News Channel 8 anchor Gene Ramirez in Cuba for historic flag raising

WFLA News Channel 8 anchor Gene Ramirez during a trip to Cuba in May of 2015.
WFLA News Channel 8 anchor Gene Ramirez during a trip to Cuba in May of 2015.

Watch this blog for updates sent by Gene during his trip to Cuba. Follow Gene on Facebook & Twitter & by using the hashtag #GeneInCuba

WATCH: History in the making: Flag raised at U.S. Embassy in Cuba

Friday update from Gene:

What Secretary of State John Kerry did in Havana today, is the same thing that has landed Cubans in jail in the past – displaying the American flag. Still, many Cubans faced their fears Friday, some against relatives wishes, and brought Old Glory with them. They tell me the flags are hard to come by, most smuggled in by friends and relatives. You can’t buy an American flag in Cuba is what I’m told. I didn’t see any for sale anywhere either. One man joked that we should of brought some for them.

The mood is light and energetic, but some Cubans are quick to point out that when the cameras go away, they’re not sure how freely they’ll be able to express their love for all things USA. In fact, one man confirmed that as recently as last weekend Cuban dissidents were jailed. “It’s normal,” said his friend, his American flag brought from Colombia flying attached to an umbrella. Kerry said the past will not be forgotten and the U.S. will continue to ask for human rights advances in Cuba.

Thursday night update from Gene

“What a day! As preparations are underway at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to welcome Secretary of State John Kerry Friday, News Channel 8 hit the streets to see what Cubans are saying about the diplomatic relations.

I found a pair of friends at odds, both trying Wi-Fi for the first time at one of many pay-per-hour hot spots popping up throughout Havana. I directed them to WFLA.com. One of the young men is hopeful for change, saying things will improve in Cuba. The other is ready to move to the U.S. He plans on being outside the gates of the embassy Friday waving an American flag, something he tells us could have landed him in jail not long ago. It still makes him nervous, but he feels protected by the national media attention expected at Friday’s event. This man’ss biggest fear is not that things won’t change, but that it will be smoke and mirrors and quickly revert back to old ways. It’s a chance he doesn’t want to take.

Meanwhile for Americans traveling to Cuba the embassy is the go-to place for services abroad. One American on our flight from Tampa booked her trip months ago. She says the timing of the embassy opening is pure coincidence. She said it will be a great learning opportunity for her son right before he starts the school year. They’ll be there Friday. So will I, witnessing history and bringing it to you live. I’ll see you on TV – from Havana.”

Thursday morning post from Gene

The American flag is set to fly Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and News Channel 8 will be there for the historic occasion.

The embassy officially opened July 20th. The pomp and circumstance then focused on the opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC — the Cuban flag flying there for the first time since 1961 when diplomatic relations between the countries shut down.

PHOTOS: Gene Ramirez visits Cuba

The U.S. Embassy in Havana has been known as the U.S. Interests Section for decades. It’s where I’m told as many as 500 Cubans flock to every day, hoping to get a visa to come the United States to visit relatives.

Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Cuba Friday to raise the flag. Some have criticized the U.S. government for not inviting anti-Castro Cuban dissidents to Friday’s ceremony. But reports indicate Kerry will meet with these dissidents at a smaller event later Friday afternoon.

VIDEO: The colorful people of Cuba

I’m told Cubans are excited about the re-designation of the U.S. Embassy and American flags have been seen waving in many of their hands – an unimaginable occurrence not too long ago as American “imperialism” was seen as a prosecutable anti-Castro sentiment.

Still, emotions are mixed both in Cuba and in the U.S. While the U.S. has urged Cuba for human rights reforms as part of this rekindling, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) claims that as recently as this past weekend the Cuban government was responsible for “brutal arrests.”

From my own observations having traveled to Cuba for a week filing reports for News Channel 8 in May, the word that best describes what the Cubans I came across are experiencing right now is “hope,” though most will admit they’re not sure exactly what to expect as the U.S. and Cuba continue to reestablish relations. We’ll see what this latest chapter brings as we witness it live.

Cuba: Behind the Curtain (WFLA News Channel 8 special coverage)

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