The freedom to leave one's country

July 17, 2006

Miami Herald- Eugene Robinson

It was 6 a.m., I was at José Martí International Airport in Havana, and there was a problem.

This was a few years ago. I had spent two weeks in Cuba, one of several trips to research a book, and the first leg of my trip home was an early-morning hop to Mexico.

I had just slipped my passport through a teller-style window to a uniformed officer who would examine it, check his computer to make sure that I wasn't some notorious enemy of the revolution, then push a buzzer that opened a locked door. Beyond the door lay the departure gates -- and, more urgently, a little cafe shop where I could get a desperately needed cup of coffee.

From Spanish to English

Except the unsmiling officer wasn't pushing the buzzer. As I said, there was a problem.

'Step back against the wall, please,' he said, and then he picked up his telephone to make a call. I did as I was told. The exit door remained firmly locked.

I'm not what you'd call a morning person, so it was awhile before it dawned on me what the problem was. The few words I'd exchanged with the officer had been in Spanish, and after two weeks on the island I was speaking pretty fluently, with a Cuban accent. I was wearing jeans, a loose silk shirt and loafers -- not your typical American tourist garb, the officer must have figured, since I displayed neither sandals nor fanny pack. My passport is thicker and more battered than most. And of course, the typical visitor from America is white, and I'm not.

The guy suspected that I was a Cuban trying to escape the island.

He kept me cooling my heels for a while, then called me back up to the window. He asked in Spanish what had been the purpose of my stay in Havana, but now that I had figured it out, I pretended not to understand. From then on, my side of the conversation was English-only. He asked where I was from, I told him Washington, and he began quizzing me about current events. It was like one of those old war movies where they unmask the German spy because he didn't know who won the 1937 World Series. (Then they shoot him.)

'What is the important news of this week that has reached you from home?' the officer asked.

Too easy. 'The sniper,' I said.

My trip had coincided with the Washington-area sniper shootings. The killings were covered even in Cuba's tightly controlled press, so my knowing about them didn't prove anything, but by then the guy was probably just prolonging the encounter to save face. He handed back my passport and pressed the buzzer, opening the magic door. I was free to leave the country.

The episode lasted no more than 15 minutes, though it seemed longer at the time, and in the end amounted to nothing more than a minor inconvenience. It left an impression, though. And I tell the story to explain why I get so angry when the extremist xenophobes in the Republican-controlled Congress -- the likes of Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Steve King, R-Iowa, and J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz. -- rail at the government of Mexico for supposedly encouraging illegal migration to the United States.

If Mexicans want to leave their country, for any reason, what right does the Mexican government have to stop them? The only answer, of course, is no right at all. Imagine the situation in reverse: Imagine that before boarding a plane for a vacation in Cancun or a cruise ship heading to the Bahamas, Americans had to ask permission from government officers who could arbitrarily say No, you're not going anywhere.

Helping Mexicans in the U.S.

Our congressional right-wingers don't quite call for Mexico to imprison its citizens. But they sputter with rage when Mexican officials provide migrants with sound advice on how to avoid dying of thirst in the Arizona desert, or try to look after Mexican citizens' practical needs at consulates in Phoenix and elsewhere.

This is no revanchist Mexican 'invasion of America,' as the xenophobes claim. It's just a matter of the Mexican government doing what any reasonable government would do, and in fact must do -- let citizens leave whenever they want, and try to provide for their health and safety abroad.

What if I had been a Cuban that morning at the Havana airport? I'd have been detained, though probably not sentenced to prison. And if I still wanted to leave the island, I would have had to build myself a raft.

I guess some House Republicans don't see why that would be a problem.

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