Cuba: Intro and Getting Permission

Posted by Arlo on Jan 22, 2004 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Looking down on Cuba and Florida (25k image)Arlo’s Guide to Traveling in Cuba

In December of 1999 I made my first trip down to Cuba. The University of Alaska, Southeast offered a month-long experiential learning class on the Language and Culture of Cuba. I went as a student and discovered that our media-inspired American fears about communist Cuba were completely unfounded. Just last month I completed my second UAS class in Cuba – going this time as a co-instructor. My second visit only confirmed what I already knew – Cuba is an amazing country; easily the most friendly and safest place I’ve ever been!

In the next few postings, I plan to use my weblog as travel guide of sorts for Cuba. If you have the opportunity to go, I hope that it will be useful. If you’re looking for a place to spend some vacation time, perhaps it will help you decide where. And maybe, just maybe, I can dispel some of our American propaganda against Cuba along the way…

Part the First: Getting Permission

Back in the 1950s, Fidel Castro looked to our government for help in overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. The United States was only too happy to lend a hand, but they took it as a slap in the face when, after taking control of Cuba, Castro opted to create a totalitarian communist government. Remember, this is in the late 50s / early 60s and communism wasn’t exactly popular. Things got worse when Russia moved in with their support.

Ever since those difficult political times, the U.S. has adhered to a strong economic embargo against Cuba. While seeing vintage American cars from the 40s and 50s on the streets of Havana is an amazing side effect to such tactics, it unfortunately means that traveling to Cuba for the average American has become rather more difficult.

The embargo doesn’t actually deny Americans access to Cuba – it just makes it so we can’t pay any money to any Cubans or any Cuban businesses. That makes it difficult to pay for a hotel, food, or for that matter, a plane ticket to get there.

Since the embargo (or El Bloqueo, as they call it in Cuba) is a trade embargo against Cuba, we have to petition The U.S. Department of the Treasury for permission to circumvent the regulations. Luckily, there are many reasons for which they’ll grant permission – humanitarian reasons, journalistic reasons, medical reasons, athletic reasons… and, of course, educational ones, too. Be prepared to wait awhile for them to make their decision, though. Apparently there’s a lot of red tape to get through. And hey, if after waiting a couple months, you get an unsatisfactory answer, don’t give up. It’s quite easy to get into Cuba illegally, too!

Many Americans are discovering Cuba right now simply by catching a flight from Mexico or Canada. Obviously those two countries don’t honor our embargo against our communist neighbors to the south and their airlines companies are more than happy to ferry you over for a reasonable price.

Just try not to get caught. I’ve heard a rumor that President Bush has started putting U.S. personnel in foreign airports just to stem the tide of vacationing Americans. If they get you, you can expect to pay fines up to $10,000 and/or face some prison time.

But seriously, it’s not as risky as all that makes it sound. Cuba will welcome you with open arms – they want your tourist dollars – and they know better than to do something obvious like stamp your passport. In fact, even if you ask them to stamp your passport they’ll look at you funny because the vast majority of Americans passing through their immigration counters are visiting Cuba illegally! I had to explain to them that I really did want a stamp because my own government had granted me permission to be there.

You shouldn’t have any problems returning to Mexico or Canada, either. Just make sure not to bring home any obvious giveaways when you cross back into the States. A box of Cohiba cigars or a bottle of Cuban rum will probably raise a few eyebrows on your way through the U.S. customs!

Next: Getting to Cuba