Travel to Cuba; don’t let the blockade stop you
Participants in an IFCO/Pastors for Peace Friendshipment to Cuba. | IFCO/Pastors for Peace

“Where have you been this trip?”

“Cuba and México.

“Did you travel with a license from the State Department?”

“On the advice of attorneys, I decline to answer that.”

“You do know you’re not allowed to go there without a license?”

“On the advice of attorneys, I decline to answer that.”

“Did you buy any Cuban products?

“On the advice of attorneys, I decline to answer that.”

Thus we were coached to answer any question not on the standard U.S. re-entry questionnaire, which is limited to what countries we visited, whether we have farm products, and such. We, the members of the U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment organized by Pastors for Peace (PfP), had just committed civil disobedience, having openly defied a travel ban that carries the potential penalties of ten years in prison and a quarter-million-dollar fine, publicly refusing to apply for a license, even refusing one when it was offered in a previous year.

So far—and ours was the 30th Friendshipment—there have been no arrests, even in these Trump years, but we never know what to expect. For two years in past decades, letters threatening fines were sent out, but no one paid anything. Other than that, the worst any member ever suffered was was being taken to another room and interrogated, told to fill out and sign a paper listing seventeen questions—which the participants declined to do.

Another question which was suggested that we might be asked was, “Are you with Pastors for Peace?” Well, uh, I was proudly wearing my T-shirt proclaiming that I am, but I was still prepared to give the same answer to that one: “On the advice of attorneys, I decline to answer that.”

However, the reception we were prepared for was not what we got.

I don’t know how many thousands of U.S. Americans have visited Cuba illegally, knowing that Cuba did not stamp passports carried by citizens of the only travel-banning nation. But that little deception is over now, because our passports currently have GPS chips in them that tell Big Brother where we’ve been. So I put my passport into one of the machines in the airport security room, touched the screen to answer the few questions asked, removed my glasses to have the machine take my photo, took the slip of paper that it spit out, and prepared to present it to the “Border Protection” official at the end of the long labyrinthine queue.

As I snaked through, my mind alternated between practicing the line and recalling our amazing visit to that inspiration of hope which this capitalist/imperialist nation is so determined to wipe out, so afraid to have us experience. I remembered our private meeting with President Miguel Díaz-Canel, our meeting three of the Cuban Five, our stay at the Martin Luther King Ecumenical Center, my long talks with our Cuban translator on the bus, the interreligious event we attended, our visits with both Cuban students at the Higher Institute of International Relations and U.S. students at the Latin American School of Medicine.

I thought of the love that Cubans poured out to us everywhere we went, of the gorgeous countryside and the wondrous old buildings in the cities we visited. I thought of the illegally bought items that I had mailed home to myself from Mexico so they wouldn’t be confiscated—everything from a T-shirt celebrating the 500th anniversary (this year) of the city of La Habana to magnets with photos or with clay decorations. (We are asked by PfP not to buy rum or cigars.) I thought of the books in my suitcase that I had bought in the airport that morning to use up the last of my Cuban money, books that they aren’t supposed to confiscate because the First Amendment recognizes our right to share culture and information, ironically exempting from the travel ban that which they would most like to keep us from bringing back.

And then, finally, I was up to the place where I would hand my incriminating slip of paper to the official.

“Where did you travel to?”

“Cuba and Mexico.

With that, he stamped my slip and handed it back, looking to the next person in line.

I walked on, my suitcase and backpack unopened, wondering if someone would nab me and seize my backpack when I handed the stamped slip to the officials by the exit. But no. Nothing.

A mural painted on the side of a bus donated to Cuba by IFCO/Pastors for Peace. | IFCO/Pastors for Peace

“What’s with you guys?!” I shouted silently. “Don’t you know I just broke your law?!! You’re letting me just walk out of here?”

“Well, that was anti-climactic,” I said when I reported to the New York office by phone afterwards.

But it tells us we have triumphed. The fact is that they have had this draconian law on the books for decades, but as soon as an organized force challenges it, they start fizzling out. They may or may not later send us threatening letters, but they know there would be an uprising if they were to actually go after us. They won’t even harass us at the border any more. Of the 35 of us, only one group was questioned. Briefly.

What this means is this: Do it! Plan now on going on the 31st Friendshipment next year. You’ve always wanted to go to Cuba? Don’t leave this world without doing it. Check out the website of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace, the Harlem-based organization that was the first to stand up to the U.S. government on this matter, risking arrest.

I’ll be writing more about this organization and the Cuba visit itself, but for now, know we are winning, and that there’s a place for you in all this.

Reposted by permission of the author and LA Progressive.


Carolfrances Likins
Carolfrances Likins

Board member of the ICUJP (Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace), activist, poet, screenwriter, retired elementary school teacher.