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Shooting on location means hassles. Shooting in Cuba when you’re American means a covert operation

For Cuba, JOHN HOLOD made use of a Canadian travel agency claiming expertise taking Americans into Castro-land. Turns out he was its second such client ever, and the service left him stranded with a quickly depleting suitcase of u.s. dollars......
May 1, 1998

For Cuba, JOHN HOLOD made use of a Canadian travel agency claiming expertise taking Americans into Castro-land. Turns out he was its second such client ever, and the service left him stranded with a quickly depleting suitcase of u.s. dollars…

As instructed, I went into the Duty Free shop. The man standing near the door was sweating profusely. It wasn’t that hot. Salt stains from previous uncomfortable experiences lined his khaki shirt.

‘You must be John,’ he said as I got close.

‘You must be Gene,’ I returned.

‘Are you ready?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I lied.

He handed me a Nassau-Havana ticket on Cubana Airlines and a yellow tourist-visa card that cost me us$15 and would (I hoped) get me into Cuba. As far as I knew, I could be sent back at any moment. I started sweating too.

I knew we were in trouble when I saw a cardboard box of baby chicks tumble down the plane’s cargo ladder. Nothing reassures your faith in an airline more than the crew chasing little chickens all over the runway.

The flight was like travelling back in time. An old Soviet airbus was our mode of transportation. Half the seat-backs were broken and the leg room was designed for Mickey Rooney. Before take-off, the cabin filled with smoke-like condensation from the air conditioning. Everyone was yelling. The flight attendant passed around hard candies and rum. This was the Twilight Zone.

We landed at Jose Marti Airport outside Havana, chickens and passengers all in one piece.

Customs. Nothing fills the heart of a filmmaker with fear faster than that nasty word. I had nothing illegal with me, but I was carrying 50 rolls of very expensive film – about 45 more than the law allowed. I had no journalist visa. The guys from the travel agency told me to write ‘bartender’ in the occupation box on my yellow card. I guess I could tell them I was a bartender who liked to make very expensive movies. And what about my telephoto lenses? Would they search my bag? Would they search me? Was this the end of my Cuba film?

They never even looked in my bag. My visa was stamped instead of my passport, so there would be no trace of me ever having been in the country.

A local tour guide was waiting with an air-conditioned van and a driver. His name was Pepe. Pepe would be the most important person I would meet on the island. He would save my film.

Three days and 200 miles later, while passing through a small town, a motorcycle policeman flagged us down. He walked over and said the thing you least want to hear while travelling through a third world country: ‘Someone at the police station wants to talk to you.’

We followed him across town. As I started into the station, they informed me they didn’t want to talk to me, just Pepe. My mind was racing and time crawled by.

Pepe came out surrounded by eight men in military uniforms. He looked nervous, and I wondered how I looked. He introduced me to a Noriega look-alike. ‘This is Commandant Alvarez from G2 [the Cuban kgb].’ We shook hands. ‘The commandant says we can go now,’ Pepe said, indicating we do so right away. We did.

On the way out, Pepe said someone had reported us to the secret police for filming a Coast Guard station near a lighthouse a few days earlier. They grilled him about what I was doing here and everything I had filmed. He took the party line, assuring G2 he would call them right away if I got out of line. We both had a good laugh over that.

I was told that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when Cubana flights would land in Nassau, a task force of American customs officers would fly in to meet it, looking for guys like me. It was suggested I stay overnight in Nassau to avoid dealing with the task force.

The next day I waited to clear customs. I was sweating. Should I lie? Should I tell the truth and risk the fine of us$250,000 and ten years in prison?

‘Where have you been?’ the customs agent asked as he looked through my passport.

‘Filming in the Caribbean,’ I said confidently.

‘Got anything you shouldn’t have?’

‘Nope.’

‘OK.’

They never even looked in my bag. I could have smuggled in hundreds of cigars.

John Holod, currently touring the u.s. in support of Cuba, is a photojournalist and maker of ‘travel films’

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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