Signal photographer/staff writer Katharine Lotze spent last week in Cuba. While she was there, she took some time to watch the second U.S. presidential debate at her hotel’s bar. A few Cubans joined her and gave her their opinions of the U.S. presidential candidates.The third presidential debate is Wednesday night.
Most people in the states would be grateful to escape the never-ending news cycle for a week, to a country with limited access to international media, and even more limited internet access, where work emails and constant election updates cease for just a little while.
Not my boyfriend, Matt. When he realized our carefully planned and already booked and paid for trip to Cuba fell over the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he started to quiver.
How would he get updates without internet? How would he watch the debate and stay updated?
He looked at me, eyes wide, his fingers clutching his phone, refreshing CNN.com.
“If we can find somewhere to watch it, can we watch the debate on Sunday?”
Realizing this was a chance for a travel and debate-watching experience unlike any other, I agreed. What journalist would turn down an opportunity like that?
The trouble was finding somewhere in Havana, in Castro’s Cuba that the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo against for more than 60 years, to watch U.S. politics play out in real time.
We landed in Havana on Saturday night Oct. 8, and checked into our hotel in Old Havana. Matt immediately turned on our TV, flipping through channels looking for anything, any channel, that might show the debate, or any election updates at all.
There it was: CNN International. But no debate countdown clock, no Anderson Cooper, no Wolf Blitzer: no talking heads at all; just an update on international sports. It looked promising enough to sate Matt’s political appetite right then, so we grabbed our cameras, and headed out to find dinner nearby.
The next morning we set about our day, after another glimpse of CNN International at breakfast downstairs in our hotel.
We made it to the Hotel Nacional for lunch. The Obamas stayed there on their first trip to Cuba last spring, when President Obama met with Cuban president Raul Castro to continue normalizing relations between the two countries. There was a good chance this was the place, if any at all in Havana, that would show the debate.
Since I speak Spanish, Matt had me ask the concierge. My question, which came out in Spanglish, was met with a blank stare, and not because she misunderstood me – it’s because it was a ridiculous question. Cubans, though they kept up with the election because of their growing stake in it, were obviously not seeking out U.S. presidential debates, but that wasn’t a surprise to either of us.
Matt was sure we had been defeated, and made our way back to Old Havana to our hotel, in a bright red 1950s Chevy convertible.
We found seats at our hotel’s bar, next to the solitary flat screen, and ordered two mojitos. The bartender, Andres, presented us with the drinks, and then helped us light our newly purchased Cuban cigar. Might as well forget about the debate anyway, and for Matt, if he was going to do that, he was going to do it in style — when in Rome, of course.
In a last-ditch attempt, Matt asked Andres to flip the channel to CNN International, and there, on the screen, was a familiar face. Wolf Blitzer! The last person, aside from Hillary and Donald themselves, we expected to see in Cuba.
We’d found it. As we settled in to watch the debate, I asked Andres what he thought about our election. The Castros have been in power for more than 60 years; elections are not held in Cuba like they are held in the United States, much less presidential debates. What fun would that be with only one candidate anyway?
“We go for Clinton,” he said, citing Trump’s comments about reversing the progress the Obama administration has made in normalizing relations with the island nation.
Andres went on to say that years ago, someone told him that Trump only wanted to run for president for business reasons, and for publicity, and it was clear this election cycle wasn’t doing anything to dispel that for him.
Andres, and a few more of the hotel staff, watched the entire 90 minutes alongside us with great interest. Afterwards, they would tell us that it was easier to understand Clinton’s English; Trump’s English was hard for non-native speakers to follow.
At the end of the debate, a group of Cubans who’d been watching intermittently from a table behind us came up to us. They only spoke Spanish, so I translated for Matt, who was eager to hear what they thought.
“I like Trump. He’s a man of character,” one younger man said. He told me Trump “says what he means.”
The older man he was with said he liked neither candidate.
“Vote for me when I run for president!” he said with a laugh.
Throughout our trip, we asked most everyone what they thought about the election.
Most Cubans we met were Clinton supporters. They like her plans to ease the embargo even further, and disliked Trump’s plans to reverse the Obama Administration’s easing of the restrictions.
The cabbie who gave us one of our last rides in Havana before we left, told us emphatically, “Trump? Es un bastardo!”
You can guess the translation.
Though they’re not voting in our election, Cubans do have much at stake, and you can see how they feel about the embargo on billboards around Havana.
One reads “bloqueado,” the Cuban word for “embargo.” The last “o” is a noose. The text beneath “bloqueado” calls the embargo the longest genocide in history. Though the billboard is clearly propaganda from the Castro government like all of the billboards in Cuba, it’s clear that many Cubans feel this way, and not because their government tells them to.