Going through airport security on the way to Cuba

July 12, 2011

Made it to Havana after all, on a full but fleet Aeromexico flight that landed in Cuba well after one in the morning. Cubana de Aviación is back on my shitlist, its agent in Havana insisting the airport people had to change my ticket, the airport people throwing their hands in the air, then pointing to the computer screen that showed access denied.

Landing at José Martí airport in and of itself does not actually end the anxiety of travel to Cuba. In some ways, this is where it reaches its apogee.

You see, Cuban authorities do not see all travelers equally. If you’re American or some other foreigner, you will breeze right through the document check point.

But it’s entirely possible that your baggage will be checked down to its minutiae. Two summers ago, when I first brought my wife here, the customs agent took a sealed bag of Bic pens, opened it, then proceeded to unscrew every single pen individually. An eternity later, she was allowed out on the streets once the pens were cleared of all possible wrongdoing.

Cubans, whether local or diasporic, don’t get off quite so easily. And Cubans who live in the U.S., even those like me, who are recognized as Cuban citizens by the island government, are put in a special category where we’re citizens but not quite.

Part of the order of business at Cuban customs is that you’re photographed. The camera hovers above the custom officer’s cubicle, immobile, and you have to find your way into its frame. I’m pretty average height, but this time the officer was having trouble. After several tries, I asked her if she’d finally gotten it.

“Yeah,” she said, “though your mouth was open because you’re chewing that gum.”

She shook her head unhappily. It’s true that I’d popped a Dentyne in my mouth on landing.

“Do you have health insurance?” she asked.

“Well, I’m Cuban, I shouldn’t need insurance,” I said.

“Go over there and buy health insurance,” she said, pointing to a lonely booth at the end of the room.

At the booth, a sign indicated two options, A and B, with A the cheaper. “Option A,” I said to the dour-faced man manning the operation.

He glanced at my Cuban passport. “You can only have Option B.”

“Then why are there options at all?”

“Cuban-Americans only get Option B.”

“Listen,” I said, “I have a question for you. Who has to get this insurance?”

“Everybody.”

But since our plane had landed, maybe four people had been made to dish out the extra $35 for health insurance. “Really?” I asked. “Cuz it seems that the vast number of people flew right by here without buying anything.”

“It’s random,” he said. “They can’t send the whole planeload over here, so they pick and choose.”

“Based on what?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes I guess it’s just to fuck with people,” he said.

That made more sense. I spit out my gum before trekking back to the checkpoint, where the woman I’d been processed by ordered me to the last cubicle, number 22, to finalize my entry.

After that, I was sent out to an X-ray machine for my backpack, just like at U.S. airports, and a body check with a metal wand. Then there was the medical checkpoint, a breeze after I filled out my form.

Finally, I got my luggage and made my way around the throngs, the dozens of security guards and drug-sniffing Spaniels (yup …), to the weighing area.

There was a time when customs agents would go through the bags of returning Cubans, especially those who live abroad, and try to determine what we were bringing as gifts. The idea was to tax us on that. At some point, they figured out it was absurdly time consuming, since everybody claimed all 355 bras they were bringing were for personal use.

Now the customs agents just weigh our luggage and determine our tax based on weight. It’s not totally straightforward – the machine, which looks like something out of a 1950s sci-fi flick -- has a screen with a roulette list of items that suggests there’s probably a varying rate. The items include things like refrigerators, washer and dryer, meat grinder, auto axel … pretty much anything you can’t get domestically.

I call this the Cuban tax, cuz only Cubans pay it. My luggage was relatively light this time, so I got off paying $32 CUC, or Cuban convertible pesos. One of the island’s two currencies, it’s worthless internationally and pegged on the island at about 1.4 to the dollar. So my fee was actually more like $36 USD. Except that, of course, there’s a currency conversion fee, and in Cuba, it’s anywhere from 15 to 20 percent to trade dollars for CUCS.

I think at the end of the day, I paid about $40, which isn’t horrible. But just imagine what a Cuban bringing in a refrigerator might pay.

I really thought I was almost through, little receipt in hand, when I was asked what I had in my backpack – the same backpack that had already been X-rayed.

“A laptop.”

“Did you register it?”

“Where was I supposed to register it?” I’d never registered a laptop, ever, in scores of travel to Cuba in more than 15 years.

“Back with the X-ray people. Didn’t they see it?”

Back I went. But over by the X-rays, no one knew what to do. Twenty minutes later, someone had found a form with about eight names on it.

“Who has to register their laptops?” I asked.

The guy shrugged. “I have no idea. I just register who they tell me to register.” I looked at the list: every single name was in Spanish.

I made my way back, past the weighing station, to the exit, with my computer registration form and my gift tax receipt.

“What’s in your backpack?” asked the guard.

“A laptop,” I said. “It’s registered.”

“What’s this?” She was pointing at my Kindle.

“It’s an electronic book,” I said.

“You mean another computer? You have to register that too.”

“No, no, it’s just a reader.”

“But it’s a computer, isn’t it? I don’t know if you can bring in two computers.”

“Look, it’s a computer in the same way my IPod or my phone is a computer. But it only functions to read.” (Sure, I can play Scrabble on it, but why increase the confusion?)

“Take it out,” she ordered. “What are the keys for?”

“To look up words in the dictionary.”

She looked at me skeptically. “I’m going to find out what that thing really is,” she said. But even as she made her threat, she waved me through.

It was now about 3 a.m. in Havana.