I finally made it back home in California early today–Tuesday morning. I just completed my 8th research expedition. I’m proud that I’ve helped over a hundred Americans learn more about Cuba. I’m glad they could learn about the country, meet locals, and make up their own minds about what has happened, and what they think will happen in the next few years.
Yesterday we rode our bus to Terminal 2 at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. We said good-bye to our driver and guide, checked our bags, and went through customs. I reminded everybody to make sure their passports were again stamped (if they wanted), because after all, we were in Cuba legally. In the waiting room we were once again surrounded by mostly Cuban-Americans returning to Miami. All of the flights were departing for either Miami or Tampa, yet there was a booming business in the shops that sold rum and cigars—items that are expressly forbidden to be brought into the U.S. This was just one of hundreds of strange or unusual or unexplainable things about Cuba and the U.S., and our bizarre relationship. It continues today due to the activities of a small but powerful minority of Cuban-Americans in Congress and their incredibly uninformed and/or corrupt associates.
We had our last meeting there in the waiting room and said our “good-byes.” Once we boarded, we would be scattered through-out the aircraft. After we arrived in Miami, we would likely end up in smaller and smaller groups as we went through customs. I reminded everybody to write on their customs form, under Countries Visited: “Cuba, with license.” I also reminded them to carry a copy of their licenses in their hands along with their customs forms, although they are rarely examined.
As I stepped aboard our aircraft, I again asked flight attendants if they ever felt like getting off the charter aircraft in Havana and spend some time enjoying Cuba. As always, their answers were, “Oh we can’t—we’re Americans!” Shaking my head, I again considered that today–in the information age in the United States of America—99% of travel agents, world travelers, and even flight attendants—who fly to Cuba on charter flights for a living—still believe this crap.
Once in Miami, it was amazing and amusing to see so many bottles of rum and cigars carried through customs by Cuban-Americans. Some were barely hidden. There would be a good chance that the customs agents they encounter would be Cuban-Americans. Yet nobody seemed concerned. (I wonder if Cuban-Americans have some sort of exemption–officially or otherwise–to bring these items back. I will check on this and get back to you.)
I waited in the long but fast-moving customs line with a couple of fellow travelers. When I finally reached the agent, he scanned my passport and indicated I would require “special processing.” He handed my precious passport to another guy, who asked me to follow him. (I wasn’t overly-concerned, because I have been through this procedure on several previous trips. I was taken to a special room, which reminded me of the “Group W Bench,” if you are familiar with Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant.”)
I sat there with about 30-40 other passengers. Some were upset or looked around nervously. Others seemed relaxed and played with their kids. On my left was an Islamic-looking couple, and on my right was a rough-looking guy who had tattoos on his neck and wrists. I could understand why some of these people were profiled to go through special screening, but why me? I was just a harmless travel guide!
As on previous trips through Miami, after about 20 minutes, my name was called and my passport returned with no explanation. I was sent to pick-up my checked bags. Just as I thought I was free and clear, the last agent looked at my tag and told me to “follow the yellow dots” on the floor. Dottie–one of our travelers– was in front of me. I thought, “well–I guess they’ll go through our bags, so they might confiscate a few things.” But all I was asked to do at this higher level of customs was to put my bags on an Xray machine. Dottie was asked to do the same. We both passed with flying colors. No bags opened.
From there it was onward to United Airlines to catch my flight to Houston. During this flight I made two observations that most people would probably overlook or think not significant. First, the UAL in-flight magazine “Hemispheres” had an article titled: The Caribbean From A to Z.” Since I had just spent 10 days on the largest and most significant island in the Caribbean, I looked forward to reading about it. Of course, just about every island you’ve probably never heard of was mentioned. But not a word about Cuba! This was especially galling, because I remember sitting at the domestic airport in Havana in 2003, watching silver and dark blue United Airlines aircraft arriving from the U.S. on charter flights. UAL was familiar with Cuba, and I expect they will once again be involved with flights there in the near future. So why couldn’t they at least mention Cuba in their article? They could have said that they hoped they would be flying there once again. But nothing. It reminded me of the many maps of the Caribbean I’ve seen where the whole country has been deleted. On other maps, Cuba had been replaced by a “legend” box that describes the roads and cities on the rest of the map.
After arriving in Houston, I noticed a copy of Time Magazine at a news stand. The cover showed the “Person of the Year”: The Ebola Fighters! The Person of the Year turned out to be a large collection of researchers and medical staff from all over the world: from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa. I bought a copy to read on my flight to San Francisco. Usually I would nap on this second flight, but I wanted to see what would be reported about the Cuban teams that had been working in West Africa, even before the recent outbreak. (Additional Cuban staff were sent recently, even before the build-up of American medical workers and military teams.) I read the magazine from cover to cover, and unbelievably, THERE WASN’T ONE WORD ABOUT CUBA’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO FIGHT EBOLA!
So just as with the UAL magazine article about the Caribbean, and countless other examples, what is the explanation? Is there an American conspiracy to make Cuba invisible and irrelevant to other Americans? (By the way, I’m not a fan of most so-called conspiracy theories.) If not, then how can huge organizations like United Airlines and Time Magazine overlook the obvious? I have seen this phenomenon many times before, and I have no idea what to believe. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
It’s nice to be back home. I still have two expeditions planned for 2015–March 14th and May 2nd. After that, I have no plans, but I would like to stay involved with Cuba somehow. If things work out for the best in the next few years, it could have a bright future in a world where so many other countries seem to be spiraling down into chaos.