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#12 Reporting in Cuba, Mexico and

Venezuela with Will Grant....

Sat, 02/23 06:45PM 30:50


journalists, cuba, people, stories, bbc, terms, mexico, journalism, oregon, venezuela, region, editors,
country, moment, pressures, kinds, life, latin america, long, stay


Will Grant, Damian Radcliffe

D Damian Radcliffe 00:03

Hello and welcome to the Demystifying Media podcast. I'm Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn
S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon. And my guest today is
Will Grant, one of the UK's leading broadcast journalists on Latin American affairs. Will is
our second speaker for Spring 2018 in the Demystifying Media series, a program which
brings inspiring thinkers from across the creative industries to the University of Oregon.
Welcome, Will.

W Will Grant 00:26

Hi, Damian. Thanks for having me.

D Damian Radcliffe 00:28

So a quick bit of background about our guest. Will has been the BBCs correspondent in
Cuba since late 2014, shortly before the announcement of the reestablishment of
diplomatic ties with the United States. And before taking up his role in Cuba, he was the
BBC correspondent in Venezuela, and he also spent time in Mexico and Central America
during some of the most violent years of the drug wars. And prior to all of that, way back
when, he was the Americas editor at the BBC World Service based in both London and

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Miami. Have I missed anything?

W Will Grant 00:56

No, that's a pretty good summary. You know, it's been a an enjoyable career--obviously
always had that Latin American focus. I feel like it's a very, very interesting time, not just
where I am in Cuba at the moment, but kind of regionally in the Americas more broadly,
you know, including North America, including Canada, you know, this is a very, very
interesting time to be based in the region.

D Damian Radcliffe 01:20

So what are the hot topics for you as a journalist that you're exploring across the
Americas right now?

W Will Grant 01:25

Well, I come to you off the back of a sort of key moment in Cuban history. Raúl Castro
stood down as President. And of course, the moment that you don't have a Castro in that
role is obviously going to be significant. The Cuban government was very keen to
underline that it was business as normal, that this was a simply an ordered passing of the
torch from the historic generation, as they call them, to the the next generation of leaders,
of decision makers and leaders in the country. While that might, to an extent, be true on
some level, it is still symbolically hugely significant that that moment has come.

W Will Grant 02:13

Raúl Castro does stay head of the Cuban Communist Party, so he will still be in political
life in Cuba. But my sense is that he will step back quite significantly in the coming years.
And, you know, that comes after a period of some serious moments of change, or at least
of upheaval in Cuba. We've seen the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the
United States and Cuba during the Obama presidency. Obviously, Fidel Castro, the father
of the revolution, died in late 2016. We've seen the visit by Barack Obama, which was also
a hugely significant moment. And then we've seen a lot of these feelings and efforts
towards détente and thaw being rolled back by the Trump administration since it took
over. So you know, it's been an extremely interesting period in that regard. But that's just
Cuba, as it were.

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W Will Grant 03:11
In the region there's all sorts of other things going on. We're looking very, very soon at the
presidential election in Venezuela. What happens in Venezuela affects what happens in
Cuba and other left-wing nations in the region. There will be the presidential election in
Mexico, and of course, that is largely being seen, too, through the prism of the relationship
with the Trump administration, given how hostile things are between Mexico and the US
at the moment. So, you know, it is a very, very interesting time and one in which I think,
you know, ordinary readers, listeners, viewers should be engaging with Latin America, you

D Damian Radcliffe 03:47

And what first drew you to the region? What engaged you with Latin America in the first
instance, twenty-odd years ago?

W Will Grant 03:54

Well, I traveled to Latin America, to Belize, in fact, for my undergraduate dissertation, and
during that trip, went around Guatemala, Mexico, and just thought, wow, you know,
whatever this is, it's for me. So I wanted to go and learn Spanish because I didn't have
fluent Spanish at that stage, not by any means. So after I finished at Edinburgh University,
I moved to Spain. I went initially with an EU grant, a language grant, and spent the best
part of two years learning Spanish. I came back to the UK and did a master's in Latin
American Studies to kind of deepen the academic knowledge.

W Will Grant 04:32

And by this stage journalism was really making itself clear, that that was kind of where I
wanted my career to go. I wasn't completely sure how I would get into it. And I was just
lucky enough that the kind of lowest-rung-in-the-ladder type job at the BBC was going.
Literally, you know, making coffees: a broadcast assistant, printing scripts, paying
contributors, ordering tapes, and that kind of stuff. But they were very generous to me:
they gave me the microphones, they pushed me, they taught me production techniques,
you know, all of it in Spanish.

W Will Grant 05:05

So my language skills were getting better and better and better. And I traveled to the
region in my spare time, you know, and really, that set me on the course to constantly kind

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of deepen and strengthen this interest in what to me is the, you know, the most
fascinating part of--arguably the most fascinating part of the world. I don't know, you
know, every part of the world, not by a long way. But for me, it's fascinated me on a
professional level and at a personal level, you know, it sort of captured my heart, if you

D Damian Radcliffe 05:37

You've described a political landscape which has changed a lot over the course of the last
few years in with the death of Fidel, the death of Chavez in Venezuela and a real sort of
ebb and flow in terms of the relationship with the United States and indeed, other
countries from outside the region. What impact do those kind of wider diplomatic
relationships have on journalistic practice.

W Will Grant 06:02

For journalists, it is quite a complicated landscape, Latin America. I mean, there are times
in which the job that we do is relatively straightforward, it's hard news, you're just telling
this story. And it's something quite, you know, upsetting and difficult, like an earthquake in
Mexico, many dead or you know, a hurricane. But doesn't take long before the kind of
editorial pressures that are on us as journalists start playing out, even within those kinds of
stories. How is this response being handled by the revolutionary government? Has it been
done well, in comparison to previous governments in the country, i.e. Fidel, you know, was
he better at doing it than the current, you know, government?

W Will Grant 06:46

Look over the water to Puerto Rico and see the handling of the situation there and see
how much worse in effect that has been, and how more desperate people are for support
where their infrastructure was crumbling, but it's certainly not crumbling as bad as in
much of Cuba. So you know, before you know it a as it were, "simple" story of a natural
disaster is very politicized or can become very politicized. And these are some of the kinds
of pressures that are on us as journalists across the region.

W Will Grant 07:21

It doesn't matter if it's the Columbia peace process or the Venezuelan presidential
election--you're drawn into situations, as I was saying to some of the students since I've
been here in Oregon, that revolve around very polarizing either individuals or political
systems. And you're trying to tread a path through that, and it can be a minefield. There

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are a lot of different pressures upon you from the left, and from the right. Some are in-
country, some are abroad. They use social media, they use direct techniques of
intimidation sometimes, but certainly pressures being lent upon you.

W Will Grant 08:03

And not everybody has the luck that I have, and the support that I get through the BBC, a
big institution that's going to have your back and help you where you need it. You know,
it's harder in many ways for individual freelancers working in say, Venezuela or Columbia
to be able to, you know, pick a path through some of these difficult scenarios. So, you
know, these ebbing and flowing kind of political situations, as you quite rightly put it, do
cause a lot of difficulties. And I think some of them are really quite serious when you think
about it, because it doesn't take long before the journalists are thrown in with the
countries that their institutions are from.

W Will Grant 08:49

You know, the number of times that, you know, it was just suggested, well, you're the BBC,
so that you are somehow related to the decision to go into Iraq by the British
government...well, not at all, you know? But those sorts of conflating these ideas, and this
very simple grenade of "fake news" can cause real on-the-ground issues for journalists of
all kind of political persuasions and of all kinds of backgrounds.

D Damian Radcliffe 09:16

So does that mean that it might manifest itself--and I'm going to put this kind of very
crudely--but say the relationship between Cuba and the US is particularly good, as it was,
for example, a couple years ago in the sort of Obama thaw. Does that make your life
easier in terms of access to sources and interviewees and stories? Is there less kind of
pressure and observation on you from the party and the government? I mean, those kinds
of issues, do they sort of ebb and flow alongside that wider political ecology?

W Will Grant 09:53

On the one hand, it doesn't, in that you know, when things look like they're calmer,
sometimes these guys tighten up a bit, you know. They don't want to rest on their laurels--
they don't want to be seen to be resting on their laurels. And just because, you know, we
are now having a conversation with the Americans who were in a better relationship with
them doesn't mean that everything else will be changing. I mean, this is essentially what
Raúl Castro said to the closing session of Parliament just two or three days after reaching

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this agreement--or announcing this agreement with Barack Obama. So, you know, on one
hand, no. The environment stays the same, despite what might be going on.

W Will Grant 10:34

The reality is, though, of course, that there has to be, then, a certain flexibility--particularly
on something like the presidential visit. They have to accept that journalists will be coming
in with the president, will be expecting to be able to do certain things--and we did see a
certain easing of some things. I wouldn't say access is necessarily the answer although we
did get interviews with some of the key decision makers--I'm thinking of the head of the
Foreign Affairs Department responsible for the relationship with United States, a woman
called Josefina Vidal. Excellent English, good interviewee, and could give us you know, a
straight interview on where things are going, why this visit by Barack Obama was so
important, but no, it wouldn't be changing x, y, and z. And, you know, the conditions with
which we set up in Cuba are not affected by, you know, any foreign government, albeit
from Washington, you know--and [she] made these points very clear. And it was
refreshing to be able to sit down with somebody of that nature and have that
conversation and, you know, and challenge her. So that was good.

D Damian Radcliffe 11:45

But it's not the kind of conversation you would normally have. It was packaged around
those kind of unique circumstances.

W Will Grant 11:50

Right. You're not knocking on Raúl Castro's door and getting an interview. And that wasn't
happening, you know, before these moments, nor is it happening after. In terms of access
to ordinary people and their stories--and I think that's really where we're interested, that's
where I think Latin American journalism is at its strongest, because these are rich tales of
ordinary people's lives that resonate to people on the other side of the globe, that make
us stop and listen, or watch or read--I think it was interesting.

W Will Grant 12:22

And it was a challenge, I think, to show how much life was still the same for people, or how
little these big institutional decisions between Washington and Havana were actually
affecting ordinary people's lives. Yes, there was a broad sense of optimism, yes, some
people were buoyed by some more money in their pockets, if they're in perhaps the
tourism sector, or they had some small private business like a private restaurant or private

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accommodation for tourists.

W Will Grant 12:52

But no, it wasn't making any discernible difference to the teacher in Artemisa province or
Mayabeque or, you know, Guantanamo province, you know. These people were living the
same lives they did before anything had changed. So, you know, I think these were the
interesting stories that we're trying to tell--a sense of optimism, but of not expecting too
much, of knowing not to believe in the false dawns that, you know, Washington had
promised and not delivered in the past, and they weren't about to suddenly expect it to
do so now,

D Damian Radcliffe 13:25

Many of the countries that you have been based in or have reported from, they don't do
particularly well, in terms of global press freedom indexes. We're talking just a few days
after the most recent figures were introduced: is it a very different dynamic, if you're from
an international organization, like the BBC versus domestic media? Or are there still
particular constraints that one has to be sensitive to and operate within? I'm just trying to
understand what life is like on the ground as a journalist in Latin America, in places like
Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and how that's different from if you're reporting similar kinds of
human interest stories in the US or Europe.

W Will Grant 14:05

I mean, in terms of being from a big institution, and having that backing, I do think it helps
us and I'm sure I can speak for my colleagues and my friends at, you know, CNN and the
Associated Press, and Reuters. You know, we have this infrastructure that, you know, helps
us a little bit in terms of dealing with the authorities, whether or not they're in Caracas, or
in Mexico City, or wherever it might be, or local authorities as well.

W Will Grant 14:33

And of course, the name goes ahead of us to an extent because, you know, they know the
BBC and they sometimes know the journalism we're doing and, you know, it's seen in a
good light. Sometimes it's not seen in a good light, but, you know, broadly they know who
we are, and they know there's a sort of international dimension to taking us on in terms of,
you know, big problems like being thrown out or something like that in Venezuela or
wherever it might be.

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W Will Grant 15:00
So you know, that is a factor, but I think we should also look at, say, Mexico, where the
dangers for local journalists are very well-documented. It's not just the lack of press
freedoms, it's the murder, it's the wholesale slaughter of scores of journalists over the past
decade. And it is almost always the local journalists who receive the brunt of that violence.
They're intimidated, they're murdered, they're threatened, they have to flee their own
countries. And we, the foreign media, as yet have by and large been left unaffected. Now
of course we have pressures on us in many other kinds of ways but not at that level.

D Damian Radcliffe 15:49

Is there anything we can do to support our local colleagues, or things you would like to
see put in place that perhaps are not at present?

W Will Grant 15:56

Well the first and foremost thing I think we can do as journalists is report it, and I think
that's something that collectively we can all do more. We need to make sure that
governments are aware that this is unacceptable, that these murders need investigating.
There is an, you know, insane--like, a 97 to 98% impunity rate on these murders. People
can kill journalists and know that they won't go to prison for doing so.

W Will Grant 16:25

So, you know, we need to expose that, just how bad the problem is, and constantly keep it
in the headlines when it happens. And it's something that's not just personally important
to me but to lots of other journalists in the region. I know we all take that very seriously.
We show our backing other journalists when there are events to do so. And we're trying to
sort of highlight the problem wherever we can. There are organizations that are good:
Articolo Diecinueve in Mexico does some very important work in terms of press freedoms,
and human rights and supporting local journalists.

W Will Grant 16:58

And we've tried to do things in terms of the BBC: we had some equipment that were left
over that we wanted to make sure went to a good home. Just show generic support to
local colleagues: staying in touch with them, you know, that these sorts of things that are
part of operating in a country where you're a visitor, and they're the hosts. And, you know,
making sure that you're kind of looking out for each other in this landscape; it is very dark

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and dangerous at times.

W Will Grant 17:26

But yeah, I think that is, first and foremost, the thing that we can we can we can do, is that
we can use the tools that are made available to us to kind of keep the story in the
limelight, and keep trying to make sure that, you know, more is done to try and improve
this situation.

D Damian Radcliffe 17:46

The journalistic landscape that you're operating in has changed considerably since you
first started. As a journalist, you report across TV, radio, and online--how do you stay
current in terms of your skills and continuing to develop as a journalist?

W Will Grant 18:05

Well again, I'm lucky with the BBC, that they have an excellent training program. And I
think a lot of us lean on it often, you know. We don't just go for the kind of every three
years hostile environments refresher course, we need to go and do more either
technological training, be updated on the operating systems we're using, the software, the
latest video editing, and bring in new equipment where we can.

W Will Grant 18:39

Yeah, it is a very, very different landscape in terms of, you know, coming in, you know, in
the early 2000s, and working purely in radio, and you didn't really have that much to do
with a website or so on. Now, and particularly when you get into the field, all of these
things cross over. And you have to have a little bit of skills, or quite a lot of skills, in all of
these areas, the various different platforms. And, you know, as cuts begin to bite in various
languages, I mean, that they do expect me to file in Spanish from time to time.

W Will Grant 19:11

So, yeah, I have leant on the BBCs College of Journalism. And you know, that is a very,
very useful resource. But the BBC is very good at making it public too, and, you know, I'd
encourage people to get onto the website and use some of the tutorials that are up on
there as well. And then, you know, I think sometimes we just learn from each other, you
know? I'm lucky enough to have some excellent editors around me, both in London, and in
Washington. And they watch and listen and read, which sounds simple, but when we have

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busy lives, sometimes, you know, there are editors who just like to know that it went out,
you know, and they're happy with that. No, I'm fortunate enough to have editors that are
scrupulous and staying across stuff and saying, hey, that piece, I think you could have
done this differently or don't forget, you know, we need to make sure that we reach
audiences in this way, that way, the other.

D Damian Radcliffe 20:04

It's very lucky the BBC is also still a very well-funded institution that allows those tiers to
still exist, both in terms of training opportunities, but also seeing the value of having
experienced editors who can continue to mentor and guide and advise.

W Will Grant 20:19

Right, and long may it be that way. I mean, we are going through the cuts that everybody
else is going through in this life--we are public service broadcasters, and there's never
enough money to do all the things that we'd like to. But as long as the sort of beating
heart of the BBC is journalism, and BBC News still is a key part of what we do, and will be
going forward, as they say, then, I think, you know, it's in good hands. There are some
excellent journalists coming through with creativity and, you know, good ideas.

W Will Grant 20:50

And I think we do some interesting stuff sharing now with other platforms and other
organizations. You know, previously it was very much a closed shop: we did this, you do
that, you're competition, end of story. Well, I've seen lots of examples now of shared
collaborative projects that are in the benefit of all concerned: things with NGOs, or things
with, you know, media outlets that aren't the BBC or, you know, pieces being investigated
together and released on the same day together. You know, that's important, and I think,
to the reader, probably quite valuable too.

D Damian Radcliffe 21:23

You've talked a little bit about some of the challenges of operating in environments that
have hostility towards journalists. I also wondered if there were other issues around things
like connectivity and things like that. There's so much of the kind of work that people
would do in the field--if you're operating in environments without 4G connections, without
fast internet connections, whether that also has implications for the kinds of work that you
might do.

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W Will Grant 21:50
Yeah, I mean, Cuba is one of the most offline places in the world. And it is very, very
difficult to file under those circumstances. There's a lot of people you see on these big
stories who don't have some of the luck that others do who've a bureau to go to, and
they're tearing their hair out trying to meet their deadlines. It can be very, very difficult.
But, you know, I think that things have softened in that area, as well. It's already more
online than it was when I arrived. There are mobile phone companies from the US that
work now in Cuba, which didn't used to be the case. So there are ways around this as
journalists that are tolerated, that are accepted, that one can use. It would be rare to go
and do a decent sized piece of radio and not be able to get it to its destination somehow,
by hook or by crook.

W Will Grant 22:47

That said, you know, you do come across people who are in extremely frustrating
situations and kind of desperate and reaching out to you--"do you know how I can get this
in, can you help me in any way?" And of course, you know, you try and lend a hand to a
colleague in need.

W Will Grant 23:00

But, you know, I think the real question with Cuba being offline is again about the local
journalists and people trying to do other kinds of work there, or trying to tell their stories
very simply, through Twitter, or be on Facebook. I mean, that's really--the vast majority of
ordinary Cubans want to use Facebook. And that's kind of majority what they do with
their limited internet access. They're not trying to stream Netflix, because it will cost them
a fortune. And, you know, we'll see what the new president chooses to do in that and in

W Will Grant 23:33

I don't think these are things that are going to change overnight. But I think that there
might be gradual moves towards more connectivity, as they appreciate that it is having
an effect on the population's ability to stay current in terms of research or, you know,
studying for their degrees and things like this, and you know, that they are missing out on,
really, financial services they might be able to offer--things like this in the future. I mean,
we're talking more like 5, 10, 15 year plans than one and two year plans. But, you know,
there will be scope for these things to be a reality in Cuba, if there's political will, but it
would have to be on both sides, on all sides. And I think at this stage that's still lacking.

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D Damian Radcliffe 24:19
And you're here in Oregon for the best part of a week, working with students and faculty
as part of our journalist-in-residence program. I'm just curious to understand what
brought you here, and you know, why you're so generously giving your time to us.

W Will Grant 24:34

Well, thank you for making it possible. I mean, really, it was strange, the way I decided that
Oregon was the place for me. I don't know how long that will be, you know, a reality in my
life, like whether or not I'll end up here someday, I mean, I would like to. But it's certainly--
I've always had a very soft spot for this part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, and this
state particularly, and I was aware of the work that you guys do--the journalism school
here, at the University of Oregon more generally. You know, I sort of stayed across your
website, and the Demystifying series and various different things. And so it just became
something that, rather than constantly refer to the fact it would be nice to spend some
time in Oregon, I thought I'd finally act upon it and, you know, we spoke and this has been
the result.

W Will Grant 25:26

And I think what's been good in terms of, hopefully, both sides of the equation is that I can
certainly take away a bunch from a week like this, you know, refresh myself. I remember
what's going on in terms of academia--I've talked to a lot of different professors and
students about their interests, and what they want to do and what they are doing. And
you know, sometimes when you're doing your own journalism, your head's down,
particularly when it's more bureau, like mine. You don't remember that there is this other
entire world going on. And a lot of it is fascinating and relevant to the work you do, and
that you can contribute in that direction. And that it can come back towards you as well.

W Will Grant 26:09

So this week has been, you know, a good example of that, for me personally, and
hopefully interesting to the students and so on too. And I, you know, I think if anything, I
just encourage more of my colleagues to do similar things. While you're still an active
journalist in the field, find a few days--most editors are reasonably happy for people to do
that, certainly mine were--and step away from CNN, or the AP or Reuters, or AFP, or
whoever it might be, or as a freelancer. Spend a few days talking to journalists, go back to
the place that you're from, do some things like that. And, you know, there are people who
are at the cusp of some interesting moments in their lives and their careers, and might just

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benefit from somebody who's sort of been there a little earlier and picked their own path.

W Will Grant 26:58

You know, it can all look very rosy as a BBC correspondent, but it didn't feel like it at the
time, you know, you just sort of followed your interests. And conversely, it might look very,
very bleak to young people at the moment: that there is nobody hiring at the moment,
that journalism in general is in a bad place, that journalism is under attack. Well, on one
level, we could actually see it the other way around, that this is really a chance to grow, to
do some really strong journalism, an opportunity to tell the best stories we can possibly
tell. And so you know, if I can help kind of foster that conversation, then that's definitely
interesting to me as well.

D Damian Radcliffe 27:40

And you've alluded to the fact that this is a tumultuous time for the region. I'm not sure if
Latin America ever has a non tumultuous period. But what's next for you in terms of big
stories, things you're keeping an eye on and things we should be watching out for that
you're producing?

W Will Grant 27:55

Well, in the very short term, there's two very clear news stories. It's the Venezuelan election
and the Mexican election. And I think they are both very interesting partly because
Venezuela is in such economic difficulty. We'll have to see how that dissatisfaction with
the shape and the direction of the country, how that will translate to a vote on the
leadership, and if there is a sense on the streets that somehow this election hasn't been
clean and fair and free, then would that you know, bubble out into violence again. You
know, it wasn't so long ago that there were young people on the streets, balaclavas,
molotovs in hand, and you know, it got very, very ugly. I believe over 120 people were killed
in the space of a month. So, you know, it's a tinderbox and it's kind of constantly there.
And it's important to keep an eye on it, and try and, you know, understand it as best we

W Will Grant 28:48

Similarly, Mexico, which, you know, many people don't realize, but 2017 was the most
violent year in Mexico for decades, for two decades, and, you know, a huge number of
people were killed. And that is an, you know, complex domestic story with tentacles that
go, you know, beyond the borders. But of course, we're looking at a story as well that kind

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of reflects everything that's happened in the United States. This whole conversation about
Mexico coming from the White House, coming from the State Department, will affect
what's going on in the Mexican election. It looks like the frontrunner is a left wing
candidate called Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. He may well win, because of the fact
that he has taken the strongest position against Trump.

W Will Grant 29:36

So then you're going to have neighbors who are already you know, in a bad place, taking
more and more polemic sides on these key issues: NAFTA, the wall, immigration, drugs,
whereas in fact, these are binational issues. These are issues that involve both countries;
they need to find shared spaces in order to sort them out. So you know, these are the
themes we want to be looking at over the next couple of weeks, months really. And then
beyond that, the broad narratives that interest us all hopefully, about, you know, human
lives in the region, and, you know, the struggles that people go through to make ends
meet and so on. You know, these are the things that definitely interest me.

D Damian Radcliffe 30:17

Great. Will, thank you so much for joining us today and for joining us in Oregon over the
course of this week. We hope you've enjoyed this discussion and a reminder that you'll be
able to catch Will's full talk and other materials related to his presentation and visit on our
website, In the meantime, thanks once again to my guest
today, Will Grant. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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