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The Havana Desk

[whitespace] Hella and Frank Roubicek
Dangerous Criminals Disguised as Jewish Grandparents: The customs check brought back unpleasant memories for Holocaust survivors Hella and Frank Roubicek.

Snake Eyes

By Dan Pulcrano


Editor's Note: The Havana Desk is a monthly report from The Metropolitan's Havana bureau to keep readers in touch with the only country in the hemisphere that Americans are not allowed to travel to, or buy cigars from.

"What are you bringing back?"

"Rum and cigars."

"Where'd you buy them?"

"Cuba."

The customs agent's eyes widen.

"Do you have a Treasury Department license to travel to Cuba?"

"No, I'm a journalist."

So began the stupid ritual at the U.S. Customs checkpoint in Nassau, the Bahamas. Even though working journalists are exempt from the American ban on travel to Cuba, and authorized travelers are permitted to bring back $100 worth of Cuban goods, officials take to heart their charge to enforce the last vestige of Cold War denial. And even though they virtually never arrest or imprison violators, our federales are determined to make returning from Communist Cuba to the land of the free as unpleasant an experience as possible. So, after tearing through my baggage, the pay-stub deduction relieved me of one bottle of Havana Club rum and a box of Monte Cristo cigars.

Then he discovered my $2 snake: a 2-foot-long dried bean pod with red and black stripes and "Cuba" painted on its head, just above the glued-on googlie eyes. "You can't bring that in."

"Why not? It says right here you can bring back religious articles."

"Wha?"

"Santeria."

I shook the snake and demonstrated its demon-repelling qualities.

He summoned the agriculture inspector.

"OK, you can bring it in if you open it up and take out the seeds," she conceded.

"Then it won't rattle and ward off the evil spirits," I argued fruitlessly. Now, this story might be funny if it hadn't been for what they did that same afternoon to Hella and Frank Roubicek. Hella, a retired schoolteacher from the East Bay, is one of the few remaining survivors of the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner that transported 935 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Havana in the spring of 1938. Their ticket to freedom turned into the boat ride from hell when the Cuban and U.S. governments denied the refugees asylum and returned them to Europe, where the majority died in death camps. Her story is only overshadowed by that of her husband, Frank, who spent four years staring death in the face beneath the gun turrets of Buchenwald and Rehmsdorf. For Hella and Frank, who's in his mid 80s, being detained by U.S. federal agents and having their passports photocopied after participating in a religious and humanitarian mission to visit Havana's tiny Jewish community recalled all too poignantly the nightmares of vulnerability at the hands of the Nazis that they have tried to put behind them as American citizens. They know that somewhere in a government computer now lies a record of their ostensibly illegal excursion, due to a law they unwittingly broke after the U.S. Treasury Department refused, at the eleventh hour, to grant a religious exemption for a Passover trip.

The U.S. policy of isolating Cuba and denying most Americans the right to travel there, pursued with vigor under the Bush and Clinton administrations since the Soviet Union's collapse, has left Cuba's cities crumbling and, depending on the flow of supplies, its cars without fuel, its clinics without many types of medicine, its families without food, its children without milk or soap, its women without tampons.

The policy has been designed by America's most brilliant foreign policy minds to bring Castro to his knees. The opponents of normal relations argue: Why should the U.S. reward a government that jails dissidents, restricts newspapers, runs a centralized economy and outlaws opposition parties? (If that's the case, then Congress should immediately end diplomatic relations with China. And let's not forget Saudi Arabia is not exactly a multiparty democracy.)

Next month, Fidel Castro will welcome the Pope to the island he has governed for almost 40 years. A year from now, he'll watch Bill Clinton turn over the keys to the White House to the next president. Just like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.

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From the January 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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