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:



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.)

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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


Pouring Havana Club

Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana

Exclusive Access on Board Canadian Warship

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

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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.

My Take: Finance Minister Reveals Battle With Skin Disease

The deeply personal revelation by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty about his skin condition was meant to douse months of rumours and speculation about his health.


Finance is one of my “files”, so I see a lot of Jim Flaherty.  Last spring, I had noticed he gained some weight, and he looked tired.  I didn’t think much of it – a stressful job with hectic travel schedule probably doesn’t allow one to eat healthy or sleep regularly – and it was around the time of Budget 2012.

Fast forward to autumn that year.  Flaherty met met with private sector economists at the finance building in Ottawa and later took questions from reporters. While his answers were concise, his voice was raspy, his eyes seemed glazed.  But what I specifically recall from that day – how he lingered at the podium after the scrum was over and seemed somewhat disoriented.

I think that’s when the rumour mill launched into overdrive.

Later that day, I made several inquiries to my contacts at Finance, MPs and political staff who know him well.  They all noticed the same thing but were at a loss to explain.

Flaherty held many news conferences since then. At one of them, a reporter did ask about his visible physical changes, but Flaherty didn’t answer and walked away.

His condition appeared to worsen in late November. Perhaps his medication side-effects explains why he teared up during a press conference.

So with no answers, the mystery continued.  Many wondered if his ailing health was somehow connected to why he missed a key budget vote in early December.

Just last week, when Flaherty was clutching his stomach while answering questions in the House, we all knew something was terribly wrong.

I suspect that’s when Flaherty’s new communications director concluded the news had to get out there.

I’ve been asked many times why I – or the 100’s of other Parliament Hill reporters – didn’t press Flaherty to disclose his health condition sooner.  After all, some argue, Flaherty holds a powerful role within government, and is in public life.

Let me answer this way:  I did inquire. Many times. I had been told Flaherty had visible lesions on his arms and neck. It was obvious there was a serous health issue. But the deeply personal disclosure had to come straight from Jim Flaherty.  My colleague Don Martin explains further in his excellent column.