Cuba visit report from Mark Pendleton
I traveled to Cuba March 14 with my wife Leslie and one other parishioner from Exeter New Hampshire. We purchased our tickets on JetBlue back in December when the prices were very high (paid $1200) but when other airlines had not announced flights.
From a logistical standpoint – the trip was complicated and stressful. I’ll spare you all the details, but we were limited to 2 checked backs each. Cuba rules not airlines. We applied for religious visas through Daliana as always. Ours were the first issued since Covid. Our parish donated many over the counter medications and I also bought some medicines in Mexico (antibiotics) in January. Three of our bags were overweight and JetBlue did charge us $450. We packed and delivered 36 U.V. lamps and 60+ filters – over $3600 purchased by the Friends of the Episcopal Church in Cuba. Julia Sullivan, Diocese of Florida, provided special filters for the Living Waters system in Ceballos. We also carried down other special requests (car parts, cell phones, vestments, etc.).
All our bags arrived, however, customs was an ordeal. We were separated into two lines due to the content that was flagged (coffee). Then another line was flagged for bulbs and car parts. Make sure you have receipts and descriptions of car parts… I also had about 8 cell phones…. Customs started in on us until I started playing a bit daft and started talking about the church and religious visas. Finally, another woman came up to the hardnosed person and said we were OK because of our religious visas. They did not charge us any money. But it was a bit stressful. All our things got through however!
We were carrying a lot of cash but Customs never asked to see it… Remember all Euros no American dollars. I delivered 26 lamps directly to Pepe’s wife, Olga, in Havana. 2 lamps went to Fr. Leondro in Esmeraldas, 2 lamps to Fr. Evelio in Camaguey, 2 to Fr. Aurelio in Cardenas and 2 for Fr. Junco in Cienfuegos. Almost all of the filters stayed in Havana in Pepe’s office. We then spent 3 nights in Cardenas.
CURRENT CONDITIONS AND OBSERVATIONS
Compared to our last trip, conditions on the ground after 2 years of COVID have deteriorated. Everyone, by law, has to wear masks in public and they do. During a church service the normal joy was not present. The people are depressed and oppressed. Many young people are leaving any way possible. It will soon be old people and babies. They see very little hope for change after the violent crackdowns over the summer. Add in Russia’s war and even more uncertainty.
Crime is up. We were told by church staff not to walk around the cathedral even in daylight as people have been robbed and assaulted. My wife forgot and did not take off her rings before departing. Anyone traveling in the future should treat Cuba like trips to Central American and Mexico and not travel with any jewelry of any kind. That is a big change. A young woman was stabbed and killed for her cell phone near the airport just a few days earlies. We were told not to go to Old Havana, as that is even more shaky than before.
We got our COVID tests for our return to the US in Varadero the day before departing. Varadero was largely empty. The hotels Melia and Rivera in Vedado are still closed.
If you travel during the coming months while COVID protocols are still in place, try to fill out the affidavit or attest form before you depart for Cuba. My wife did and I didn’t. There was great confusion at the airport at check-in because it had to be signed online. I do not use my phone in Cuba so had to buy a WIFI card and go online. It was really chaotic, and I almost lost it from the accumulated stress of the protocols.
Note: As of April 20,2022, a negative COVID test is no longer required to enter Cuba. However, please check current requirements carefully if you are planning to visit this year.