Security? Absurd!

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

0.1: Security theatre of the absurd

December 27, HOME — If anyone does airport security right in this paranoid age, it's the Cubans. At least, they do it less bad than the Canadians or, god knows, the fucking Yanks, with their nudie scans and the Ritual Removal of the Shoes.

Getting through security at Varadero International required only that we empty our pockets and place our carry-on luggage on those enormous grey plastic trays before passing through the scanners of our person. Shoes on, belt still buckled, laptops safe in their knapsacks, dignity roughly intact.

WestJet flight 2557 prepares for boarding in Varadero, Cuba on December 23, 2015.

Contrast this with the ludicrous fantasies of security demonstrated by Our Glorious Defenders upon leaving and returning to the Great White North.

Our journey started with us leaving the house a little late, with the bus reaching the stop a LOT late, and with a rush to check our big suitcase (which WestJet promptly lost for nearly a week before it caught up to us in Havana) and then to get through Security and to the gate for our connecting flight to Toronto.

Security, naturally, had me remove my belt and attached phone, pull from my carry-on my laptop and e-reader, etc. But in my haste, I forget about my (stainless steel, half-full) water bottle and left it in the bag to pass through the scanner.

The scanner, it did not squeal and neither did it beep. I only realized my mistake when we went to re-fill our bottles for the last time before we returned to Canada.

"Will you look at that!" I said laughing, as I sloshed the water around audibly for Raven, "that could have been some kind of Deadly Explosive!"

So yeah. Thank god they make us dump any liquid over 100mm, or whatever the standard is.

And then, coming back from Cuba and once again transferring in Toronto, we either took a wrong turn (but we don't think we did) or else the procedures there are really stupid. We left our Cuba flight, picked up our checked bag and then had to pass through public areas to get to our connecting flight.

Which means we had to endure yet another showing of Security Theatre. But this turned out to be a sequel, or else a special Director's Cut.

Somehow we were once more on a tight time-line. Our flight was a little late but, more importantly, we'd left Cuba on more or less empty stomachs. So decided a bowl of soup was in order, and just within our schedule's margin of error. Only we hadn't counted on a second security screening.

And we really hadn't counted on the Duty Free booze and honey we'd bought at the Varadero airport proving to be a problem.

Got duty free? Don't forget your receipt!

When it was my turn, I dutifully had the sealed, transparent Duty Free bag in hand and placed it on the tray.

The the keen eyes of Canada Customs were having none of it. To the Secondary Screening with me!

They asked me an inane question or two, then told me they were going to "have to" cut open the Duty Free bag in order to "test" the bottles. "We're not going to drink it, just test it!" Har har har.

I'm not Peter Watts — I smiled and essayed a complementary laugh.

The Agents proceeded to take each individual bottle and jar and push it up against what I have to presume was some sort of scanner than can distinguish explosive jelly from Cuban honey or rum or Curaçao. And since those were exactly what I'd bought, I was confident that all would be well, provided the scanner did its job in time for us to get to the gate within the next 15 minutes or so.

But there was one more Security Test to be performed, a more sophisticated Security Test. A paper Security Test.

"Sir, do you have the receipt for your purchases?"

I did not ask, How would a receipt prove these bottles are not bombs or poison gas?, I merely said of course I did and asked whether I could remove my wallet from its tray.

But of course (somehow) I didn't have it. Nor did Raven. I searched and re-searched wallet and pockets with an ever-increasing sense of urgency. Our flight was leaving soon.

One of the agents told me I had a choice. Forfeit the items or race back to the WestJet ticket counter and check a backpack containing the bottles. Damned if I was going to gift these bastards with my hard-earned (cheap) booze (and honey), so — a quick huddle with Raven — and I was wrapping the bottles around my jean jacket and a jacket of Raven's and racing back to the counter while Raven headed on through to the gate.

I ask you: What is the point of those sealed, transparent Duty Free bags if their contents need to be tested? And what is the point of those tests if the results must be confirmed by, er, a printed receipt? Surely a terrorist could come up with a facsimile of a Cuban receipt as easily as they could pack explosives into two bottles of booze and three jars of honey?

They answer, of course, is that there is no point, if the answer includes "physical security". Like removing one's shoes (which we no longer have to do by routine here in Canada), the only point is to assure us, the passengers, that something is Being Done to Protect Us, and that all of the bullying and cattle-prodding is necessary for Our Own Good, and not meant to just soften us up for repressions yet to come.

* * *

In the end, I managed to make it onto my plane (and found myself in the very first row, First Class for the entire 36 minute flight home. Dunno how that happened, but that's what my ticket said. Raven was in the second row, across the aisle.

And, despite being warned by the WestJet ticket agent that there was no way the bag would be on my flight, despite the fact he told me to "Run!" without even getting a receipt or identifying tag, that Good Samaritan was better than his word. The contents were packed aboard our flight, they were untouched and undamaged. Sir, if by some miracle you read these words, you helped to restore my confidence (if not faith) in human nature. Thank you.

And that was the start and finish of our trip to Cuba. Tomorrow, please return to this space for the first in a series of nine reports from Cuba, from the smokey streets of Santa Clara to the bustle of Havana, to the General's handgun in Varadero.

Next up: Jet planes, Ladas and food! Glorious food!

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