Cuba Interrupted

December, 2009

I was lucky. I slept in a bed last Saturday. Nine of my friends in our Cuba AyUUda group slept on the cold floor of the Havana airport. What many people want to know is what were you doing trying to get into Cuba?

As for me, I do not live in a box. I am a Unitarian, a humanitarian and a tourist. All three. The US Treasury gave a travel license to our religious group. Yes, I am a member of the First Unitarian Church of Portland. The Cuban government issued me a tourist visa. How can you not be a tourist in such an exotic country? Humanitarian aid is always welcome as demonstrated by the things other Cuba AyUUda groups have taken over the past seven the years, always guided by the requests of the Cubans, things we have no difficulty procuring: aspirin, Maalox, chocolate, baseballs, Crayolas.

My old suitcase was full of light cotton fabric destined for a group of rural women who sew baby clothes for a clinic which gives the tiny clothes to women who otherwise would not come for prenatal care. The clinic was founded by a strongly loyal revolutionary and her legacy is alive. The staff will not distribute baby clothes made from easy-care knit fabrics because they do not want to create a privileged class. The clothing must be made from fabric popular at the time of the revolution.

As I waited my turn at the immigration desk with my small group of five, a young man approached one of us and asked why she was in Cuba. Caught off guard, she replied we were a religious group. Asked for her license, she showed the letter from the US Treasury we all carried for our re-entry into the US. We now believe this was the action that started the ball rolling, but the ball had been set to roll days earlier.

No one in our group was fluent enough in Spanish to explain the nuances of our situation. I spoke some, but knew I was not at the nuance level. All I could do was watch as Jackie, one of our leaders, tried her best to clarify things to the Cuban officer who seemed to have the highest rank. The officer was of the old school and apparently not really interested in our excuses because she did nothing to find a translator. She spoke very little English but had the phrases that suited her purpose. Among her startling statements was, “We do not have religion in Cuba. We are Communist.” This was not the time to remind her of the Pope’s visit. Her red face and rigid stance indicated there was no discussion, though Jackie tried every angle her in her sincere and gentle way to get her to see that we came as friends. There is no box on the form for friends. Finally, the officer said, “Follow me.” and within minutes we were back on the plane. No ticket. No baggage. And Jackie’s passport was missing. The doors closed and our visit was over. Two hours later, we settled into another hotel and gleaned from telephone calls what was happening in Havana.

I was so looking forward to meeting the wonderful Cubans who love and support the Cuba AyUUda program. I feel I know them better now that I have seen how they are willing to go to bat for us. The other nine of our group had passed through immigration and were officially in Cuba, a stickier situation than ours. They were detained as they stood by the carts heavy with our bags of gifts. They were asking the same question. Why? They were told they would return to Mexico, but the plane was full. They had to wait until tomorrow. But I was on the plane and it was not full. We left without them. Why?

On a Saturday night, even the most helpful of contacts were impossible to track down. One of our Cuban friends did learn that once the decision was made to send us all back, the Cuban officials had two choices for the nine: leave them in the airport until the morning flight to Cancan or put them in the jail for foreigners. Until our friends stepped on the plane after 17 hours of anxiety, they were not certain which option would be implemented.

The man who waited for us at our Havana hotel expressed his deep regret on behalf of all Cubans for our treatment. Nothing like this has happened since 1995. Another man called in alarm from his project in Ecuador to find out if his friends were safe.

The woman who was meeting us at the Havana airport waited for hours outside the arrival doors. Messages flew in and out of Cuba, and the closest she could get to her dear friends in our group was to see them across a street and through a thick glass wall. The mutual pantomime just couldn’t replace a long and loving embrace.

In the airport, our friends pleaded for help from astonished departing passengers, airport employees and and anyone in a uniform. They listened to empty promises from the Cuban officials, “Momentito”, “Horita”, until the airport emptied for the night. Then, they scrounged in the suitcases of gifts meant for the Cubans for anything to keep them warm and pad their bones from their marble mattress. The remaining airport staff gave what little help they could: a careful smile of encouragement, a subtle nod of sympathy.

In the morning, our nine tired but relieved friends pushed the heavily loaded baggage carts out the exit at the Cancun Airport. Soon, we lucky ones sat with them under a palapa next to a shimmering pool bearing witness to the stories they told over and over and over, the healthy reiterations of traumatized people.

We speculate that the distinct change in Cuban immigration policy came about because of the recent detention of a US government contractor arrested for the provocative act of distributing cell phones and computers to members of Cuban dissident groups.

We were pawns between petulant and rigidified nations.

When will this stop?