24 February 

With the conviction that “effective leadership in a culturally complex world requires a combination of cultural intelligence and cross-cultural experience,” Perkins School of Theology offers immersion courses and experiences for students, under the auspices of the Perkins Global Theological Education (GTE) Program. “Through seminars and significant immersion experiences in other cultures, we prepare our students for lifelong growth in cultural intelligence and cross-cultural competence. Students gain firsthand experience in building intercultural relationships, resolving cultural conflicts, and guiding intercultural ventures.”

These same principles make it expedient for Perkins faculty members to have immersion experiences as well. More than leading by example, participating in events like these is important – at least in my view – because the personal growth and development that springs from such experiences helpfully supports and enhances the professional vocation of teachers and staff.

So it is that I find myself representing the Perkins School of Theology Office of Public Affairs and Alumni/ae Relations on a faculty immersion to Cuba.

Until President Obama eased some restrictions in 2009, travel to Cuba tended to be more limited. In our case, we are permitted to visit Cuba under two general rubrics – first, as faculty and staff members of Southern Methodist University engaged in research or activities related to educational purposes; and second, under general provisions that allow visits for a broad range of personal and institutional exchanges for religious purposes.

The initial planning meeting for our trip, helpfully facilitated by Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, heightened my anticipation about the faculty immersion to Cuba.

The broad contours of the schedule: Depart Friday, March 7, from DFW to Miami.
Fly from Miami to Cuba via Sun Country Airlines on Saturday, March 8.
Repatriate Sunday, March 16.

Of immediate interest when preparing for the journey is the fact that all transactions are required to be in cash – in the form of U.S. dollars that must be converted to a Cuban currency known as CUCs. Because of economic sanctions, U.S. banks are not allowed to do business in Cuba. The 12-15% charge on currency exchanges (both from USD to CUCs and vice-versa) is an important source of hard currency for Cuba.

My initial response is concern that visitors like us might make appealing targets for criminals, since everyone would be aware that guests in Cuba are carrying cash instead of relying on credit cards. “Anything can happen,” Carlos acknowledges. “But in general, Cuba is one of the safest places I’ve ever been.” Use common sense, but on the whole: relax and enjoy the experience.

28 February 

What to pack and what – given by-the-pound charges for luggage – to wait and buy upon arrival in Havana? Not an easy question to answer, in some ways.

I am specifically interested in the availability of yerba mate in Cuba. Yerba mate (mah-tay) is a type of herb tea from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and other South American countries, where it is widely consumed – usually served hot and often steeped in a dried gourd (also called a mate). I’ve been drinking mate every morning for about 33 years now, and often enjoy it mid-afternoon (tea time) as well. It was hard to find in Dallas stores when I first moved here back in 1982, but since that time it has become easily available. In fact, in addition to the little specialty import shops where I used to get it, mate now is stocked at “Fiesta” supermarkets and has been widely available in larger health food stores for more than a decade now.

I do not know if this popular South American tea will be available for purchase upon our arrival. Whether searching the Internet in English or Spanish, I find little information. “Yerba mate in Cuba.” “¿Donde puedo comprar yerba mate en Cuba?”

Several obvious search-term variations prove uniformly fruitless, except for reference to one specific brand of bottled beverage containing yerba mate; it originated in Cuba and is available in some places in the United States.

This is the moment when the impact of trade restrictions imposed by the U.S. Government first becomes more than an abstraction to me. When is the last time you did a Google search for fairly basic information about an item for purchase that produced no helpful results?

3 March 

An official publication by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control summarizes much of what is and is not permitted by U.S. citizens with regard to Cuba. It is interesting to discover that it is illegal for U.S. citizens to purchase Cuban products not only in Cuba but even in other countries. A visitor to Nicaragua, for example, would be prohibited by U.S. law from purchasing Cuban cigars there.

A broad exception falls under the rubric of informational materials (including art objects), allowing citizens to import certain items from Cuba. But in general, even “souvenirs” may not be purchased in Cuba.