Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 1

Hi everyone. Cuba didn’t allow me to do my fieldwork, so I’m back in the States.

Yeah. I know.

From the government’s perspective, I basically showed up to do fieldwork without a shred of authorization. In a country that loves its authorizations (and is quite protective of its natural resources), it turned out to be completely wrong to assume I could get things taken care of there.

But the frustrating part is that it was only until I physically arrived that I learned about all the paperwork that should have been submitted. I now know the poor information I received was due to inertia from the officials I’d contacted, plus outdated knowledge by the people who did want to help. It took a lot of tongue-biting to get through the official disapproval for not having my ducks in a row.

But there was no shortage of quiet success, crazy sights, and acts of great kindness during my 12 days there. I’ll share those stories, as well as the story of my stunted field season, in the next four entries.

And, the great news is that I’ve been able to save my field season. In a few days I’ll be in California sampling a population of tricolored blackbirds and rewriting Summer 2013.

Day 1

The trouble started as soon as I landed. As usual, Customs searched my bags and I was questioned about my work. I was ready with my tourist visa and U.S. paperwork on hand. From my Bahamas experiences, I knew the agents would scrutinize the odder supplies like needles and mist nets.

Except this time, what caught their attention were my three little bottles of EDTA. EDTA is a chemical that helps fix the blood sample on my filter paper cards. I make the recipe in lab every year and divide it into miniature Nalgene bottles.

It turns out you cannot bring in chemicals that are out of their original packaging. Another Customs agent came over, and then another. They pointed immediately at the EDTA, then the cards, which unfortunately are labeled “Human bloodstain cards,” and the four large Potter traps sitting on the inspection table. They asked, “Do you have an import permit for this medical and scientific equipment?” Say what now? Who said anything about an import permit? Then they asked me for my passport and visa. The real trouble started when they saw it was a tourist and not a work visa. Without a work visa, I was totally unauthorized to enter the country with work-related materials.

I was tempted to reply that if I had actually waited until I received my work visa, the blackbirds would be decomposing somewhere in the mangroves. Instead, I explained that it had been recommended to me to enter with a tourist visa and then change it to a work visa. It was the first of many times I got the “you must start the application for a work visa 45 days before you enter the country.” Tongue-biting, tongue-biting. If only I’d heard as much before I had arrived. I kept calm and told them it was absolutely not my intention to violate the rules.

The day was a repeat of Bahamas 2010, where I sat with my luggage while a group of officers decided what to do with me. I’m glad I have that experience under my belt, because this was exasperating and inconvenient but nowhere near as terrifying. The worst-case scenario in 2010, which came to pass, was that I’d lose a summer’s worth of work. The worst-case scenario this time was that I’d pack up my stuff and go to California, or maybe write some overdue papers.

In the end, they confiscated all my materials but listed them on an official, itemized IOU. I had 30 days to obtain my work visa and an import permit. After that, my stuff (worth more than $2000) would get tossed. Looking back, it’s clear Customs didn’t know the agencies involved, or the much longer timeline that would actually be required for me.

Seven hours after landing, I finally got some Cuban money and left the airport. On the highway I saw my first ’50s-era cars, passed the famous Plaza de la Revolución with the mounted wire friezes of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and arrived at my wonderful casa particular. After unpacking, I had dinner at a local place, then went for a walk along the Malecón, the seaside promenade that divides the city from the ocean. It became my nightly routine, and my favorite part of the day.




It’s the same age as my mom. I asked.


Plaza de la Revolución on May 1, May Day/International Workers’ Day. This year’s theme was “Unidos por un socialismo próspero y sustentable,” as well as a memorial to the late Hugo Chávez. People from Turkey, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia, South Korea, France, and a ton of other countries all marched in the parade.

On the street, I quickly learned to say I was a tourist from Taiwan. Initial reactions to “U.S.” were mixed, and claiming to be from Taiwan equated me with being from China, which had its advantages. (“Are you a Red?” asked one man. “Ah…not really, Taiwan has its own government,” I said. “Orange, then!” he said.)


Rice and beans, a couple fried eggs, boiled potatoes and salad. Total: 15 national pesos. (Sixty cents.)


My casa was right next to the tall eyedropper building. The location was perfect.


3 responses to “Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 1

  1. Thanks for sharing and so sorry for all the drama! Welcome back…

  2. Wow, amazing. I never made it to my proposed Cuba trip, mostly because the American red tape was so extensive. But I suspected that the Cubans would be just as bad. Suspicions confirmed! But I’m glad you have a good time!

  3. Hey Dylan! The funny thing is the American red tape was completely manageable — the Office of Export Controls was on top of it. It was just the Cuban side that was impenetrable. But now we have contacts, and we know what the requirements are. Give me a holler if you want to do future work there.

    And thank you, Mercy, for your kind comment!

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