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Cuba turns away visiting church group

Unitarian Universalist cultural exchange group had made 13 trips before being turned away in December.
By Donald E. Skinner
1.18.10

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After making 13 trips to Cuba, there was no reason for a group from First Unitarian Church in Portland, Ore., to think the next one would be any different. But as the 14-member Cuba AyUUda group entered Cuba on Saturday, December 26, 2009, on what was to be a two-week visit, immigration officials stopped them and forced some group members to return immediately to Cancun, Mexico, their departure point. Nine of the 14, including minister of music Mark Slegers and his wife Carol, were held overnight at the Havana airport. They were released the next day and also sent back to Cancun.

The Rev. Kate Lore, First Unitarian Church’s social justice minister, said the group was detained apparently because it was carrying a “religious activities” license, required by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, along with tourist visas. Because Cuban officials are opposed to religious proselytizing, they blocked the group from entering. The license had not been an issue on previous trips.

Lore noted that while the group has shared Unitarian Universalism with their Cuban friends, it has never focused on evangelism. Members of the group are primarily interested in social and cultural exchanges and helping to improve the lives of Cubans.

She said another contributing factor in their detention was the fact that their travel day coincided with the publication of a news story involving a U.S. government contractor who had been arrested in Cuba on December 4 for allegedly delivering satellite phones and computers to Cuban dissident groups. The travelers suspected that this news increased the level of scrutiny exercised by Cuban immigration and customs employees.

The group issued a statement a few days after it was sent out of Cuba: “For all of us it was a frightening experience. For those nine detained in the Havana airport who were forced to sleep on a cold marble floor it was extremely uncomfortable, but the fear of not knowing what would happen to them was terrifying. This experience has deepened our compassion for other people who are powerless in the face of unresponsive and unyielding authority.”

Mark Slegers said Cuba AyUUda members made the best of a difficult situation. “We were treated very distantly by the officials. People would not talk to us. They were totally nonresponsive to our requests for information. It bordered on psychological abuse.” Lore said that while the group encountered a lack of courtesy, no one was physically mistreated by Cuban authorities.

Some group members returned home immediately after being sent back to Cancun; others waited in Mexico for their scheduled flights back to Portland.

“Our primary goal has always been to build understanding between the people of our two countries,” said Lore. Cuba AyUUda has worked with a number of private Cuban organizations serving the needs of women, children, the elderly, patients with HIV/AIDS, and diabetic children. (Ayuda means “help” in Spanish.) Group members have done painting, construction work, sewing, organic gardening, and made art and music with the Cubans.

“These and other projects have served to enrich our lives and the lives of Cubans,” said Lore. “The mutual respect and lasting friendships that have developed over the years have transformed all of us. Our hope is that this incident will trigger an examination of our government’s policies toward Cuba today. What we have is two governments rigidified by old ideas.”

The trips began when Mark Slegers met a Cuban music director at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene in 2000. Plans began for a musical exchange tour. The dream was realized when 50 singers from the First Unitarian Church choir program toured the Havana area in March 2003, departing for Cuba the day after the U.S. began to bomb Baghdad.

This experience was so profound that Carol Slegers sought a way for the exchanges and friendships that developed to continue. Mark Slegers applied for and received a Religious Activities License from the Office of Financial Assets Control of the Treasury department in 2003. Two subsequent renewed licenses have made it possible for more than 200 members and other people affiliated with the Portland church to travel legally and engage with Cuban people and Cuban life.

The next Cuba AyUUda trip had been scheduled for March. Carol Slegers said the group believes that ways can be found to continue the trips. “We had a meeting at church this week and everyone wants to keep right on going,” she said on January 11. “We have really strong ties in Cuba. We are helped by these visits as much as we are helping.”

She said one of the heart-wrenching parts of this trip was that, while the Americans were detained in the airport building, “we could see the people who were supposed to pick us up, our friends, waving at us outside. They told us later how very sorry and sad they are that this happened.”

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