On September 20, President Raul Castro dropped in unannounced to see a family member who had invited me and other American friends to visit. Dressed in a white guayavera shirt and neatly pressed beige trousers, his black shoes highly polished, Raul kissed and hugged his relatives, bumped fists with a couple of the Americans and then offered observations on US-Cuba policy.
He stated his satisfaction with the course of on-going bilateral talks related to migration and renewing direct mail flights between the two countries and reiterated his willingness to discuss with the United States any theme – “the embargo, the future of the US base at Guantanamo Bay or human rights, as long as the discussions take place on an equal footing and without threat to Cuban sovereignty.”
Then he talked about “excellent relations” between US and Cuban military commands on either side of the line that separates Guantanamo Base from Cuban territory. Since 1994, Raul said, “monthly meetings restricted to base security issues” had brought about improved relations and “relieved tensions.”
The US “leased” the base in 1903 for “coaling and naval purposes only.” Since the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro and now his brother have refused to cash the US rent checks (less than $10,000 a year) and have demanded the return of that piece of Cuban territory. Cuba, the supposed landlord, could eject its tenant if it wanted to risk war.
“In the past US troops harassed our troops. They would shoot at them, and killed one of them. They would throw rocks and even moon them from their side of the fence. The current meetings are filmed and recorded,” he said.
“There’s one more thing we’ve recently agreed on,” he said. “The US requested the right to fly over Cuban territory from their Guantanamo base when needing to transport a severely ill patient to a US hospital. We agreed to allow this on a case by case basis. Thus far, we’ve agreed to every request. There have been several.” By allowing these over-flights, patients arrived sooner in US hospitals. Otherwise, the planes’ route would take them east and then north through the Windward Passage before heading west to US territory. The agreement, he laughed, had to be signed by minor officials at airports in Cuba and Miami, “which indicates the level of our relationship.”
Was this agreement the act of reciprocity Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested after President Obama earlier this year lifted travel restrictions and remittance limits imposed by Bush on Cuban Americans?
It is hard to think of what else Cuba could offer. Raul could swear that Cuba would no longer punch the United States in the fist with its face, or offer to lift the embargo or remove Cuba’s military base from US soil. But hey, I’m a realist! I felt optimistic.
Two days later, on September 22, a US Customs official in Miami with a name plate “Marti” – no relationship to Cuba’s Founding Father he assured me – placed my passport in a blue folder. He had asked and I told him I had traveled to Cuba (also written on my customs and immigration declaration). He consulted his computer and handed the folder to another official.
Some 50 yards later, another official sat at a desk facing a short line of nervous passengers. He stared into his computer and shouted a last name to the man facing him, followed by a first name as if he were a drill sergeant humiliating a recruit. After five minutes, he screamed my name, asked if I worked for the government and what was I doing in Cuba.
“Working on a TV film.”
“Go with him.” He handed yet another official my passport. We walked.
“So what’s this about?”
“How would you describe US-Cuba relations?” he sneered.
“Maybe getting a tad better, but still tense.”
“For how long has it been that way?”
“50 plus years.”
“So you know what it’s about!”
After waiting 40 more minutes in a glass room, a young woman agent, Dalrymple, quizzed me.
“What did you do in Cuba?” She examined my camera, microphone and batteries, and ascertained I didn’t have rum or cigars.
“Have a nice day.”
I left US Customs and my day indeed became nicer. Obama promised change, but didn’t mention Cuba. Perhaps next year, he could inform Customs and Immigration in Miami, still technically part of the United States, they could stop hassling professionals who visit the island under a general license. One friend assured me Obama would challenge the right wing Cuban exiles’ dominion. After all lifting the embargo should be easy after he lifted the European “Missile Shield.”