Since 2003, a group of Portlanders has visited Cuba 13 times to get to know the Cuban people by helping with service tasks such as doing light construction, planting in community gardens, sewing baby clothes in workshops, and volunteering in retirement homes.
That stretch abruptly ended the day after Christmas for the Unitarian outreach group known as Cuba AyUUda
, which takes its name from the Spanish word for help (the two “U”s standing for the group's seven principles of Unitarian Universalism). That's when authorities at José Martí Airport in Havana denied the 14 seasoned travelers from Portland entry into Cuba for a nine-day visit.
Last week on Feb. 26, those travelers and trip leaders from Cuba AyUUda met at the First Unitarian Church
downtown to discuss for the first time in a public forum what went wrong in Havana two months earlier, and whether they're worried about the future of their efforts in Cuba.
(Photo above of Cuba AyUUda travelers setting up camp in Havana airport)
Members of Cuba AyUUda say they were traveling legally on a twice-renewed “religious activities” license granted by the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. That license lets Cuba AyUUda and other religious groups travel under the condition that they not spend money on any expensive tourist-related activities such as scuba diving, golfing or deep sea fishing. Given the vague restrictions about what constitutes tourist spending, even lodging can be a bit dicey, so Cuba AyUUda members end up staying in government-licensed, bed-and-breakfast-style houses.
For its Dec. 26 trip, the group also had Cuban tourist visas for the flight to Havana from Cancun. Group members believe Cuban authorities denied them entry for the first time for two main reasons.
First, international news at the time placed airport security on high alert, say trip leaders. Just a few weeks earlier, the Cuban government had accused an American named Alan Gross of espionage and detained him in a Cuban prison for allegedly distributing cell phones, laptops, and communication devices to Jewish communities in Cuba (Gross
remains jailed in a maximum-security prison in Cuba. U.S. and Cuban diplomats discussed Gross' release at a recent meeting in Havana). Also the day before on Christmas, an “underwear bomber” had tried to blow up a U.S. plane in Detroit.
The second reason was simply because of miscommunication and misunderstanding, say trip leaders. While Cuba had authorized their stay by providing 30-day tourist visas, people entering the Communist country for religious reasons are subject to greater scrutiny than tourists. Group founder Carol Slegers speculates that greater scrutiny might have kicked in on this trip because of the news about Gross and the underwear bomber.
“Cubans are much happier to have tourists over there than religionists,” said trip leader Mark Slegers, Carol Slegers' husband. “Somebody on the [December] trip got mixed up and said that they're there for religious purposes. We just have to be very, very clear about what you do when you go through immigration.”
Upon their Dec. 26 late afternoon arrival in Havana, five travelers were immediately sent back to Cancun, and the remaining nine travelers were detained for 17 hours in the airport terminal before they were put on a plane back to Cancun.
Just as importantly as what happened two months ago is what it means for the group's future work in Cuba. Cuba AyUUda members said people are still expressing interest in traveling to Cuba, though they don't have travel reservations just yet. In hopes of preventing future problems, they're currently contacting their friends and coordinators in Cuba, who are in turn contacting the Cuban government with requests to secure religious visas for Cuba AyUUda.
“Cuba AyUUda is about travel," says Patrick McNamara, chair of the events committee, “It's about doing good work…it's one-on-one. We have to be there with people to do it.”