida Keys – has been politically isolated and seemingly frozen in time for more than half a century.

But the objective of the historic new diplomatic talks with the United States is supposed to eventually lift the crippling trade and tourism bans dating back to the Cold War.

This dramatic new new chapter in US-Cuba relations will theoretically begin a new era of prosperity in Cuba, and pump in billions in foreign investment.

We were sent to Cuba’s Capital City, Havana, to report on the first round of talks between US and Cuban officials, as well as capture the mood of its people as this country braces for transformation. Our stories ran all week on CTV National News.

Here’s one of our reports:

 

IMG_3916

The restoration of Cuba’s Capitol Building may be symbolic of what’s happening in this country.  President Raoul Castro hopes to turn Cuba into a modern economy that attracts foreign investors.

And many Cubans are optimistic.

Our Taxi Driver, very optimistic of the future.

Our Taxi Driver, very optimistic of the future.

Our taxi driver, Fabio, used the word “Esperanza” – spanish for ‘hopeful for our future’. He says a new influx of American money – tourists and investors – would elevate living conditions for many, generating much needed jobs.

(Sidebar: because I was so impressed with his car I’m posting more photos here.  Fabio is a mechanic and spent 2+ years to fully restore his family’s 1953 Oldsmobile using recycled materials. Incredibly, its the original engine but much of the bodywork was welded/melted from other scrap metal, and repainted. He did an incredible job. I’m sure you’ll agree.)

IMG_3876 IMG_3878 IMG_3879 IMG_3877

——

So what will the New Cuba look like?  Many wonder if Havana will become a Caribbean Las Vegas.

Take, for example, Havana’s historic Malecón (waterfront).  In most cities, this would be prime real estate. But here, many these state-owned buildings are dilapidated and vacant.

Could this be the new home of a TGIFriday’s, Senior Frogs, an all-inclusive Holiday Inn?

Havana Malecon at night

Havana Malecon at night

Unlikely. Many experts believe the Castro Administration will move very slowly and model its economic transition after China, not the wild-west capitalism of post-soviet Russia.

Which brings the next question of infrastructure: In many parts of Cuba, wireless/internet service is spotty, if there’s a signal at all.  The Castro government says it wants to modernize its communications infrastructure, but many questions linger if the communist government will outsource the building of its technology network in an era of digital surveillance.

In other words, the State will control every aspect of its real estate, its technology, and urban planning. And there are reminders almost everywhere of this country’s revolutionary roots – largely built on rejection and mistrust of American capitalism.

Celebrating Castro

Celebrating Castro At Hotel Where Cuban Government Approved Western Journalists

Putin Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Celebrity Wall at Hotel Western Journalists Stayed At

Chretien Castro

Former Canadian PM Jean Chretien with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Photo on display at hotel where Cuban Govt approved Western Journalists

Butcher shop

Butcher Shop has Giant Photo of Castro behind the counter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet, while this country is poised for major change – although most indications suggest it will be cautious, and slow – it seems the most vocal opponents of this new era are from Canadian tourists, worried an American influx will spoil their cheap winter vacations.

Cuba Waterfront

Havana

Pouring Havana Club

Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana

Standup By SeaKing

Exclusive Access on Board Canadian Warship

I’ve covered many interesting stories around the world, but consider this one of my more memorable assignments.

2014-10-20 02.49.20

Reporting somewhere along the Black Sea on board HMCS Toronto

My colleague Jonathan Austin and I were recently embedded on board Canadian warship HMCS Toronto as it patrolled the Black Sea under NATO’s ‘Operation Reassurance’ mission – tasked to promote security and stability in Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

It was a first hand look at the mandate and the mission. And in what may be a Canadian first, we transmitted our daily reports via satellite off the back of the flight deck – deep in the middle of the Black Sea.

For 7 days, we lived in crammed quarters and experienced the living and stressful working conditions of the dedicated crew of 200+.

Working to Deadline

Jonathan Editing while I write our story inside our cabins. The Black Sea was very choppy at times, and rocked the vessel back and forth.

On Board 1 Deck

View from outside our quarters

We chronicled real-time emergency maneuvers – including exclusive access inside the ship’s Command Centre – which picked up a ‘buzz’ after a pair of Russian fighter jets flew ‘provocatively’ close to the vessel (the night I filed this report, the Black Sea was particularly choppy):

There were also questions about the status/future of the mission after HMCS Toronto reached its maximum patrolling limit in the region under international rules:

Of course, there were military hardware issues that could not be ignored. The only helicopter on the vessel broke down, and HMCS Toronto is showing its age:


Some interesting sidenotes:

Ship Commander Jason Armstrong imposed a strict no-alcohol policy on board the vessel. This was put in place after 3 incidents of “personal misconduct” on board HMCS Whitehorse earlier this year. All crew members we spoke to respected it and understood why this was necessary.

Mission Accomplished

Jonathan poses with HMCS Commander Jason Armstrong after he guided the vessel to dock in Crete.

On shore leave, crew members were limited to maximum limit of 2 drinks per day.

And yes, I felt seasick – despite plenty of gravol. But it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Many of the seasoned crew wore preventive medical patches behind their ears to prevent sickness.  And for a few days, the Black Sea was very rough.

Political Ottawa Stops To Mourn The Death of Jim Flaherty

 

Image

Jim Flaherty changed many things – including our money.  Here is he is introducing new polymer banknotes in 2012.


The unexpected passing of the former finance minister united a place known more for partisan division and bickering.

There’s no shortage of columns how MP’s from all political stripes came together to mourn a death in the family (this one is by far the best I’ve read).  The flag above the Peace Tower was lowered.

Image

So with that, I’ll share some of my own thoughts here:

I’ve covered every single budget Jim Flaherty delivered as Federal Finance Minister, including his first one in 2006.  Throughout the years we got to know each other  – we weren’t best pals, but we shared a Queens Park connection and had coffee a few times.  Flaherty was a charming, friendly and genuine man.  He was proud of his Irish roots.  He joked about his links to the “Ferocious O’Flaherty’s” known as notorious pirates who terrorized communities in the 1300’s.

He loved talking politics. He loved dissecting political strategy.  And make no mistake, he could be hyper partisan.  But he was also a pragmatist.

When he pumped billions of taxpayers money into a stimulus program, and drove up the deficit during the great recession of 2008, he admitted it was against his conservative instincts, but he did it because he believed it was the best option to avoid economic calamity.

He also championed programs for those with disabilities.  And it was personal.  One of his sons has a disability.  So every budget had something set aside to help.

But when Flaherty’s health took a dramatic turn last year (I wrote about it back then), the countdown began when he would leave his stressful and demanding portfolio.  And in the months leading up to his resignation from Cabinet, it was clear his passion for the job was fading.  Still, every time I saw him – despite his obvious deteriorating physical condition – he maintained a pleasant and friendly demeanour. Always happy to stop and chat.

All these thoughts raced through my mind as I stood outside his Ottawa condominium tower on this windy afternoon, knowing he had died in his 7th floor apartment earlier that day.

So I began thinking of my fondest memory of Jim Flaherty.  It was at a cocktail party after Budget 2012, the year Flaherty announced he would eliminate the penny to save taxpayers money.  His department gave him a pair of cufflinks with pennies on them to wear when he delivered the budget.  And he did.

That evening, Flaherty gave them to me. For no special reason.  As a rule of principle, I refused them because I don’t accept gifts from politicians … but he insisted.  So I told him I would return the cufflinks when he retired from politics.

Sadly, I never had the chance.

Image

 

Political 180 by Defence Minister After CTV News Report

A remarkable thing happened last week.

Less than 24 hours after I reported how National Defence sent letters to all 158 families of fallen Afghan soldiers, inviting them to a special commemoration ceremony – but with the caveat they would have to pay their own way to attend –  the Harper government reversed course.

I cannot recall such a quick reversal under this government.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson confirmed before a parliamentary committee the families’ expenses will be covered, although details are still being finalized and will be announced soon.

Nicholson went on to blame his own department for sending a letter that was “premature” and contained “false information.”

The mother of Sgt. George Miok, who was killed in Afghanistan, said if the government does pay for her family to attend the service, “that is really appreciated.”

“We miss him. Every day. Every hour, every minute of the day,” Anna Miok said.

“I don’t want anybody to ever forget my son, because I think he did a big sacrifice for this country.”

The Mioks already had to pay $4,000 out of their own pockets to attend their 28-year-old son’s repatriation ceremony.

The existence of these letters – and the political 180 that followed – is another sting to the Conservative brand, which long proclaimed itself as the party that supports the troops and takes care of the military.

However, the continued crisis of suicides by Afghan veterans suffering PTSD, along with the slow hiring of promised mental health care workers, has raised questions if the government is properly caring for its soldiers in the aftermath of war.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair blamed the government of mixed messaging during question period last Thursday.

“Now the minister is trying to shift the blame, claiming that he’s not responsible for the note sent out by his own office,” Mulcair said. “Enough with the excuses. These families have already paid a greater price than most of us can even imagine. Will the minister of defence minister take responsibility for this latest insult and guarantee that the expenses of the families of fallen soldiers will be taken care of completely by the government?”

Nicholson’s parliamentary secretary, James Bezan, repeated the government’s talking points, that the letter was “premature, incorrect and contained false information” because the event’s details have yet to be finalized.

But many high level sources tell me last month, the Prime Minister’s Office, National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs began contacting charities in the private sector to come up with a fundraising plan to cover some of the families’ travel costs. It suggests the government knew all along that the military had no intention of picking up the tab for families of fallen soldiers.

Here is the military letter sent to families

 

 

Crisis in the Canadian Forces

Image

It’s been heartbreaking to report on the tragic suicides of 7 Canadian soldiers in as many weeks.  Many of them were young with new families, like  28 year old Cpl. Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez, a reservist belonging to The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment based in Kingston, Ont., who was discovered in his apartment last week. 

Image

The body of Cpl. Martinez, who served in Afghanistan in 2010, was found in his apartment in Kingston, Ontario (CTV News Photo)

The military told me Martinez had no medical history of mental illness, or PTSD. But health experts say the symptoms of mental illness can take years to fester, and the smallest thing can trigger thoughts and feelings that lead to tragedy.

Image

Cpl. Leona MacEchern drove into an oncoming semitrailer after leaving a note to her family. (CTV Photo)

For Cpl. Leona MacEchern, it seemed the stress of dealing with her treatment resulted in a horrific “final desperate act”.  Her husband tells me she purposely drove into into an oncoming semi-truck on Christmas Day.

He says his wife – a 20 year veteran of the service – had been battling Veterans Affairs over benefits stemming from dental work going back decades.  You can read his full statement here.

Ever since I first reported on the rash of suicides in the military in November, I’ve been flooded with emails and calls from veterans and/or soldiers who’ve been dealing with the aftermath of war. But this email stands out:

“After reading your report about suicide and mental health in the military, the article about Corporal Leona MacEachern, and her family’s statement, I am hoping that you can pass along my deepest sympathies to the MacEachern family. I wish I could have known her so that I could give her a hug, tell her that I know what she is going through because I have also been through that hell, and tell her that it does get better.

A year ago about this time of year, I was commuting an hour each way on the highway.  I would drive to work and think about crossing over in to the path of a semi.  The only thing that stopped me was wondering if it would be a ‘successful suicide’ or not.

I am the mother of four children and married to a Canadian soldier. Like Corporal MacEachern, I also thought that ending my life would help my family.  They would receive a large life insurance payment and not have to put up with me anymore.

I sought help through my work’s Employee Assistance Program, but the counsellors they put me in touch with were not helpful at all.  One counsellor said that she thought I had ADD.  I told her that even if that was the case, I did not want to live anymore, so what did it matter?

I remember walking my son in his stroller, thankful that it was raining so that no one would see my cry, knowing that I was not going to make it.  I did not know why I was so sad. I was angry and frustrated with myself for feeling this way and the help I sought through EAP and the Community for Mental Health was not helping. Finally I called two psychologists.  One called me back.  The other didn’t.  He said that he had many patients and there was a waiting list but he could see me in a few months.

I took a deep breath and said that I wouldn’t last that long.

Fortunately for me he agreed to see me that Friday.  It was three days.  I agreed to wait three days.  The days were unbearable, just like every other day, but I made it.  That was June 15th, 2013. I have been seeing him on a weekly basis ever since and working on the issues that eventually led me to a deep and dark pit of despair. My recovery from my major depressive episode has been a long and painful process, but I am feeling much better and expect to return to work soon.

I would like to help other people, like Corporal Leona MacEachern, that are struggling.”

The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program has a confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families: 1-800-268-7708.

Meanwhile, in India …

Apparently Twitter went into a meltdown when @mvnair212 recently posted this alarming photo and caption:

Meanwhile, in India ...

Sounds crazy, right?  Besides, 15,000+ retweets *must* mean it’s true.

But the folks at Buzzfeed did a Google reverse image search and discovered “either this particular snake is on a human-eating rampage from South Africa to India, or it’s a hoax.”

So while the story behind this photo may have been debunked, the big question remains: What the hell did that snake eat anyway?

Best of the Worst Canada Tribute Videos

It’s only fitting to share this on Canada Day weekend.

Fellow Canuck (and NY1 Host) Pat Kiernan noticed a hilarious twitter “war” between actors Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman on the best (worst?) Canada tribute video, and posted it on his blog.

Moments after I posted it on twitter, I was alerted to another amazing tribute video.

All 3 are below.  Which one do you like best?

From Seth Rogen. “Vancouver”:

From Sarah Silverman. “In Canada”:

From colleague Sheila Scott. “Experience Regina”:

Know of another tribute video?  Let me know.

And Happy Canada Day!