Friday, June 7, 2013

Military Marching

Stevee Chapman

Reporting From Havana

At first they sounded faintly in the distance, but as the beats steadily grew louder, it became clear that something was approaching from just down the road. The unmistakable sound of a marching band filled the air, but the melodies were not the cheerful ones I was familiar with from the parades in my hometown growing up. This music was slower, more somber, and from my perspective a little intimidating.
Claudia, Rachael and I had been on location in a small park, just outside the United States Interest Section in Havana, since before the sun rose that morning. We were working on a story that had to do with hopeful Cubans looking to be granted permission to either visit or permanently relocate to the United States.
The park was crowded as hundreds of hopeful Cubans were filtered through the interview process while their friends and family, who came to support them, waited to hear the news. We were sitting in the park under the hot late morning sun, waiting to hear if a family we’d interviewed earlier would be approved to permanently move to New York, when we first heard the drum beats.

At first Rachael and I just looked at each other, exchanging curious glances as we acknowledged we both had heard it. My heart and mind began to race with what I think was both excitement and anxiety. This sounded a lot like a military band, but what were they here for? To threaten and drive fear into the Cubans that were hear attempting to leave the country? To punish and make an example out of the three young American journalists who dared to cover this touchy topic?
Either way, without much thought or discussion on the subject, Rachael and I did what any other reporter in this situation would: we picked up our cameras, hit record, and ran towards the action.
The military band turned the corner and continued their march down the street where Rachael and I waited. Suddenly, though, they came to a halt, stopping in front of an old stone building. As patrons came out carrying large flower arrangements, the pieces began to fall into place. I realized what we were witnessing was not some political demonstration, but rather a military funeral.
The Cuban military funeral procession was not all that different to one you might witness in the United States. There was a band, marching soldiers in uniform, and eventually, a flag-draped coffin. From my observations, the main difference existed within the reaction of the spectators. Sure, there was a crowd surrounding the church, but they weren’t there to show their respects. They had been there hours before and were probably just as aware as I was that a funeral procession would be coming through some hours later.

In the United States, military members are held in high regard, and while I cannot speak for the Cuban people, I could not help but notice the seemingly indifferent expressions on the faces of the onlookers. At first I didn’t notice this, too wrapped up in my own excitement to focus on anything more than getting the shot. It wasn’t until I grew increasingly frustrated by the people casually walking in and out of the frames of my shot that I began to notice.
“Don’t these people have any respect?” I found myself thinking as another pair of people walked in front of my shot, seemingly oblivious to the ceremony taking place around them.
I caught the irony of this thought as soon as it passed through my mind. In the United States, the military is credited for upholding the rights and freedoms of American citizens. For me at least, being especially respectful towards military members came as second nature. As I found myself questioning the respectfulness of the surrounding Cuban citizens, it hit me: I was in a country whose military has arguably not represented the best interests of its citizens as a whole.
Although I was surrounded by Cubans in this park, they were there to specifically pursue a new life in the United States, where they could enjoy those same rights and freedoms.
For these Cubans, leaving their home was the best way to accomplish their dreams. For these individuals, the goals of the Cuban military, operated for years under the watchful eye of the Castro family, wasn’t defending their freedoms, but rather, hindering their pursuit of happiness.

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