Licensed to Ship Shapes Our Future Impact
Since the beginning of this ministry, the challenge has always been getting resources to Cuba efficiently with scalability. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, tried many hacks, and modified plans as policies changed, but nothing made the process efficient, let alone scalable. Except now, thanks to an export license issued by the Department of Commerce and having someone in Cuba registered to receive shipments, we can efficiently send resources in a scalable way. This profound game-changer will shape our future impact.
As a team member on a mission trip, you helped take resources to Cuba. That meant having bags packed for you and being asked to put a few extras in your carry-ons. As a team, navigating the airports was always entertaining, with each of us carrying 100-150 pounds of supplies. For years, that’s how we’ve sent resources to Cuba, but we weren’t alone. Every other non-profit I know working in Cuba brings in resources as checked baggage.
Early on, our bags were limited to 50 pounds, and we had to fly to the Bahamas first. Of course, we paid a checked bag fee on the first leg of the trip. Because of flight schedules, we had an overnight in the Bahamas. Seven team members joined that trip, taking 100 pounds each. In the Bahamas, to avoid lugging the bags from the airport to the hotel and back again, we fortunately worked with the airport to allow us to leave the bags there overnight. With God’s hand, everything was accounted for the next day. We rechecked baggage on another airline to travel from the Bahamas to Cuba and paid another baggage fee. On this leg of the trip, the fee totaled $1,400. Even with an inefficient system that was challenging for the team, I was grateful the items made it to Cuba.
With every pound of precious space that could carry resources, early on, we focused on the sports ministry. Sports connect people of all ages and offer an opportunity to share the Word of God. Our partner, Honoring the Father Ministries, guided us on foundational items. We focused on sports equipment, including new and used baseball gloves, bats, catcher gear, soccer balls, field markers, and anything related to activity on the field. Over the years, we refined what we brought to focus on the key needs in Cuba. For example, we only take baseballs and soccer balls for the sports ministry. While you can make a bat from a tree limb, there is no game without the ball. Tarps are indispensable and serve many purposes, such as shading the sun during events or church services held outside or temporarily covering a damaged roof after a storm. Medically, there are many needs, but our time with people has shown over-the-counter medications as a top need. Also, with high blood pressure as an issue for many people, blood pressure cuffs are very useful since many local clinics don’t have them.
Along with what we took, the Cuban Customs process evolved. On one of our first trips, we needed some bags to pack the sports equipment. The sports ministry in Cuba needed bags, too, so we bought some new bags to leave with the sports ministry. When we traveled, we broke into groups of two so immigration and Cuban Customs wouldn’t pull the entire team aside for questioning. What we failed to notice was that the exact brand-new bags with a prominent Louisville Slugger logo on the side made us stand out like a billboard advertisement to Cuban Customs. Of course, they noticed and pulled the entire group into a corner to empty every bag, item by item.
For me, a search is stressful. After all, you are being searched and questioned by a government official. It’s also stressful because I know every item in those bags and how they will meet the ministry’s needs or relieve some type of humanitarian suffering. At the same time, other searches were comical, such as a gentleman on one trip with hundreds of women’s underwear stuffed in one bag. Or when the Cuban Customs agent asked another team member, a gentleman, about several packages of reusable feminine products. Then, on one trip, we brought gasoline siphons to help travel during the fuel shortage. After running my bag through the X-ray machine twice, Cuban Customs finally concluded it was scuba gear. These hilarious tales created treasured memories for many who traveled on these journeys. Over time, we learned how Cuban Customs flags bags for inspection, eliminating the stress of anticipating what will be inspected
The more I traveled and packed bags for Cuba, our process improved. After airlines could fly directly to Cuba, we checked our bags once, got charged one time, and picked up our bags in Cuba. The airlines had an embargo policy that limited the number of bags per person and the weight of each bag, but this cut our baggage fees in half. One hack I discovered was to make all airline reservations under my airline status, which allowed the entire team to get two checked bags at no charge. Our next hack was to accept the upgrade to first class on the first leg of the trip, which cost $90. This allowed us to take three 70-pound bags at no charge instead of the two 50-pound bags, saving $700 per person. Also, it more than doubled the supplies we could take in the country.
Over 12 years, 153 people hauled 18,000 pounds of resources onto the island. During that time, I tried to find a person or company to help ship to Cuba but found restrictions, dead ends, and even discouragement from those who lost shipments in Cuba. So, nothing really worked. Then, God used LinkedIn to kick off a series of connections and conversations, which led me to the Director of North Carolina US Export Assistance Centers and the Director of International Trade of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. These two guys help companies operate internationally – even in Cuba. In fact, this is the same complicated process used by the companies that send over $300M in relief goods to Cuba each year. The premise is that an approved export license from the US government will ensure the goods get treated the same way as the other $300M – delivered and not lost.
Why is this complicated? The Office of Foreign Assets Control, US Customs and Border Protection, the Department of State, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Commerce are all agencies within the US government responsible for the laws and regulations associated with enforcing the Embargo over Cuba. They provide a very complicated set of rules and compliance requirements we follow to operate legally in and out of Cuba.
With guidance from my connection at the Department of Commerce and three connections later, I worked on an application to get an export license for Atulado to ship supplies to Cuba. The application took 26 days to prepare. Consulting with an expert through these applications, we prepared all the necessary forms and data, and he coached me through the final application. The paperwork required to complete a shipment is unlike any form I’d ever seen – even tax forms. It is tedious and can be costly. One document comes with a penalty starting at $10,000 and goes up to $250,000 per field not completed on the form. Yes, I said per field, and many fields are on the form. Collecting the required detail takes time because they want information on precisely what you’re shipping. For example, the laptops must include the GFLOPS (whatever that means) and be within the guidelines set by the US government. Then, you must estimate the value of every item you may ship. I put over 200 items on the export license list – every individual item had to be listed, such as bicycle tires, motorcycle tires, and car tires, instead of just saying tires. Over the years, I kept a list of useful things to bring to Cuba. It served as a starting point. Then, I added things brought in the past and might bring in the future. I asked a few other ministries who travel to Cuba what they would bring and added more items. But in the end, with expert assistance, the Bureau of Industry and Security Foreign Policy Division only asked one question on my application. Our consultant was extremely invaluable!
After submitting the application, it took another 44 days to get the license approved. Then, it took another 34 days to find someone who would ship less than container load (LCL) to Cuba. Getting permission to receive items in Cuba is an entirely different process. Typically, you work with a freight forwarder who picks up the freight from your location, finds the ocean transport, and clears the shipment through the destination and Cuban Customs process. They also provide an option to deliver it to an address at your destination. This does not exist for Cuba. So, we needed someone on the Cuba side who understood the process. We also needed a registered business, as individuals cannot receive shipments this way. Without this critical contact, it could have halted the entire process, but God showed up in a powerful way. God connected me to Yamile; she is an administrator for a denomination in Cuba and helps churches get shipments through Cuban Customs. She then connected me with someone in Peru, who connected me to someone in Canada, and I found Central America Cargo, which ships LCL to Cuba.
I needed to test the process, so I spent seven days prepping the shipment for pick-up at my house. It took three days for UPS to get it to Miami and another six days to get it on a boat to Havana. From there, the test shipment spent three weeks in Cuban Customs to finally be released to Osmani. So, from the start of the application process to the shipment being released to Osmani, it took 141 days, and everything arrived!
The export license will connect more people to humanitarian and ministry resources. For instance, Cuban Customs for personal travel will allow ten baseballs per person or 40 baseballs with a team of four people. The test shipment delivered 480 baseballs. We took 700 water filters in four years. We prayerfully plan to ship 1,200 in one load in the coming months. We bought 410 soccer balls in 2018. We’ve sent 123 balls over five years because the balls don’t deflate and take up a lot of space. The test shipment delivered 253 balls at one time.
In addition to our shipments, we plan to help two other ministries clean out their storage units with resources they have been waiting to get into Cuba. Then, we will start shipping resources by the pallet. Numerous items on our shipping list offer chances to creatively spread the Word of God and share the Gospel while aiding those in need. First will be water filters. They are a powerful tool for evangelism where the church can serve as distribution points to their communities. Many verses in the Bible refer to Living Water – a symbol of salvation and knowledge of God. Water filters can be used similarly to share the Gospel, and church members can share clean water with neighbors. Next, we plan to equip seminary students with laptops loaded with Bible lesson materials, a Bible study platform built for pastors, and many other resources. Finally, we plan to ship cavity-filling material for Christian dentists who can share the Gospel with patients. All of this we commit to the Lord as in Proverbs 16:3: “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.”
A license to ship and having someone registered to receive the shipment changes everything. The days of being unable to get humanitarian and ministry resources onto the island unless someone physically flew to Cuba are gone. More people in need will receive resources when needed. And most importantly, getting critical supplies in the hands of more pastors and leaders allows them to connect with more people to share the Gospel and grow His Kingdom. Since we can now care for the biggest needs, traveling on future mission trips will allow us to focus on the unique needs of those we visit who serve the Church.
– Wayne Snyder