Today was my moment of truth. I came back from Cuba. I went legally, but would the customs and immigration agents at the DFW airport see it that way?
I've been documenting my experiences in Cuba on my blog and I hope you'll take a look. Cuba's a real life experiment in peak oil. When the USSR collapsed, Cuba lost its oil and much of its food overnight. Society stopped functioning, Cubans lost massive amounts of weight, and babies born during that time still show signs of malnutrition. But Cuba figured it out, more or less. That's why I went there. Americans aren't allowed to go to Cuba, but we can go for research. Bush tightened the rules, and Obama loosened them. In theory, my trip was 100% legal. So today I got to take that theory out for a test drive. And quite frankly, I'm angry about it.
My big moment of truth happened when the flight from Cancun touched down in Dallas and I got off the plane. I had a few cigars hidden in my luggage, plus some chocolate as a gift for my boyfriend and some seeds for an incredibly aromatic type of basil I saw in Cuba, which I had hidden in a medicine bottle. My customs declaration form said that I had spent only $30 in Cuba (you can't spend over $187 per day or something like that) and that I had not been on any farms. It also said I didn't have any food.
I walked up to the immigration agent and told him I was there to make his day a little more interesting. "I went to Cuba," I told him. I handed him my Cuba travel affidavit. He said, "I know what that is. I don't need to see it." He wanted something else from me. He started quizzing me on why I was there. "Research," I told him. What kind? "Sustainable development and urban gardens," I said. I was trying not to say the word "agriculture" or "farm."
He was very snotty and asked why I couldn't have gone elsewhere in Latin America. Why did I have to pick Cuba, the one place I wasn't supposed to go? Jesus, is this really the land of the free I live in? I went to Cuba legally. The law doesn't say it has to be a last resort. But the truth is that it was so important to go to Cuba precisely because U.S. policy is so unfair to them and because of the blockade and travel ban and all that. If the U.S. didn't have its foot in Cuba's neck, Cuba would have never experienced its premature peak oil and it would have never become a worldwide leader in sustainable development. I didn't want to say that to this guy though. I didn't think he'd like to hear it.
"Was I involved in any political activity in Cuba?" he asked. Good god, no. But it made me angry that he asked. I lived in China for two months. China's also Communist and it's quite a bit more authoritarian than Cuba, yet no one subjected me to such questioning when I came home. And there's no travel ban to China. If Communist countries are so threatening, why was China OK but Cuba is not?
He led me to a room with some couches to wait on and a soda vending machine. I was starving. I had gotten up at 4:30am and boarded my flight in Cancun before the hotel served breakfast. I rummaged through my bags and found what the immigration guy had wanted. A specific license number for my trip. I wasn't supposed to need that.
My trip was legal for three reasons. The license number was the third and it should have been unnecessary. First, I was there as a professional doing full time research. That alone is enough. Second, I was there for an international event that qualifies under the U.S. definition of the term. It was a conference that included more countries than just the U.S. and Cuba and it was a regular event held in a different country each year, not just Cuba. So the license number was just extra. But I found it.
When they called me up to the desk in the waiting room, I gave the man the license number. That was enough for him. He stamped something and sent me on my way. On to customs.
When I got in the customs line, I hoped my special treatment was all over. It wasn't. I told the customs agent that I had been in Cuba and he sent me into another special room, this one larger with two lines to stand in. I stood in the line the customs agent directed me to. After some waiting, a man called me up to his desk.
He ran me through all of the questions once again and then went through my bags. He found the cigars and destroyed them. I hadn't bought them - they were free. I figured it was worth a try to bring them home. Maybe because I hadn't actually "purchased" tobacco in Cuba it would be fine, but it was not. And again, it pissed me off. Why are some products OK to bring home but others aren't? Particularly when I was in Cuba legally? What I really wanted to bring home was a bottle of Cubay rum (the current brand name of the original Bacardi). I didn't dare because I didn't want it thrown out.
That man never found my seeds. I put them into a prescription drug bottle and my disguise worked. They were in the third drug bottle he picked up, so he'd already asked about my prescriptions and I'd already explained that I had many prescriptions for migraines. He picked up the box of chocolates I was bringing back for my boyfriend and I gasped, afraid he'd throw them away. I was going to ask if I could at least eat them instead of throwing them in the trash, but he put them down, unconcerned about them.
As he was going through my stuff, he asked if I brought back anything political. I hadn't. Cuba has a highly literate population and they sell books about their leaders and their history everywhere. It might have been interesting to bring home a book or two about it, to find out how Cubans view their own history (which no doubt differs from how we see it). I'm certainly no communist. I had ample time while in Cuba to compare their system to ours, and I don't think I'd trade places with a Cuban... not even for the free education and health care. Although, again, if America wasn't imposing this cruel blockade on the Cuban people, life in Cuba under the Communist regime might be a whole lot nicer.
Still, the search through my bags for political materials bothered me. They didn't do that when I came home from China. And what's it to them if I have some non-mainstream political beliefs? I thought the era of McCarthyism was long over. There's no Communist threat in America, even if some U.S. citizens subscribe to Communist political beliefs. No one complains that people buy books by Glenn Beck or watch his show or agree with his beliefs, and I would argue that Glenn Beck is far more destructive and dangerous to America than Fidel Castro these days.
All in all, the whole thing just pissed me off. America has punished an entire island of people for decades now, and the Cold War is over. The Cuban "Special Period" of starvation and societal upheaval that occurred when the U.S.S.R. fell was entirely unnecessary. Were it not for U.S. policy, there would not be children walking around Cuba today whose growth was permanently stunted because of malnourishment in the womb and in their early years of childhood. America's policy towards Cuba is truly criminal, and there's no purpose behind it other than inertia and political posturing. It's time to end our unjustified and cruel blockade on Cuba.