Okay, I thought I had a direct flight back to Minneapolis. I was mistaken. So last Friday my re-entry into the States after a weeklong educational research trip to Cuba happened deep in the heart of Texas.
No problemo I thought. Dallas/Forth Worth customs officials see thousands of travelers entering the US from third world countries to the south. With that kind of volume an elementary school teacher returning from Cuba couldn’t cause much of a stir. Mistaken again.
I know, I know. The current climate is charged. Everyone has heard about the Cuban national baseball team and recent Olympic champions now banned by a former ball club owner and governor of Texas from participating in the US hosted World Baseball Classic coming up in March. But who was I? Nadie. No one.
I’m not small peanuts. I did not sail through. Pulled aside, I was tersely directed to Room Number 2, and instructed to drag my luggage and carry-on bag along a red arrow on the floor. My heart raced a little. I pictured a bare light bulb and a tiny room, but arrived to find the Olympic sized customs area empty-- except for a Taiwanese couple being seriously questioned next to an open suitcase that apparently contained a few small jars of home-canned meats. The half dozen officials standing around watching this drama seemed positively delighted to see me pull up.
A kindly agent with a Latino last name greeted me warmly, asking if I'd been in Cancun. Curve ball. If I simply said yes I would then omit that I'd also visited an apparently loathsome nation ruled by a bearded, cigar smoking, baseball-loving revolutionary. Lying to a customs agent is an automatic felony. I wasn’t going for it.
“Yes,” I said, and then added, "and I’ve also been in Cuba." Just how naïve did I look? There was a reason I wasn’t headed back to recheck my bags with Sun Country. I was standing at his counter with a big red G (gotcha?) marked on my customs declaration. He knew why, and so did I.
“Well, I'm not going to try to beat around the bush. (Bad pun I’m thinking.) You were pulled over because you went to Cuba. Why did you go to Cuba?"
I said that I was there to do research. He asked my profession. I answered that I was a language arts teacher, and I was interested in Cuba because it had an impressive history of eradicating illiteracy and was now devoting its scarce resources so that every school in the country had qualified teachers of the arts. He asked, "How were the schools? I hear they're really hands-on."
I thought for a minute about what I wanted to say and then, I admit, about what I thought he might want to hear. Then I told him that I found the whole education system very impressive.
I explained that Cuba has no racial or economic achievement gap and that they score among the top countries in the world in math and reading. I offered that this might be because they provide every Cuban child free preschool education, and of course, unlike any other third world nation I could think of (and some first world nations I wouldn’t even mention) they’ve had nearly 100% literacy in their nation since 1961.
I even let it slip out that they assiduously maintain low class sizes—20 in the elementary, 15 in the secondary grades—and are training thousands of new art and music teachers to meet their goals. They also give universal access and free tuition to all citizens for university level education. “I think they’ve actually achieved “No Child Left Behind,” I added. He seemed a little surprised by the last bit. "How many days were you there?" he asked.
Then he probed in his good-cop way, "How did you like Cuba?
Better weather than in Minnesota!” he winked. “But isn’t it extremely poor?"
I said yes, from what I'd observed, the people were suffering greatly from the 42-year old US embargo, especially during the last 15 years since the Soviet block dissolved. I agreed that they had hardly any consumer goods and some foods were rationed, but I was impressed that they ate well nonetheless and were very healthy. “In Cuba they have a lower infant mortality rate and a longer life span than in the US.” I elaborated. “You know, they have free health care and great medical schools,” I added, but he didn’t pick up on the last things I’d said. He might have been trying to imagine a place with few consumer goods.
"That's too bad," he said. "That will get better some day soon." I didn't reply and there was a long pause. I said, "Well, I suppose all things change eventually." I was trying not to shudder as I pictured a Cuban version of Disney World.
He continued asking questions with his seemingly friendly demeanor.
"Were you teaching there?"
"No, I was visiting schools and meeting with teachers and education officials. Would you like to see my itinerary?" He said yes, so I gave it to him.
"Were you traveling alone?”
"No. I was traveling with a tour group sponsored by an organization called Global Exchange. They’re out of San Francisco. There were ten of us—all US teachers and professors."
"Do you have a license?"
“I have a teaching license.”
He laughed. I knew what he’d meant, and that wasn’t it.
Ever since the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1963, Americans have had to be licensed to travel to Cuba. According to our State Department, the basic goal of this policy is to isolate the Cuban government financially and deprive it of US dollars. Unauthorized travelers risk penalties for violating the sanctions that range up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in individual fines.
I suddenly felt a pit in my stomach. I did not have the specific license he was looking for, but I decided that I should stay confident. "I have a travel affidavit,” I explained. “It verifies that I’ve traveled legally under the US general license for travel to Cuba. Would you like to see that?" Yes he would.
He looked it over while maintaining his smile. "I've never seen this before. Where is the license number? I'm going to have to call someone over who has more experience with this sort of thing." He called over another agent, this one Anglo.
The second man took the travel affidavit and read it. He began to question me, not aggressively, but with his eyebrows and mouth held in a manner one might call severe.
"Were you invited there by the Cuban government?"
"No, I wasn't. "
"Were you sent by a university to do research?"
"No, I'm a public school teacher on sabbatical and this is an element of my sabbatical project."
"Well, you don't qualify under this license. You have to be sent by a University or be invited. "
I suggested that I had worried about that very thing. That was why I had solicited an opinion from my school district’s attorney. She felt that I qualified under the general license because I was traveling to Cuba for educational research. I handed him a copy of the letter from the attorney. He looked that over for a few minutes.
“This doesn't hold any legal weight. It's worthless. It's just this attorney's opinion. That wouldn't stand up in court. And, why didn't Global Exchange put their license number on this travel affidavit?" he asked.
I told him that my understanding was that the US Treasury Department last year restricted travel to Cuba even more severely, even for Cuban Americans who want to visit their families, and that our government no longer licensed groups like Global Exchange to lead study delegations into Cuba unless the group fit under the few categories covered by the general license. I fit category number five, I explained. Full time educator doing educational research.
It hit him. Now he remembered Global Exchange. They were that group, he opined, that had been taking hundreds of people who claimed they were teachers down to Cuba just so they could buy Cuban cigars, drink Havana Club rum, watch baseball and party.
"We saw a lot of them go through Dallas who traveled with that outfit, but we haven't seen any for a long time. They must have abused their license because now they’ve lost it," he added. " All these groups want to do is get your money. Sure, you'll probably give a little talk when you get back or write a report, but that's not what the government means in this general license."
I thought about how much I should say. I have a friend who recently visited Cuba with Pastors for Peace, a religious organization that brought in over 140 tons of humanitarian aid, most of it medical supplies and medicines unavailable to Cubans because of the US embargo. My friend, like all of the people on that trip, has received a letter from the US Office of Foreign Asset Control announcing that he stands to face fines and civil charges.
I’m a chicken, I confess. I had wanted to travel legally, and I knew it was nigh onto impossible, given the Bush brothers’ election-timed promises to Cuban-Floridians to try harder this term to strangle Cuba and topple Fidel. Why spend energy even trying? The general license was my sucker ball.
But all I said was that Global Exchange had connected me to the Cuban education officials and teachers that I needed to meet with. Throughout three provinces, during meetings that had lasted from early morning into the evening each day, I had visited with teachers, professors who prepare teachers, pedagogical experts in the ministry of education, principals, special educators, artists, school social workers and community youth workers. I ended by saying that I felt that the experience had been extremely professional.
He repeated himself. I needed to consult with the State Department directly or something could happen to my passport. After all, I was traveling in a Communist Country with a Terrible Dictatorship. I could also get in trouble or even get fined, he added.
Yes, I agreed. I knew that to be true. On a record somewhere, I had probably earned a strike or two against me.
I debated whether I should say more.
I swung. I told the agent that I knew that some humanitarians travel to Cuba without a license to protest the idea that we Americans, who are supposedly free, need to have permission to travel and to behave humanely. I hadn’t gone with one of them. “I point out to you, sir, that I have chosen to follow what I understood to be the rules. I’ve made the effort to show that I am qualified under the general license. Perhaps there is a gray area in interpreting it?” Yes, a gray area, he could buy that. I was not out yet.
"You've already gone. We can't really do anything about it now. We're not going to keep you here and browbeat you. What are we going to do? Did you buy anything there? Do you have any Cuban cigars?"
He was the third customs agent that day to ask about cigars. I had none. I’d declared two music CDs, legal acquisitions for the educational traveler. Oh, and I also bought a tee shirt that said CUBA, ¡ Si! “If that is a problem, sir, I can turn it over to you.” Was he disappointed that I had no cigars?
No one opened my suitcase. All this time the "good cop" agent kept looking over the itinerary but saying nothing. We seemed to be going through a routine designed to educate me, a person they perceived to be polite but innocently dumb. They’d sized me up: an elementary school teacher nearing retirement, obviously earnest. They didn't want to give me too hard a time.
But they sure wanted me to know that I had better follow the rules of the American government’s game when it came to traveling to a communist dictatorship—but only some communist countries--not Viet Nam, not Laos, not China—and only some dictatorships--not Myanmar, not Libya, not Iran. This inning had been about that demonic little next-door neighbor that gets excluded and isolated, but won't give up or cry---that willful collective of cigar smoke and baseball. Oh my god, I’d gone to Cuba!
*Global Exchange is a membership-based international human rights organization that describes its mission as promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Since its founding in 1988, it has lead international tours designed to increase public awareness of root causes of injustice while building humane partnerships and mobilizing for change.
Mary Jo Thompson has been the project manager of the ARTFUL TEACHING AND LEARNING program, a joint project of the Minneapolis Public Schools and the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a state agency, since 2001. In addition to being a published poet and essayist, Mary Jo Thompson has been a public school teacher for 32 years. Email to: