Story by Briana Lionetti
Video by Rick Ricioppo
Havana, Cuba – When Chris Cloonan got through security at the Jose Marti Airport in Cuba, he heard a security guard yell his name. He immediately put his hands up in the air. It was a nervous reaction. The security guard had just wanted to ask him a question.
Back then, in January of 2012, Cloonan was travelling with Stony Brook University’s Journalism Without Walls program. He was a political science major with a minor in journalism, and he was unsure about his future. Cuba was unsure about its future also.
Four years later, Cloonan and Cuba are both on more of a stable path.
“I am able to understand how little Americans know about Cuba and the importance behind what I am trying to do – create and develop relationships and understanding between the two countries, so people don’t think of Cuba as North Korea,” said Cloonan.
After that weeklong trip to Cuba, Cloonan graduated from Stony Brook and then, riveted by his experience in the neighbor of America, he went on to submerge himself in its history and culture.
On December 3, 2014, Cloonan submitted his 60-something page thesis on how and why the United States should normalize relations with Cuba. And then he graduated from Burlington College with a master’s degree in Cuban studies.
The country that he had embraced was changing rapidly. On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama said, “Today the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” President Obama said that the United States and Cuba would begin to normalize relations that he would take steps to increase “travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”
This came 53 years after Washington had broken off all diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cuba had become allies with the USSR (the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics) and Cuba’s ruling body was the Cuban Communist Party. The first major change came in 1991, when the USSR collapsed and Cuba went through a painful period called the ‘The Special Period,’ a decade of hunger and other sufferings and caused Cuba to rethink its economic and political models, Cuban leader Fidel Castrol began allowing tourists to come into the country as a way of generating income. The nation also began allowing Cubans to set up small businesses, also as a way of putting the country back into survival mode. Then, in 2008, Fidel stepped down and his brother Raul took over as president. Though year-to-year developments are unpredictable, the Castro era not go past 2018, when, by Constitutional dictate, there will be a change in government and Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez is expected to succeed Castro.
Cloonan found that Cuba’s uncertainty and its unique relationship with the United States fascinated him. Once he graduated with his master’s degree, he began trying to figure out a way to legally get to Cuba. He searched on monster.com but there were no jobs listed because of the trade embargo and travel ban. “I needed to get creative and find work,” said Cloonan. He read stories about Cuba on news sites and then reached out to sources mentioned in those stories. He wrote to Michael Sykes, founder of Cuba Cultural Travel, a tour company for Americans wanting to legally travel to Cuba. Sykes liked Cloonan’s journalism background and his ability to quickly find information. Cloonan flew out to California in April 2015 for training in how to be a tour guide in Cuba. He “moved” to Cuba in October 2015 but, because of travel restrictions, every 30 days he has to fly back to the United States and re-new his visa.
Being a tour guide is very demanding – especially in a country where most of Cloonan’s moves are tracked. “I know my cell phone’s tapped, I know I’ve been followed,” said Cloonan.
He has come a long way since the security guard confronted him in the Jose Marti Airport. Professor Rick Ricioppo, who was one of the two professors on the Journalism Without Walls trip to Cuba in 2012, remembers the security guard laughing after Cloonan put his arms up. The guard motioned to put his arms down and just wanted to know if Cloonan was an American.
Having now been to Cuba with Cloonan twice, Ricioppo said that Cloonan’s decision wasn’t an easy one but that he’s a good model for recent college graduates. “If you don’t reach beyond your comfort zone you won’t really get anywhere,” said Ricioppo.
Jill Cloonan said that people are usually shocked when she tells them that her son is living and working in Cuba. She gets asked whether he’s a communist – he’s not – and what he’s doing down there. Some even say, ‘I didn’t know you guys were Cuban?’ Chris’s lineage goes back to Ireland, Germany, Wales and Azerbaijan. Jill said, with a giggle, that she thinks her son must’ve been a Cuban in his past life. Cloonan is able to talk to his parents via email – only when it’s not raining in Cuba. The Wi-Fi can go out when the Cuba weather is bad.
“I was happy for him because I knew that’s what he wanted,” said Jack Cloonan, the youngest of the brothers.
Cloonan met his girlfriend of three years, Brittany Pellicano, while working at BJ’s Wholesale Club. They went from living together to living in two countries in an arrangement that has been testing them. “Going through this difficult time now will result in a better future for us, and that is the ultimate goal,” said Pellicano.
Being a tour guide in Cuba consists of long days, demanding schedules and dealing with something called “Cuba time.” Everything in Cuba is really slow and things change at the drop of a dime. Reservations change, people cancel, the airport baggage takes up to three hours to come around. It’s just the way it is. Whenever something would go wrong (because of Cuba time), Cloonan would say, “arroz con mango.” The literally translation is “rice with mango,” but the figurative translation is a sticky mess.
The second week of January, 2016, Cloonan hosted a group of journalism students from Stony Brook University – students in the very same Journalism Without Walls program that he had been part of four years before. The week after that he hosted a group of high school students from Indiana, and the week after that he was to be hosting a group of baseball enthusiasts working on a project in Cuba.
Cloonan hopes to one day work in government, maybe eventually even run for a seat in the United States Senate. Professor Ron Howell, who was on both Journalism Without trips, said that at the end of the first trip to Cuba. “It became clear to me that he would be doing something special,” said Howell.
When he dropped off the Stony Brook University group at the Jose Marti airport, Cloonan accompanied them all the way to customs – an area where only travelers are allowed to enter. He put himself in the middle of the group and just camouflaged his way through.
He has come a long way since the 2012 encounter where he put his hands up in fear of the unknown.