The six missionaries on the trip led by Dan Christopherson and including Pastor Brian Brightly had a few different goals, one of which was to deliver the approximately $3,000 worth of medical supplies they collected in Florida before departing.
But they found out quickly that just saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in Cuba can result in an abrupt change of plans.
The medicines were distributed among the six travelers’ luggage, but not evenly. Bo Hamrick and his daughter, Victoria, carried the majority of it in two large duffle bags, and when customs officers at the Hoguín airport searched one of the bags, Hamrick didn’t realize how important the distinction between “donation” and “gift” could be under the circumstances, and told his questioners that the medical supplies were donations.
It was a jarring entrance for the remainder of the group as well, who had exited the baggage area as quickly as possible at the advice of Christopherson, who had taken the trip many times before. They were forced to wait for several hours outside the airport while Hamrick was questioned.
At the end of the questioning, about half the medical supplies were confiscated and he was allowed to proceed into the country.
The idea, according to the missionaries, is that while Cubans enjoy free, universal access to healthcare, a shortage of medical supplies both in and out of the hospitals still stymies care. As a result, medical supplies are a popular class of donated items. And while Americanos may use words like “gift” and “donation” interchangeably, Cubans do not, since donations are controlled and distributed by the state. As a result, people may only bring gifts into the country, and even gifts may not include surgical supplies.
Of course, no one knew this at the time. A former customs agent, whose name is withheld, explained it several days after the fact, when representatives of the BGUMC’s sister church in Cuba were appealing the decision.
Whether the appeal is approved or not, there may be some comfort in the fact that confiscated donations will still be redistributed, except in the case of some items, like surgical gloves, which may be destroyed for fear of contamination.