Tag Archives: US-Cuban relations

Jose Marti Airport is the Saddest Place in the World

Airports are a place of great emotion.  Like that scene in Love Actually, there’s an overwhelming amount of love in the hellos and goodbyes.

But Jose Marti is different.

Back in the 1960s, post-Revolution, there was the famous Fish Bowl, shown in the film Memorias de Subdesarollo (Memories of Underdevelopment.)  Those leaving the island had to go through security several hours in advance, leaving them in a glass waiting room, separated from their loved ones for their last precious hours.  For many of these people, that was the last time they ever saw each other alive.

There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of that kind of goodbye, despite its cruelty.  There’s no room for the distraction of words: just smiles, tears, basic sign language and straight emotions, unpolluted by imprecise language.

Fast-forward to 2010.

There is a crush of people waiting just outside the door, all pressing forward to get a glimpse of those they came to pick up.  Neighbors who went away for a cultural or academic reason.  Novios and novias waiting for an athlete to return from yet another trip to a world they may never see themselves.  A father waiting for a daughter he sent to America or Europe when things got rough a few long decades ago.  A grandmother waiting to meet her grown American granddaughter for the first time.

The people saying bon voyage may never be able to leave themselves, may never have left before.

The people leaving may never be able to come back.  If they’re Cubans Jumping Ship, they will have to wait five years before they return.  If they’re Cubano-Americanos, they may have to wait based on American restrictions, although those have been relaxed.  If they’re tourists, students or academics, they have their own restrictions.  And for all of these people, money is a huge issue.

It’s very expensive to go to and from the island.  And you better believe Uncle Sam is paying attention to who’s making that journey and how often.

Everything about Jose Marti Airport in Havana is a reminder of what Cubans and thier loved ones don’t have: mobility, money and options.

The thing about airports is that there are return tickets.  Not always so in the world of Cuba.

I Am Not Breaking the Law

I kinda can’t believe I haven’t covered this yet, but I really should:

I am an American.

I am not in Cuba illegally.

Rules of Engagment

I don’t have an extra passport or Cuban family.  I flew directly from Miami to Havana.  Both governments know I’m here.  Northeastern University applied for the licenses for all eight students and our accompanying professors.  I have a visa, which has been renewed.  We’re required to be here for at least ten weeks because changes made by Bush jr., and we’re required by CASA’s schedule to only stay here twelve weeks.

I am allowed to bring home art, handicrafts and educational materials. No cigars, no rum. Cuba would let me–America will not.

Well, How Did I Get Here?

That being said, it’s not hard to come here illegally.  Many more Americans than you would suspect come and go.  And some just come–but that’s another story.  You can fly through Canada, Jamaica, Cancun, Haiti, the Bahamas or any other Caribbean country.  From what I’ve heard, Cuba won’t stamp your passport (my visa is removable), and illegal travelers talk of slipping some money in your passport upon return to

There are many ways to come here legally.  If you are a diplomat, an athlete, a student or a Cuban-American you can apply for specific visas.  Humanitarians and business people can also come, under certain circumstances.

The Travel Ban

There’s also the oft-overlooked fact that we are not actually banned from traveling here: we are only banned from spending money.  That, coupled with the fact that few airlines and travel agents can fly us here make it pretty impossible to show up without crossing the line.  The so-called “travel ban” is actually just an aspect of the economic embargo.  The whole ordeal falls to the US Treasury, not the Department of State.  So if you get into trouble, don’t hesitate to go to the US Special Interest Section–they promise not to report you to the treasury.

So if you’d like to come here, which I recommend doing at some point, see if you can apply for a visa legally.  It’s a little time consuming, but it means not having to worry about any problems with customs.  And if you do come illegally?

Don’t lie, don’t have any Cuban money on you, and just plead the 5th.

Familia, or Cope’s Birthday

"A fine figure of a man," as Nana would say

We’ve been talking a lot about family units and structures while here. In Cuba, due in part to the Latin family structure (la familia nuclear) and also because of the housing shortage, many extended families all live together under the same roof.  Many of the Americans here can’t relate to the concept of one gigantic family that all love and know each other.  It seems almost everyone here has a significant chunk of their family that, for whatever reason, they’ve fallen out of contact with.  And of course, not many people roll with families as big as the Murphys or Harringtons.

Personally, I can’t imagine living without my big, crazy family. In one of the movies we watched for class, Páginas del Diario de Mauricio (Pages from Maurice’s Diary), Mauricio’s daughter chooses not to come back to Cuba during the Special Period, leading him to go a decade, a marriage and a grandchild without being able to see her again.  I know the Special Period was hard, but I can’t imagine making the choice to stay away from my entire extended family indefinitely, even if there was some craziness going on in the US.

Cope has been a teacher, principal and superintendent. Teaching and education are something his mother, the original Delia Harrington, always valued, and that's been passed down to all of us.

I don’t care what your politics are, it’s sad and disgusting how commonplace long term separation is for Cuban families and their overseas relatives.

Diana, one of my roommates, was hypothesizing that part of why families are so often depicted and included in the films we watch is that there is less individualism here.  You depend on your family and community for a lot, and you’re always part of something larger; a whole; a collective.  I have always felt that the Mass community was something I belonged to, more than some greater American identity.

Being part of Harlangro (all of my great-grandparents’ descendants on my dad’s side, for the uninitiated) has always been important to me and Kev, something my parents always instilled in us.  As my mom says, you only have each other.  I can’t imagine ever fighting with Kevin (or even a cousin or uncle or something) for more than a couple days, never mind the epic, multi-generational disputes some of my fellow travelers have experienced within their own families.

Gram and Cope with whoever was born in '71. Aren't they cute?

So today I am thankful that I have a big, crazy, loving, loyal family.  I’m thankful that I can travel (almost) wherever I want and (always) come back home.  I’m thankful that we’ve lost so few.  I’m thankful that we actually enjoy spending time together, and live close enough to do it often.  Finally, I’m thankful for the good health and miracles we’ve been getting lately.  I hope that the next year brings more of the same, Cope, as we get ready to welcome another miracle, your first great-grandchild.

So happy birthday, Cope!  We love you and appreciate all that you and Gram have done to keep us all together and happy, and the unique nature of our family is evidence of how hard that is.

Gram and Cope at The Beach in Westport, Mass

Enjoy your day, I hope the weather’s as good for you as it is for me 90 miles away!

I Wish You Enough.


How to Get a Cuban Boyfriend

Since everyone seems to be interested, here’s your quick and easy guide to finding a novio cubano:

  1. Be a Westerner or Gringa.  You really don’t have to be both, one or the other will do.  Just anything non-Cuban really.
  2. Come to Cuba
  3. Walk outside

Alright, you’re pretty much done.  The Cubanos take over from there.

It’s very strange to realize how many women come here looking exclusively for a fling, for a little Latin flavor.  Meanwhile, the guys get not only a little lovin’, but some food, booze and admission to clubs out of the mix.

While I’m sure there are plenty of guys out there not trying to run this game, and we have met some of them (I think), it’s still a bizarre, nagging part of all our interactions.  Do we pay for them?  Are we being taken advantage of?  I’m referring of course to our interactions with a group of our Cuban friends.  Anyone who knows me (sorry Nana!) knows this novio cubano thing would not fly with me even if I didn’t have Brady.

But how do you say no, when they clearly have so much less, and money that means very little to us means a whole lot to them?  Where do you draw the line?  And how, as a young, independent American female, do you assert yourself within any sort of relationship so contingent on inequality?  Good luck wrangling a relationship with someone whose country yours represses, and whose monthly salary is fixed at something like 200 pesos, or about 8 USD.  When I hear women caterwauling about making more than their husbands, I will now think damn, you ain’t seen nothing yet.