Individual, get-on-a-plane-and-go-to-Cuba travel isn’t yet available to Americans. But along with seventeen people we haven’t yet met, we’re off on Thursday to Havana.
flightstats.com listed arrivals at Jose Marti airport (HAV) yesterday from Canada, Mexico, Panama City, Peru, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Argentina, Russia, France, Venezuela, Italy, Spain and Germany. In fact, a Cuban American with family in Havana wrote me, “We were in Old Havana for Christmas and I felt my cousins were the only Cubans walking around in the city! Everyone else was either European or Chinese!”
It’s a long-lasting legacy of 1960s politics that Americans can’t travel freely to Cuba. More precisely, Americans can’t spend money there without an Office of Foreign Assets Control license from the U.S. Treasury Department, as codified in the Treasury Department’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations.
A small Treasury Department booklet subtitled “What you need to know about U.S. sanctions against Cuba” came with our travel documents.
The Obama administration has resumed a program of “Person to Person” exchanges begun in the Clinton administration and suspended for the Bush years. Charter flights resumed last August.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control issues “Person to Person licenses” to organizations. Individuals may then travel with these organizations under their licenses.
But not merely for a few days at the beach. These licensed tour groups must develop “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
There’s never been a time when you couldn’t visit Afghanistan or the Axis of Evil countries of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, if you could get a visa. Never mind that. The anti-Castro community, led by Florida Representative Iliana Ros-Lehtinen (who was born in Havana and represents Miami and the Keys), and Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who wasn’t), is adamant about keeping Americans out of Cuba.
In trying to limit American travel, the anti-Castro lobby keeps the pressure on about that “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities,” apparently on the theory that for Americans, a vacation without quality beach time isn’t worth taking.
So Cuba travel providers must stick to itineraries that, in our case for example, take us to “Sociocultural Project Cabildo Quisicuaba” and the Literacy Museum, among other places. One email gently reminded us to “please remember that full participation on your program is required.”
It’s the price of seeing Cuba before the arrival of American mass tourism, and we’ve judged that it’s worth paying. We’ll just have to see if we’re right.
This whole travel-to-Cuba exercise may have more allure than it ought to for Americans, to whom it’s so long been forbidden. We may just turn up to find a decaying revolucion helped along by the usual torpor of the tropics, and not much more.
But I hope there’s more. My Cuban American friend wrote, “Just to get a glimpse of Havana is worthwhile – you can still see her beauty.”
In any case, we’ve got to go and see, and we’ll report here. After a day of educational exchange activities on Thursday, when the full moon rises over Havana’s Malecon on Thursday night, you’ll find me on the terrace of the Nacional Hotel enjoying one more little forbidden thrill – a hand-rolled Cuban cigar.
(One note, though – online reviews suggest the internet is maddeningly slow in Havana. So CS&W may be forced into temporary radio silence for four days starting Thursday.)