2003 Cuba trip

8th February 2003, Miami 4:00 a.m.: Miami Police break down door to my hotel room. We awake at 3:30, pack our gear, and prepare to head out for the airport; however, the deadbolt on the door will not disengage from inside. Neither can the manager open it from outside. So, with tremendous clamour, an officer of the law makes entry.

Miami Airport: US Citizens with tourist visas must pass through a third country to enter Cuba, my group carries Religious visas (with two Canadians as tourists). The remainder of the pasengers are either journalists, academics, or people with family in Cuba. The families are checking everything from televisions to windshields and automotive mufflers. A man in front of us pays almost $2000 in excess baggage fees. The terminal we fly out of is off by itself, the marquee facing the concourse reads no destination.

Havana: Spend an hour and a half waiting in line at Cuban Customs; our visas arrive at the last minute. Our actual passports are never stamped with a Cuban visa. Instead, as a courtesy, we are given separate documents which are confiscated as we leave the country. Apparently, some other countries look askance at travelers who have been to Cuba.

The airport exit is surrounded by chainlink fence; against the fence are pressed hundreds of faces waiting for family members. We board two Mercedes vans and strike out into a countyside of sugarcane.

Ciego DeAvila, The Hotel Santiago Havana: The blind harpisicordist discovers we are a group of religious folk and proceeds to play a series of hymns at dinner. Jose, the missions director for Latin America, shifts about nervously. There are no windows in the rooms, only mechanical blinds that open to the street. The same blinds open to a shaft shared by opposing bathrooms on three floors of the building. If the people in both rooms open their slats, they can sing duets in the shower.

9th February 2003, Ciego: This morning, as I walk through the lobby to breakfast, I meet Jose politely arguing with the police. Apparently this is not a nice enough hotel for foreign guests; for the remainder of the stay we must find better lodgings.

We attend church in Ciego; it’s packed with young and old. Though the roof is falling in at places and Sunday school is held in an open courtyard, there is a certain vibrancy in their worship.

We have lunch on the rooftop of a church in Cespedes (note, every time we at at a church they slaughtered the fatted calf, we were a little uncomfortable at times realizing the economic state the people are in).

Church members prepare a large shared meal for people attending the gathering in Santiago.

Camaguey: Cuban equilivent of a mega-church (gleaming church, big sound, tropical birds in cages, fancy parsonage, etc.). Again, packed and vibrant. The Eastern Baptist convention who were hosting us, had nearly 2000 new church memberships within the last few months.

There is no apparent racism in Cuba, everybody mixes in together (the cities have no “black”, “hispanic”, or “rich” sections since the government distributes the population as it sees fit).

All our dollars go to Fidel: Despite the embargo, around $800m USD flows into Cuba each year. Americans can spend US currency freely; however, in order for a Cuban citizen to spend money in a government owned store (basically, all of the stores), they must first exchange the US dollars with a type of Peso equilivent to the dollar (only in Cuba, of course). Thus, the actual USD goes into the government coffer, while the people are given a currency that could be declaired defunct at the turn of a dime. Clever, eh?