I spot the security agent out of the corner of my eye as I slip into the back of the snaking immigration line at Rancho Boyeros Airport, the pre-revolutionary name for Cuba’s Jose Martí Airport. He is lean with a thin mustache, wears a pressed guayabera and resembles a younger version of my 84-year-old dad back in Florida. He eyes me from his perch against the back wall of the hangar-like building. I pretend not to notice when he leaps toward me across the beige linoleum like a feline after a jutía.
“Qué haces aquí?” he barks, leaning toward me so that his sculpted nose almost touches mine. Why are you here?
I’ve just flown into Havana from El Paso with my Costa Rican born husband, David, after a one-night layover in Cancun. I am exhausted, hungry and the heel of my right foot throbs from a gash inflicted the night before during a hasty improvised pedicure.
“Why are you here?” he barks. I am taken aback by his urgent tone, the implication in his voice: I do not belong here.
On this my sixth trip to Cuba over the last 30 years, I come to visit family, an aunt on my father’s side and a much-loved cousin on my mother’s. A teenager when I left Cuba with my parents when I was four, Mirta is now in her mid-seventies and lives with her son, his wife and three daughters in the family home in a farming village south of Havana. David and I also plan to do research for books we are writing — mine is a memoir and his a novel about Central America. Although past trips to my homeland have been motivated by journalistic assignments and a desire to see family, I have private reasons for the repeat returns. One is a desire to fulfill an un kept deathbed promise to Simon, my maternal grandfather; another is to discover who assaulted me as I slept in a bedroom of my grandparent’s house. Both incidents occurred a few weeks before our voluntary exile to Florida and are embedded in my psyche. Although I want to resolve these issues, a deeper need is to let go of Cuba. My birthplace had become a haunting. All are curses I want to shed. So far, no luck.
I search for David but he is halfway down another snaking line; his eyes, beneath his baseball cap, focused like a fast-moving train on getting to the agent checking passports. I think about waving, calling out, but he is moving rapidly away from where I’ve been stopped in my Teva sandals by Seguridad Cubana, Cuban Security. The last thing I want is a scene in this waiting room to my place of origin.
I swallow hard and point at the rolling Samsonite briefcase at my feet, stuffed with my Mac laptop, pens and pencils, paperclips, a cheap video recorder, a Canon digital camera, notebooks and a white plastic ring binder filled with more than 30 pages of official U.S. documents, including a license from the U.S. Treasury Department and a detailed itinerary of the places I plan to visit. Anticipating problems, I’ve arrived prepared to make my case for entry, prepared to overcome the obstacles I know either government can use to block permission to travel, and to assuage what David calls my lifelong Cuban paranoia that likes to concoct conspiracies.
But this abrupt stop at paradise’s door is unnerving and reminds me of the pigeons that fly into what they perceive as an open window in my adobe house but smash into glass instead, spinning to the ground with a broken neck. This impediment is temporary; I say to myself like a mantra.
“I’m here to do research,” I say, in as steady a voice as I can manage. The man’s bushy eyebrows quiver above his coffee-colored eyes. His dark mustache also quivers. Mistake, I realize: I’ve used the Spanish verb for research, investigar, and a dangerous notion in a state-controlled Communist country.
“What are you investigating?” he demands, his eyes boring into mine like nails.
“Jose Martí,” I say, glancing at my red toes on the beige terrazzo floor. The moment I pronounce the name of Cuba’s founding father, I feel a sharp stab in my right heel and suddenly last night’s dream flashes through my mind – I’m hooked like a fish, the fishhook yanking painfully in my womb. I need to cut it out.
Mistake, I realize. You don’t go to Cuba to investigate the man the Communists consider their foremost revolutionary hero, the poet who charged into death on a white stallion in the name of liberty as Spanish guns cut him down.
“What I mean is I’m working on a novel about Martí,” I stammer.
This is a half-truth; I am primarily collecting information for the memoir and doing research about Martí’s time in Tampa for a historical novel.
“El proser,” he says, and, after hearing the part about the novel, grows silent. There are deep furrows on his brow, and I can tell he is trying to decide what to do with this blue-eyed gringa who speaks Spanish like a native and clutches a U.S. passport like a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Level with him, I think, and launch into a detailed explanation of my background and motivation.
“I was born in Cuba in 1952, left with my parents in 1957; dad was a poor guajiro—this to differentiate us from the once-rich property owners who fled after Castro came to power—we still have family on the island, I teach at a university in Texas and am researching a book,” I say, stopping to catch my breath.
“Where’s your Cuban passport?” he growls.
“No tengo. I don’t have one.”
On two previous trips, under different travel rules, I’ve had to enter the country with a passport issued by the Cuban Interests Section, the island’s quasi-official diplomatic office housed at the time in the Swiss Embassy building in Washington, D.C. This time, the U.S. travel operator that booked our trip said all I needed was a travel license from the U.S. government, a detailed itinerary of where I planned to go. And my American passport.
“Follow me,” the security man orders and I hobble behind him, my hope of entry deflating like a birthday balloon after a party.
“Coño” is the Cuban expletive that combines all frustrations into one huge mother of all curses. I curse it under my breath like a prayer and follow him to a roped off area, where several men and women in beige uniforms, huddle in a circle like birds pecking at worms in dirt.
After he disappears somewhere, one of the women edges toward me and asks—again—why I am here, what I am writing about, what places I plan to visit? I fumble with the zipper of my briefcase, reach inside and retrieve the white binder with my dated and stamped U.S. travel license, a letter signed by my graduate advisor at the university, and a detailed itinerary that includes the Cuban National Library, the house where Martí was born in la Vieja Habana, the Palace of the Revolution and the famously ornate Colón Cemetery in the city center. She seems uninterested as I flip through the pages and say, “This is why I am here.”
By this time David, a Costa Rican-born U.S. citizen, has breezed through the immigration and customs lines and has retrieved his rolling red suitcase. He approaches the cordoned area where I am held hostage.
“She’s my wife,” he says, pointing at me.
One of the other women lifts the rope so he can join me inside the circle.
“What’s going on?” David whispers. When I explain, he says, “Don’t lose your temper,” and touches my elbow. He’s seen me tangle with Mexican Customs agents over a permit to drive my car into the interior of the country, and argue nose-to-nose with a burly El Paso tow-truck driver as he tried to strap chains on the tires of my Toyota. The car wasn’t towed because I jumped inside and drove off the chains, and after a short wait at the Mexican Custom’s office in Juarez, I got the travel permit. In both cases it could have gone the other way. This time, I agree, best to stay calm.
Fifteen minutes later, a distinguished gray-haired man in his fifties wearing a dark jacket strides toward us down a long corridor.
“How much cash have you brought?”
Two thousand dollars U.S.
“Do you have credit cards?”
Visa and American Express.
I know they’re useless in Cuba but I’ve brought them for our stopover in Cancun.
“What’s the name of the hotel where you will be staying?”
Hotel Vedado in Central Havana.
“What are the names and addresses of your family members in Cuba?”
I give him the name of my cousin Mirta and her address in Guira de Melena, the house where my mother was raised, my grandfather and grandmother died, and where Mirta’s mother, my tia Zoraida, lived her entire married life until she died in a child-sized bed in her 80’s wearing a pair of US-made sneakers my mother sent her from Tampa.
Mirta now shares the tiny house with her remaining twin son, her son’s wife and their three young daughters. The other twin died in a refrigeration plant explosion at age 18, about to be married to his hometown sweetheart. On a previous visit, I noticed a primitive painting of him that hangs on the wall of the front bedroom.
“Teléfono?” the man inquires.
I explain that my cousin does not own a telephone. I reach her by calling a neighbor who lives a few blocks away, who then sends her son to let Mirta know she has a llamada, a call, from the U.S.
Some Cubans with phones make a little extra money by charging neighbors for making and receiving phone calls. This kind neighbor, I know, doesn’t charge Mirta.
After answering a few more of his questions and, again, showing him the contents of my binder, he disappears down the cavernous corridor, leaving me alone because the others have disappeared and David waits on a nearby bench.
It’s almost midnight, two hours since my injured foot touched Cuban soil, and I am mentally preparing for the next flight back to Cancun.
Suddenly, a third man in a dark jacket approaches the metal bench where I have joined David. The man nods, extends his right hand and shakes mine.
“You are approved!” he crows.
“Gracias,” I mutter and leap to my feet. I grab the handle of my briefcase, preparing to lunge toward the sliding glass doors twenty feet away that lead to the now deserted terminal and out a second set of glass doors that open out into the moist, inky August night. I can smell the ocean.
“Wait,” the man calls out sharply. “You can’t take the laptop.”
“Por qué?” Why?
“Cubans aren’t allowed to have computers.”
David motions that he wants to talk privately so we step into a nearby corner.
“Don’t even think about it,” I say anticipating what he is about to say. I will not leave my university-issued computer with Cuban State Security. As we discuss what to do, a small-boned woman with a lined face and mussed hair approaches. I’d noticed her in the shadows of the terminal, watching my interrogation, chin on a broom handle, straining to hear my conversation with the security agents.
Head lowered, she glides toward us making sweeping motions with her broom.
“Give it to him,” she whispers, pointing to David. “Foreigners can have computers.”
I hand David my laptop and grab his hand. “It’s his,” I say to the security man, and we stroll like honeymooners through the sliding doors into the steamy Havana night. Home again.
A few days later at a pizza restaurant some blocks away from our hotel in the once posh, now shabby Vedado district I relate the airport interrogation to our friend Roberto, a balding middle-aged man with a high-level position at a government-run cultural institute. His wife is in charge of a government education department. Roberto looks uneasy as I explain that my travel license from the U.S. allows university professors, regardless of nationality, to travel to Cuba to do research. The license is part of President George Bush’s easing of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens.
Our faces are drenched in sweat after a lazy hour inside the smoky restaurant. In pre revolutionary times, El Vedado bustled with commerce, banks, embassies, and elegant Colonial mansions. Now, when we stroll the torn-up sidewalks, strangers point up and caution us to watch out for falling chunks from crumbling balconies. We dodge sidewalk potholes the size of bowling balls. During walks on these streets to the Havana Libre hotel, operated as a casino by the mafia in the 1950’s but now nicely remodeled for foreign tourists and businessmen, and to the well known Copelia for scoops of vanilla ice-cream, we learn that some local vendors accept Cuban pesos–the nearly worthless currency for locals–while merchants that cater to tourists deal only in Cuban Convertible Pesos, each worth about 70 cents on the dollar.
As I retell the drama of the airport logjam, Roberto plucks a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wipes his shiny forehead. He crosses and uncrosses his legs. He clears his throat.
“You needed a formal letter of invitation from a Cuban government organization,” he says as he leans toward me across the Formica table with a wide grin.
“Oh.” The thought never crossed my mind.
“Then how come they let me in?”
“They let you in because were born here and still have family on the island,” he guffawed.
I chuckle, but don’t say the thought that has crossed my mind: Cuba loves me; she loves me not. It just depends.
Zita Arocha: "I am a bilingual journalist and professor of multimedia journalism at the University of Texas El Paso. My previous reporting experience includes stints at The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and two now shuttered afternoon dailies in Florida. An inductee into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which I directed as executive director for four years in the 1990's. I have also won several writing awards. I currently live in Las Cruces, New Mexico with my husband and three dogs."