The Rough Road to Cuba
by P.F. Bentley
On January 21, 1998, the Pope John Paul II came to Cuba for the first time. He stayed for five days,  promoting human rights, criticizing both the American embargo and Cuba's dictatorship and asked for the freedom of hundreds of political prisoners. For almost 40 years, the Communist government of Fidel Castro forbade all types of religious expression, suppressing a deeply religious country and forcing the exile of many thousands of Cubans. Recently, though, the Cuban government has relaxed its laws and allowed for more religious freedom.

For the first time in eight years,  I covered an event with the general press, not in the tight pool or inner circle which allowed for unimpeded access.  Three thousand  journalists from around the world converged on Havana in the days leading up the visit.  Getting the overall credential was easy, getting the credentials for the individual events required me to wait for 7 hours in a hot room, while they processed us in alphabetical order.  This made me furious, as I was the first in line at 1:30pm, and didn't get out until 8:30 that night. Some people waited 12 hours only to be told they could not cover the events they had hoped.

The first buses left for the event sites from the press centers in each town at 4:30am.    Once there, we were herded into a room where we left our gear for them to check for weapons or bombs.  The general public, however, wasn't checked and was sometimes allowed to get closer to the Pope than we were..

We then got back on the buses with a new passes to show that we went through security. They drove us to our badly placed stills/TV platforms, usually out of the site line  of the Pope.  Some of us just stayed with the public and ended up getting better pictures.

The rules were many.  Unfortunately many rules were made up on the spot by the security person there.  If they didn't want you to stand on a railing 2 inches above the crowd, you could not.  If you wanted to take a picture of something that tourists could shoot, they made up a rule about the type of camera allowed to make that shot.  Things got very ridiculous and illogical as the trip went on.  We cursed in frustration at the security personnel, and they did nothing, as they're not used to back-talk from the Cuban residents.

A few days into the trip, the news broke about the President's alleged affair with a young White House intern.  I saw Ted Koppel leaving the Hotel Nacional with his bags, heading back to Washington.  The network anchors all went back to the US immediately, and our major Pope story was now minor news.

TIME's coverage was now very diminished.  We had a two page story with two snaps to fill.  Our team of 5 photographers keep on shooting as if this was still a 6 page photo spread.  I edited & transmitted everything on time, we all did a great job.   In the end our managing editor ran two wire photos.

Usually, I travel very light.   Two Leica M-6's with a 21 & 35, and a Canon EOS A-2 with a 100f2 or a 200F2.8.  My mantra over the years has been: "Less gear, more pictures".

This trip, however, was alot different.  I wouldn't be able to walk around anywhere I pleased, so I brought one Leica and the 35, (in case everything else goes down, the Leica ALWAYS works!) and carried three EOS A-2's, 17-35, 70-210, 300F4-IS, and a 1.4x  extender.  I'm glad I had that extender because for a Pope trip the 70-210 is your wide lens!  Plus the Canon Optura for video.

On top of the photo gear, I had to bring my laptop computer and scanner to transmit.  I fit all this and some clothes into two carry-ons.  I hate waiting for baggage, and baggage in Havana takes hours as they open up or X-ray everything before it gets to you on the carousel.

It was nice to see old photo friends who I haven't seen in many years and be back in Cuba.  It was my eighth trip there and it's always interesting.  Seeing history unfold in front of you is invariably a treat.  Usually at night, groups of us would go out to dinner someplace and talk about that days' photos and hassles we encountered. Photographers are the ultimate problem solvers.  Sometimes I wonder if editors or the public has any idea what we go through for that printed photo.
The day after the Pope left (1/26) I had a 3pm flight from Havana to Montego Bay, then connecting to New York.  I figured with a first class ticket and no checked baggage, I 'd breeze through.  I got to Havana's Jose Marti Airport at 1:30pm only to find the place packed to the gills with journalists leaving the country - and NO separate first class check-in!  (I know this breaks all your hearts!)

The problem was with the amount of cases every TV crew had.  It was unbelievable and overwhelmed the baggage belt, which consequently shut down for a while. The ticket agents could'nt check in anyone with baggage until the belt moved again.  I used this opportunity to go to the front of the line and get my boarding pass, as I had no checked bags.

This move got me on a 12:30 flight that was now leaving at 3pm.  The original 3pm didn't leave until 5pm now.  My connecting flight was at 5:10pm, and there's no way the original 3pm, now leaving at 5pm, would connect.  So I'm on the 12:30, leaving at 3,  figuring I'm home free. We get to Montego Bay, board the connecting flight to NY, and then learn that it's waiting for the original 3pm flight!

At 7:30pm, we finally lifted off from Jamacia on the way to NY.

The trip was a mess to say the least.

Next time, I'm either in the tight pool or I'm at the hotel pool.

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