“There is no bad book that doesn’t contain something good” – so, I believe, said Borges quoting Cervantes. Well of the same idea, there is no bad experience, however vexing, that doesn’t contain something good – even if you remain wholly unaware of what the good could possibly be…

So say I in relation to the extraordinary consequences of choosing one path and not the other at the site of forking paths: TOURIST VISA or BUSINESS VISA… One path would be £15 plus the cost of return postage. And there the matter would have ended. The other path has turned out to have cost me around £400 plus SEVEN SOLID DAYS OF BUREAUCRACY.

Business visa needed as travelling to Cuba primarily to present at a conference.

Business visa £50 plus need to send passport.

Passport ‘lost’ in post (recorded delivery).

A day on the phone trying to locate missing passport, eventually given up for lost.

Trip to London (£40) following day to secure new passport (£117) plus, the next day, new visa (another £50).

Visa, however, only relevant to the dates of the conference. Once conference over, assure me the good folk of the Cuban consulate in London, I simply need to pop to an immigration office and pick up a tourist visa. Simple.

Nothing has been less simple in my life.

Conference ended on Thursday. All day Friday, with another Brit from the conference, running in the Havana heat from one immigration office to another, being told that changing visas is impossible. Only possibility is to leave the country and return on a different visa. A new letter from the Vice-Dean of the Faculty might, we are told, be able to solve the problem, but he himself will need to take the letter to the immigration office. Too late in the day to solve anything so matter postponed to Monday.

Monday spent going from immigration office to Vice-Dean’s office to International Relations Office at University. Matter postponed to Tuesday.

Tuesday spent dealing with different officials of different offices, with the prospects looking ever bleaker. Finally, the matter is taken up by the director of Int. Rel. When my colleague name-dropped some of the important people he had come to interview, she used these name-dropped references in her dealings with the various immigration folk. This appears to have jerked folk into action.

Matter finally resolved on Wednesday, with us taking a rep from Int. Rel. to two different immigration offices, plus the payment of $40 each, and finally a new visa in our passports.

Assurances are worthless. The consulate in London had no idea of the reality of the Havana situation. Similarly, when I asked for assurance in the Havana office that the new visa would not cause me problems at passport control on my departure from Cuba, I was assured there would be no problem. At departure, I was hauled into an office at the airport, grilled for 40 minutes about the oddity of the 2-visa passport, all the while hearing my flight being announced. I was the last one on the plane, after I nearly broke down in tears. Leaving Havana was, it seemed, a deus-ex-machina escape from the jaws of bureaucracy.

The basic causes of this difficulty is, I feel, quite straightforward: the consulate in London is not keep abreast of the changing and complex immigration policies on the Island. This is the same, apparently, for Cuban consulates and embassies in other places – Brazil, for example, keeps telling Brazilians that the tourist visa is for 80 days, when it is for 28. The essential issue is that visas can be changed, but only really from tourist to temporary residence – a process that takes a month and involves numerous forms and stamps etc. Quite simply, our situation had not really been dealt with before.

This is the problem of the Cuban bureaucratic mind – which is surprisingly similar to Titón’s riotous 1966 film Muerte de un Burócrata. If it can’t be done it can’t be done. If somehow a situation arises (in the case of the film, retrieving the worker’s card from the corpse in order for the widow to claim her pension), that has not arisen before, nothing can be done. The reason for this is that INITIATIVE, which in many job areas in Britain is a quality that is desired or required in staff, is forbidden. Still, even after 50 years, everyone is looking over their shoulder to see if they have unwittingly disobeyed state procedure. This is actually a very strong sentiment. We were passed from person to person, office to office, building to building – all because ultimately nobody was willing to let the matter rest with them in case they somehow caused some breach in the system by attempting to solve the problem.

The University of Havana is a very good example of this at the moment. The former rector, apparently, said a few things that brushed some minister the wrong way, and he was dismissed from his post within 2 hours. A new rector has taken over, and, apparently, all senior staff, both academic and administrative at the university, are nervous about what sort of person he may turn out to be, and are reluctant to do anything that has not simply been done a hundred times before. So I can fully understand why nobody was willing to deal with us. The trouble was, though, that the matter was not going away – and yet neither were we, as without the visas we would never have been allowed to leave, and so would have become zoneless zombies… We finally refused to leave the office of one member of International Relations, who became angry with us. It was at this point that the Directora started phoning left right and centre. She spoke to all the immigration offices that we’d visited, and said the most politically glowing things about us – that we were active in international Cuban solidarity, that we should not be treated with such disrespect, that my colleague is seeing Important People tomorrow who really do not want to hear about this treatment of compañeros etc. etc. Such initiative and problem-solving ability could, I feel, only come from somebody with authority. Although that is the case in the UK, one can usually fight one’s way to such a person of authority without too much difficulty…

So, to return to the mis-quoted Borges/Cervantes. What is to be gained from such a drawn-out and expensive experience?

How has this whole time-consuming and expensive process benefited me?

I’ve no idea.

It has been very interesting to spend time with my colleague from the conference. We spent many hours in lonely chairless offices together and have talked about many many things, from British political history to the role of governments in international drug trafficking. I’ve met many of his colourful friends here in Cuba. And, at the end of the day, it’s been quite an adventure. That seems, though, a huge price to pay for getting to know someone and having a bit of an adventure which is not really that adventurous.

I suppose I could just admit that there’s neither good nor bad that has come out of the whole story, it’s just how it is.

A test of my will, perhaps. An insight into the twisted Kafka-esque machinations of the bureaucratic labyrinth. Perhaps, as another conference attendee (an anthropologist) suggests, maybe there’s an article in this. Maybe there is (but surely I could have invented this story whilst lying in a hammock beneath palm trees with a piña colada in my hand!).

Maybe it was all part of an extensively elaborate plan by Destiny (or my guardian spirits) to ensure that I wasn’t in a certain place at a certain time where something untoward would have befallen me. Had I obtained the £15 visa – and had I not gone to London or to Immigration in Havana or whatever – perhaps I would have been struck by a bus or by swine flu. Obviously, though, I’ll never know that – that’s the nature of providence.

Perhaps I should just get on with the work in hand and forget the whole sorry affair. Good plan…

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