Traveling to Cuba, as a Cuban

July 8, 2011

If things had gone according to plan, I’d be writing this from Havana, the first of what I hoped – and maybe still hope, I’m not sure now – would be a brief series of blogs from the city in which I was born.

But instead I’m writing from a dreary non-beach hotel in Cancun, Mexico, listening to the rain come down like a machine gun on the roof. The streets are inundated from the avalanche of water, a fact I discovered on my little jaunt downtown to the Cuban consulate.

See, supposedly, as a Cuban citizen with a duly recognized Cuban passport, a trip to Cuba shouldn’t be much of a trial. Sure, Cubans – like most Latin Americans – love a good bureaucracy, but between my own resigned experience and most of the bureaucrats’ own growing experience, it’s been getting better.

Normally, I travel to Cuba via Jamaica, on what I now think of as a great airline, Air Jamaica. I recall they used to have a champagne breakfast en route to Havana. But I digress … the poor suckers went bankrupt and got reorganized and, in the process, friends recommended the Cuba Network. It’s basically a German travel agent that administers business for Cubana de Aviación, the Cuban national airline.

Normally, I try to avoid Cubana. Not very supportive, I know, but I once flew Havana to Santiago on Cubana on an old Soviet-era transport that scared the devil out of me. Besides the fact that the flies buzzing around seemed to defy the laws governing air pressure, the seats were worn down to their metal skeletons, and the noise that came from the engines seemed to suggest an emergency landing … well, almost any minute. My fear’s not rational, but that’s the way it is. It's not just me though: In Cuba, the airline is actually referred to as "La Milagrosa," the miraculous one.

Anyway, when I finally emerged out of customs in Cancun yesterday – a mind numbing 2 hours after arrival because the Mexican customs computers were down off and on – I made my way over to the Cubana counter where I was promptly informed I didn’t have the proper documentation.

You may wonder what that is. See, in most countries, citizens can breeze in and out with a passport. And I have that. In fact, it’s good until March 12 of next year. I also have a nifty little sticker on my Cuban passport called the “rehabilatación,” a unique Cuban permit that allows certain citizens to go in and out of the island without having to ask permission each time.

Yeah, Cubans need to ask permission of Cuba to both come and go from their own country. Not just me or other Cubans living abroad. Everybody. If you don’t get the permit as a rehabilitación, you have to get an individual travel waiver each and every time you travel, in and out of Cuba. (It’s like getting a visa to your own country as well as to the country you’re going to.)

But there’s one other little thing, called a “prórroga.” If you look it up, it means deferment or some such thing. You may wonder what, exactly, is being deferred. But your passport, which is good for 6 years, and your rehabilitación, which runs concurrently, are worthless without a prórroga, which is only good for two years at a time.

Needless to say, the passport has a fee, the rehabilitación has a separate fee, and the prórroga has a separate fee. Never mind that they all work together.

So when I arrived yesterday, all was good except my prórroga but I wasn’t worried. I’d travelled through Jamaica dozens of times with the same situation and simply gotten my prórroga renewed in Cuba. No such luck here.

After various attempts to get on the plane via a variety of exemptions (the consulate here was closed already), I ended up staying the night in Cancun. First order of business had been to change my flight via email, since every single Cubana rep at the airport vanished the minute my flight took off.

This morning, it looked pretty good. The rep in Havana dealt with the guy in Germany and emailed that all was settled. I was then at the consulate, enduring a cretin from Italy who kept pointing at the portrait of José Martí and asking me if that was Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the revolution’s early heroes, then asking if the guy next to Fidel in another picture was Camilo (it was Che), and also, by the way, Cuban women … they’re really something, aren’t they?

Finally, I paid $1,400 Mexican pesos for the prórroga which, as it turns out, is retroactive, so only good until March 12. Meaning that, if this trip doesn’t work out, it’ll have been a complete waste of time and money.

What happened? Well, while I was dealing with the Italian, an email came in from Havana. The Cubana girl in Havana said someone had cancelled my flight yesterday, including my return. And that I needed to confirm that I wanted to fly today. I emailed back that, yes, that was the plan. Two seconds later, she wrote that it didn’t matter because they couldn’t release a flight to without a flight back from Cuba. Oh, and Cubana here in Cancun is closed. It should be open, yes, but it’s not.

I’m headed to the airport now to see what happens. I may write again from Havana on Monday, if I’m lucky, or maybe back from Chicago. I’ll let you know.