As Hurricane Irma approached Cuba, Hatzel Vela ’05 reported live from a coastal town on the island. With power out, no images could be relayed to the newsroom of Miami’s ABC affiliate, so Vela called in instead. Next to a photo of the journalist, a satellite map appeared on screen so viewers could comprehend the precariousness of the situation.
Several people on the set spoke directly with Vela while he told of residents’ fears of storm surge and their battening down in homes of dubious construction. Among those interacting with the reporter were two meteorologists. They informed him that Irma’s previously anticipated “brush” along the northern coast now appeared on radar as a potential direct hit on his current location, in the town of Caibarién.
“It’s headed your way,” one said. “It’s really going to be some rough conditions there for you,” said the other. Soon after the broadcast call ended, the station’s assistant news director phoned Vela and asked pointedly, “What are your plans?”
Vela had had every intention of hunkering down in place. But with the latest information, he now weighed a desire to tell the stories of those squarely in harm’s way against his own personal safety.
Ultimately, he and his cameraman got into a car and spent the night at a private home about seven miles inland as “ferocious” winds howled through the night. When it finally blew over, “There were stories to go around for days, unfortunately,” he says of the wreckage he saw firsthand. “It was devastating.”
Vela holds the unique distinction of serving as the first local South Florida TV reporter to be stationed in Cuba. The Nicaragua-born, Miami-raised journalism graduate honed his writing chops as two-time editor of the university’s school newspaper before starting his on-air reporting career in Charleston, S.C., where he covered the 2008 South Carolina presidential debate and primaries. Moving to Phoenix, he covered immigration protests and the federal bench trial of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. At the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., he contributed to a bilingual news program, was part of an Emmy Award-winning team for a special on the election of Pope Francis and received an Emmy nomination for his immigration coverage.
Vela landed at WPLG in Miami just as the Obama administration began opening the door to rapprochement with Cuba. He was among the first reporters to go there to cover diplomatic talks and eventually returned to report on two papal visits and Fidel Castro’s death. In January of 2017 the station formally embedded him on the island.
While Vela found Cuban officials helpful in the aftermath of Irma—they allowed media quick entry past security checkpoints in heavily affected areas to report on the destruction—he calls the government’s standard practice of not answering questions or sharing any information at all the greatest challenge to doing his job.
Which, this being Cuba, begs the question: What of government surveillance?
“I’m sure they watch,” Vela says of his TV work. “They follow my Twitter.” Still, he does not believe the government has had him tailed—though his friends in the Miami exile community assure him otherwise.
Whatever the case, Vela does not let the specter of Big Brother deter him. “I always just stick to one thought,” he says, “that I’m there to tell stories, to tell the truth as much as I can.
“And if they don’t like it, they can kick me out any time.”