Like any good socialist utopia, entry into Cuba involves lines—several of them.
To board a 3:30 charter flight from JFK to Havana required us to be there at 11:00, a full four and a half hours before departure. Once you arrive, there are several lines to negotiate. One for your ticket. Another for your bags. Another to pay for any overweight costs of your bags. Another through the security checkpoint.
And yet another to get on a bus to get to the plane itself, since our flight doesn’t get a terminal. No flight to any other country requires such rigmarole. Then again, Cuba is not like any other country.
For Americans, Cuba is a forbidden fruit in international travel. Since January 3, 1961, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. An economic embargo has been in place for almost 50 years. Most Americans cannot travel nor spend money in Cuba. The very few who are eligible for travel—Cuban nationals, humanitarian groups, educators, etc.—need to hop several hurdles.
To obtain a license from the US Treasury department, a person must submit paperwork attesting to their occupation, purpose and itinerary while in Cuba. My trip was through the Center for Cuban Studies, a cultural advocacy group committed to normalizing relations between the two countries. As a “research delegation”, I needed to submit my resume (my political affiliation was noticeably absent) and the paperwork was thus filed to get the necessary licenses and visas for my visit. One condition of that license is that I disseminate my information to others in the United States.
These posts provide evidence of that obligation.
Yet this was the farthest from my mind as I stood on my multiple lines at JFK. Needless to say, I knew in the back of my mind that I was not your typical visitor to Cuba. Many, but not all, of the visitors who come to Cuba have at least some sympathy for the Castro regime. Some groups, like the Venceremos Brigade, march openly over the Canadian border flaunting their defiance of the embargo.
This was not me. I don’t think they were expecting a right-wing, conservative Republican to be in their company. For the first time, I felt like an outcast, a deviant, a rebel…and it was fun.
In a sense, the upcoming chronicles about Cuba center mostly about this dichotomy: a conservative in a world created, engineered and celebrated by the left. How would I react? What can I say? What can’t I say? Is there a polite way to disagree in this country? How will this group react to my political views? How will Cuba react to my political views?
I hadn’t even stepped on the plane yet and I was already confused.
Yet that didn’t dampen my excitement. Like Dad’s Playboys stashed under the mattress, there is a naughty feeling when visiting a country closed to most Americans. My white-collar friends can go to Tahiti, Bangkok or Phuket. They can’t come to Cuba, and it’s a thrilling feeling to be envied by folks that make much more money than me.
So as I flew into Havana, the anxiety was replaced by excitement, romance, a bit of danger…
…and women in lab coats?
More on the first days in Cuba in Part II.
NOTE: Any pictures about my Cuba trip can be seen on my Facebook page. The files are WAY too big for the blog.