WPLG debuts a Havana-based reporting team

WPLG Local 10 News reporter Hatzel Vela reporting in Cuba.
WPLG Local 10 News reporter Hatzel Vela reporting in Cuba. Courtesy

WPLG Local 10 News reporter Hatzel Vela and photojournalist Brian Ely have become the ABC affiliate’s men in Havana.

The pair arrived last Wednesday to become the South Florida station’s full-time Havana-based crew. That gives WPLG the distinction of being the first local station in the United States to have a news crew in Cuba on a full-time basis.

WPLG debuts a Havana-based reporting team, Local 10 News reporter Hatzel Vela and photojournalist Brian Ely.

Local 10 News Havana officially debuts Monday, but when news broke last Thursday that the United States was ending its policy of allowing the entry of Cuban migrants who arrive without visas, the pair had their first big story since the Cuban government granted them approval to set up shop on the island.

WPLG, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, doesn’t call its new office a bureau, but rather refers to the arrangement as having a Havana-based news team that lives and works in Cuba.

“Our goal is for this to last and be there for the long haul,” said Bill Pohovey, the station’s vice president of news. “At this point it is not a permanent thing; it is a trial run. We have to see how this works for us.”

Our goal is for this to last and be there for the long haul.

Bill Pohovey, VP of news

The news team had planned to spend last week settling in and organizing their new office in Havana’s Vedado section, but as often happens, news intervened.

Station management had been working on placing the news crew in Cuba on a full-time basis for a couple of years, with several meetings in both Washington and Havana before finally getting the green light from the Cuban government, Pohovey said.

He said there were no strings or conditions attached by the Cuban government to granting approval for WPLG’s Havana-based reporting team. “Hatzel and Brian are free to cover the stories they choose to cover,” Pohovey said. “The only request from the Cuban government was a promise that our coverage would be fair.”

“We’ve made a point of getting dissident voices in our stories. We’ve done that every time we’ve been here. But the complete story isn’t about that. It’s an array of things,” said Vela in a phone interview from Havana.

WPLG has made a commitment to be in Cuba as big events have unfolded as part of the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba that began on Dec. 17, 2014, but it wanted to expand its coverage beyond just reporting on events.

“I think we have to deliver what’s happening on the ground,” Vela said. “We need to take coverage further and really penetrate and become a part of Cuban society and show how people in Cuba live, survive and resolver [solve problems].’’

“What happens in Cuba is local news. We’ve taken ownership of the Cuba story, and this now takes it to a new level,” said Pohovey.

“We will have the time to seek out stories we couldn’t tell on previous trips due to the limited time we could spend inside the country. This will be something unique in South Florida television,” said WPLG President Bert Medina.

This will be something unique in South Florida television.

Bert Medina, WPLG president

Unlike Vela, Ely doesn’t speak Spanish. He is planning to take an immersion course. Vela describes him “as your average white American.” But because WPLG wants its coverage to resonate with all viewers — not just Cuban Americans — he said it’s important to get Ely’s perspective and see stories through his eyes, too.

While basing a crew in Cuba is costly, Pohovey said, “We think it’s a good investment that will serve our viewers. We are fortunate that we work for Warren Buffett [chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway].”

Vela joined Local 10 in 2014, and he quickly carved out a Cuba beat, covering a string of big events related to the rapprochement from the release of U.S. AID subcontractor Alan Gross from a Cuban prison to the reopening of embassies and the first commercial flight and cruise from the United States to Cuba in more than half a century.

He most recently covered Fidel Castro’s death and was in Cuba for President Barack Obama’s visit to the island last March and Pope Francis’ 2015 visit. In 2015, he traveled across the island for 15 days and delivered a 30-part series called “Cuba Coast to Coast.”

Since coming to WPLG, Vela has traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times on reporting trips.

Born in Nicaragua, Vela grew up in South Florida, but the Emmy Award-winning reporter earned his journalistic chops elsewhere.

Vela was a reporter at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., where he created an immigration beat; the ABC affiliate in Phoenix; and WCSC-TV, a CBS station in Charleston, South Carolina.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi