Cuban Airports: The Chokepoint

José Martí International Airport tower

People crowd together in the suffocating heat, some are holding signs with names printed on them. The flight from Madrid just landed at José Martí International Airport, bringing tourists and many nationals now living in Spain. Each person must wait forty minutes to an hour — at least — before finally passing through the exit door. Havana is one of the world’s slowest airports, the worst lit, and with the fewest services for the traveler.

In a country that receives almost three million tourists a year, updating its airport facilities is vital for the economy. If these places don’t meet international standards, it’s unlikely that the island — in the short or medium term — can play host to more visitors.

Aware of its major shortcomings, ECASA (Cuban Airports and Aeronautical Services S.A.) has begun a process of remodeling some of its arrival and departure lounges, but the problem requires more than adjustments and redesign. Its principal limitations are not only material, but also its excessive controls, the lack of comfort, and the attitudes of its employees.

Departure lounges, restrictions and inadequacies

Alina has arrived at the Havana airport three hours early, but it may not be enough. She can check in only at the airline counter, as there are no machines to perform the procedures independently. This limitation lengthens the lines, slows the whole process of obtaining a boarding pass, and feeds the image of an always crowded lounge that characterizes José Martí Airport.

A frequent traveler to Spain, thanks to her new EU passport, Alina has come prepared for a cramped and awkward process. She flies through Terminal 2 because Terminal 3 — larger and more modern — is being remodeled and recently experienced a fire. In her bag she carries a snack made at home, because she knows the prices there are stratospheric and the offerings are very limited.

Poor signage completes the picture. For ten minutes the frustrated customer looks for a bathroom but the directional signs are scarce and not very visible. Few of the ceiling lights are on, which makes the various areas of the lounge dark. Still, every passenger must pay the airport tax. In the line to hand over 25 convertible pesos ($28 US), one hears the tourists complaining about the tenuous relationship between the price and the quality of the facilities. Cuban passengers, however, remain silent, not wanting to cause problems for themselves just when they’re about to leave the island.

Without a Wi-Fi network to access the Internet, any modern airport falls several points on the scale of quality. With regards to communication, no embarkation point in Cuba is competitive, not even Varadero. The few public phones and the lack of a wireless network diminish the chances to communicate. To this is added the TVs buzzing away with their tired tourist announcements or overly ideological programs like Cubavision’s Roundtable. Nor is there a stand selling magazines or newspapers, just some souvenir kiosks where they sell the works of Ernesto Guevara and the speeches of Fidel Castro.

Alina is also prepared to avoid boredom while waiting, and has brought some headphones to listen to music on her phone. She waits at the exit doors — there are only two: A and B — until an employee shouts out that her flight is already checking in.

Arrivals and the collision with reality

Humberto arrives after a trip to the United States. This was his first trip abroad, so he’s still stunned by the size of the Miami airport. On the plane back to Cuba he’s filled out the Customs form and in his pocket he has a copy of the boarding pass he got at the exit. He joins the long line for immigration and next will have to answer a brief medical questionnaire which he will also have to sign. A few steps away the luggage waits, the slowest point in the entry to Cuban territory. Every suitcase will be put through a scanner to investigate its contents.

After analyzing each bag or suitcase, they will attach “markers” to those that need to be inspected. A small red strip tied to the handle may mean it contains some home appliance or computer. If instead, it contains an external hard disk, then they write some initials on the paper strip that identifies the flight. There is no way to avoid this process. The customs officers are trained to keep out a long list of objects.

Humberto’s granddaughters, born in Coral Gables, have given him a laptop and a smartphone. So he must go to the table where they open his suitcase and minutely search everything. They take the computer to an office, where they probably inspect its files or make a copy of them. He’s already waited an hour and a half since the plane touched down and will probably wait a little longer.

While they search his belonging they tell him he can’t make calls on his cellphone. “Welcome to Cuba,” he tells himself when an officer asks what those “bullet-shaped” pressed cotton things are. “Tampons for my daughter,” he responds grumpily.

Two hours after arriving in his own country, Humberto passes through the gate in Terminal 2. At the same time, Alina is already seated on her flight to cross the Atlantic. Looking out the window she whispers, “Goodbye Havana airport, I hope I don’t see you for a long time!”

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67 thoughts on “Cuban Airports: The Chokepoint

  1. Pingback: Who’d a-thunk it? Havana airport is slow with terrible service | AEIdeas

  2. Simba Sez: No government ever has been, or ever will be, legitimate if installed at the end of a gun barrel.

  3. @John

    Reinaldo Escobar words you have just quoted are nothing extraordinary. He says the same thing what his compatriots have repeated for years, that

    “embargo, the so-called Helms-Burton Act, all have a typically interventionist nature, of a very strong pressure. The main mistake that the United States has committed regarding Cuba is to stubbornly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Cuba.” This is plan right.

    Reinaldo’s problem is not what he says, but where. By publishing a blog together with a Miami-controlled goupie he contradicts his words.

  4. On February 24, 1996, as dozens of members of Cuba’s peaceful opposition were rounded up, Raul Castro gave order to the pilots of the Cuban MIGs to shot down two unarmed civilian airplanes in international airspace while flying a humanitarian search and rescue mission for the non-profit group “Brothers to the Rescue.” Three U.S. citizens, including a Vietnam War veteran, and a young man formerly rescued by the group perished. The incident was condemned by the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal and the Cuban government was found by a U.S. Superior Court to have committed premeditated murder.

  5. John,

    What the US does now is irrelevant.

    Everything will always be blamed on the embargo and the USA, by Castro and by those groupies ignorant of reality.

    The embargo wasn’t responsible for Lenin’s famines, nor for Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Mao’s.

    Only those idiots were responsible for their economic disasters and for killing tens of millions of people.

    The US embargo had zilch to do with Castro’s disaster. Zero. Nada. Nothing.

    JFK begged Castro to negotiate and supported social reform and land reform, but Castro already sold Cuba out to the Soviet Empire and declared the USA his enemy.

    Castro’s mistake, nobody else’s.


    “Guantanamo is a betrayal of American values. The prison is a symbol of torture
    and justice delayed.”

    A. Me
    B. Nick
    C. Diaz-Canel
    D. An editorial of Granma
    E. These words come from ______________________

    (Check for answer tomorrow)

  7. Perhaps most striking are the words of Reinaldo Escobar–blogger, independent journalist, and the husband of blogger Yoani Sánchez – who says:

    “The United States has made huge mistakes in its policy toward Cuba. The so-called blockade or embargo, the so-called Helms-Burton Act, all have a typically interventionist nature, of a very strong pressure. The main mistake that the United States has committed regarding Cuba is to stubbornly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Cuba. That’s everything

  8. re Trevor @ 6.29
    Hope you are well,
    Please do not be offended by this, but I think you are comparing something the size of a planet with something the size of the head of a pin…..

    (Britain has done some very bad stuff too)

  9. Clothes Police? OMG, Marabu, you are so brilliant, I’m in utter awe!!!! How do you think up such awesomeness?

  10. Interesting articlie on movie theaters and garment imports.

    While recent decisions of the government are correct, mistakes were made in the past. What can be done?

    1. Invest more in the domestic film production.
    2. Create international movie industry wil all countries of the Bolivarian Alternative as shareholders.
    3. Ridicule and reject Hollywood production on cuban TV and in schools.

    4. Offer more imported materials to the local taylors – those who genuinly make clothes.
    5. Organize Street Awarness Groups – 3 or 5 people who would partol the cities and approach those wearing Nike or Crodocile symbols on their cloths and explain why it is wrong.

    REUTERS FEATURE: Cuban entrepreneurs reeling over crackdown on 3D movie theaters – by Rosa Tania Valdes
    * Cubans want 3D theaters re-opened
    * Closing of clothing shops unpopular
    * Communist Party recognizes discontent
    HAVANA, Nov 22 – Cubans are upset over decrees by the communist government shuttering private 3D movie theaters and banning the private sale of imported clothing in a land where venues to screen films are scarce and well-made, stylish clothing is hard to come by at affordable prices.

    Discontent over the crackdown runs so deep that even Granma, the usually conformist Communist Party daily, ran a long article last week recognizing the “broad social debate” – an unmistakable sign of the government’s sensitivity to the issue.

    The newspaper backed the government’s measures on the grounds the would-be entrepreneurs were unlicensed, and it insisted that the “non-state” sector, authorized over the past few years, must abide by the law.

    Even so, urgent meetings to discuss the closures are being held at the highest levels of government on the Caribbean island, according to several cultural officials who asked not to be identified.

    So far there is no indication the authorities will back down. Still, the very acknowledgement of the controversy highlights the growing pressure on the government for meaningful economic reform.

    “The Cuban government misfired, not only by sidelining the interests of consumers, but also in underestimating the growing political clout of the emerging private entrepreneurs,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution and author of a recent study on “Emerging Entrepreneurs” in Cuba.
    Cinema, as with most culture in Cuba, is controlled and heavily subsidized by the government. The crisis that followed the demise in the early 1990s of the Soviet Union, the island’s former benefactor, led to the closures of most theaters countrywide as austerity measures sapped funding.

    The state has loosened up on what can be seen, cognizant perhaps of the unstoppable flow of black-market DVDs imported by tourists and Cuban relatives living abroad.

    The sale of clothing, as with all imported goods, is monopolized by the state. Featuring poor-quality garments at a mark-up of more than 200 percent, state-operated shops are a source of cash that the government can ill afford to lose.


  12. More of the same old lies by the same old Castro groupie who pretends he can’t read.

    All the regular anti-Castro contributors here have condemned ALL terrorism, whether committed by terrorists in Miami or Havana. Whatever their political beliefs, I condemn them once again.

    ONLY the Castro groupies continue to justify or ignore all the crimes, including terrorism, committed by Castro and his assassins.

    They actually come on here to say that spies who murdered unarmed US civilians are “anti-terrorists”. They want to shake the hands of people who would blow civilian aircraft out of the sky over international waters in an act of premeditated murder.

    Castro smuggles arms to North Korea.

    Castro has trained and armed literally thousands of terrorists, some of whom have set bombs off and killed innocent civilians in the mainland USA itself.

    They are walking around Havana living a life of luxury on a very generous Cuban pension while most Cubans survive on 10 to 20 dollars a month.

    Not to mention the countless thousands of civilians these Castro-armed terrorists have killed in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

    None have ever been brought to justice. No Castro groupie has ever suggested they should.

  13. I guess for the same reasons that many, on this forum, turn a blind eye to the murderous deeds of the Castro dictatorship.

  14. None of the anti Cuban Government contributors here will respond to the very basic question of why they are willing to turn a blind eye to the phenomenon of US based anti-Cuban terrorist groups.
    If a terrorist attacks New York, he’s a terrorist.
    If a terrorist attacks Havana ???
    He’s a what ?????
    Seems that when this is presented to some of the one sided people on here,
    they just keep changing the subject.
    What a shame.

    Christmas is a coming Hank. The festive season will soon be upon us.
    You gonna be sending yer Uncle Jose Posada Carriles a prezzy are you?
    Gonna be sending that good old fighter for freedom and justice a nice little Christmas greetings card are you??

    Don’t forget now.
    Don’t forget he’s on your side…………

  15. As Defense Minister, Raúl Castro is responsible for war crimes in and out of Cuba. During the rural uprising of the sixties, his armed forces set fire and executed hundreds of prisoners on the spot. During the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, five prisoners were executed shortly after their capture; nine were deliberately asphyxiated in a trailer truck. The toll of victims multiplies over the course of decades with Cuba’s international military incursions in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Intentional attacks on civilian populations in Angola are part of his legacy.

  16. Hi Nick!

    Loved your “EVERYBODY KNOWS” rant. Classic crazy talk from a swine flu conspiracy theorist.

    I agree with you on one thing. When those convicted Cuban spies complete their justly deserved prison sentences, you’ll have every right to shake their hands. Are you planning on standing outside the penitentiary like a groopie when they each go free? It will be interesting to see if they have any desire to shake your hand. I seriously doubt it.

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