Sunday, June 17, 2012

shouldn't be forbidden!

Loving Cuba(ns)           “Do you want to meet me in Havana?” a friend had asked.

Why not? I thought, then asked my friend how and when. Soon after, I bought my tickets.

On the return trip, although I’d been warned, U.S. Customs agents cornered and questioned me until I admitted I’d visited Cuba illegally. “We’ve got you now!” exclaimed the agent who’d coaxed my confession. Prior to that, pretending fatherly concern by assuring me that everything would be O.K., that there was nothing to worry about, that I could tell him everything, the agent convinced me that no harm would come to me.

Not wanting to miss my plane that would leave in less than twenty-five minutes, I confessed. I told him that I’d been to Havana, that I’d visited galleries and art exhibits, that I’d talked to artists about their work. Without pausing, I told him that I had asked whether the people I’d met would like to come to America. Then I stopped.

And the agent ordered me into a locked room where I was strip-searched.

Almost three years later, another agent from the Department of Treasury, Michael Newfeld, called to arrange the amount of the penalty I would have to pay. “Now it could be up to $40,000,” he told me. But, since he said I impressed him as being a sincere and nice guy, we could settle for much less.

Approximately two years later, after numerous conversations about terms of payment, he instructed me to accept an offer of a fine of $1937.50.  On April 4, 2004, I received a Confirmation of Settlement in that amount from B. S. Scott, Chief, Civil Penalties Division, Office of Foreign Assets Control.

On each monthly check, I wrote sarcastic epithets. While in Cuba, I had done nothing wrong or illegal. If anything, I had painted America in glowing terms to the Cubans I had met. Many were afraid to speak against Fidel Castro. A few, artists and writers, were so open and friendly that I hoped to see them again.

One of those has been a Net friend whose family I have known for more than a decade. When I think of the harm that America’s embargo causes, I curse the leaders of our State and Treasury Departments for allowing trade with Communist China and not allowing the same with Cuba. Surely our bureaucrats know that the currency of choice in Havana is the American dollar. By terminating the embargo, democracy would flourish there.

But I digress. Little did I know that, just before I visited Havana, a friend, Jerry Meadors, had gone there to make a movie. On Friday, in my Humanities class, he talked about the movie, Rhythm and Smoke, just before we watched it.

“Filming took sixteen days. Getting permission required us to get signatures from fifteen different ministries,” Jerry told my class.

Fascinating scenes of the Cuban culture, its music, its geography, and its cigar making captivated my class, left all of us wanting to dance and applaud. Throughout the film, Jerry and I chatted about aspects of the culture. Time and again, our commentaries added an unexpected dimension to an impeccably crafted movie.

My students were surprised. One, who had been born in Puerto Rico, interpreted parts of the movie. All left wondering why we were punishing the people of that country; Jerry’s movie captured their spirit. They were seen to be good hearted and vital, exactly the way I had seen them.

Despite an average salary (given to almost everyone) of only $25-30 a month, people there weren’t bitter. They weren’t savages, and they didn’t beg.

Their beaches were safe and beautiful; their smiles were genuine. And seeing their art in all of its various expressions, as Jerry saw too, was worth whatever the price of visiting Cuba happened to be.

                                     B. Koplen 6/18/12

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