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Destination Revisited: Cuba…It’s Complicated but Getting Easier

Janet and I have enjoyed many unique travel experiences, but I have to say one of the most memorable was our trip to Cuba four years ago. We enjoyed seeing the country and we loved the opportunity it gave us to interact with the Cuban people. That trip highlighted the core principle of one of our suppliers…a principle we embrace through our travel business, “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” We didn’t realize at the time of our Cuba trip how difficult it would soon become to make a return visit, but getting back to Cuba remains high on our list of travel goals and it just got a bit easier.

Travel to Cuba has been a bit of a roller coaster, starting with President Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions, followed by President Trump’s rollback of those more permissive rules, ending with President Biden’s pledge to revisit relations with Cuba. The anticipated return to a more relaxed set of travel rules has been slow and was interrupted by COVID, but I’m happy to report there has been some recent progress. While COVID related travel restrictions in Cuba have been lifted, tourist travel to Cuba is still restricted for Americans…you can’t decide to take a weekend hop to Havana from Miami and spend your time on the beach. But commercial flights have resumed, you can still visit, and we can help you get there.

The good news comes with the resumption of travel under the State Department’s People-to-People program. Tours were suspended toward the end of the Trump Presidency but resumed in November. Americans can once again legally visit Cuba, provided you book a compliant tour through a licensed tour operator. We work with several suppliers licensed to offer compliant tours and I’ve looked at their itineraries…they are similar to the tour Janet and I took when we cruised to Cuba in 2019. The People-to-People restrictions are built into the tour itinerary, so you don’t feel constrained…in most respects it is no different than traveling with any organized tour group.

For now you’ll have to settle for land tours in Cuba, which is the best way to visit anyway. Cruise lines are again prohibited from sailing to Cuba from the U.S., but even once they are permitted to return, I don’t see cruises quick to resume. The cruise lines have become mired in a civil suit brought by descendants of the owners of Havana Docks, a company located in Florida that claims ownership of the Havana port facilities that were nationalized following the revolution. The suit is a mess, claiming that the cruise lines illegally benefitted from the use of the Havana Docks facilities in Cuba under the more relaxed travel policies of the Obama administration. A Florida judge ruled in favor of Havana Docks last month, to the tune of a $440 million dollar penalty against the cruise lines, a ruling which the cruise lines are appealing. Regardless of how that suit turns out, I don’t see any cruise line sailing to Cuba from the U.S. until the Cuban government completes construction of a new cruise pier and terminal, a project that was just getting started when we visited.

One aspect of our tour that impressed me was the open access we had to the Cuban people. We weren’t restricted from interacting with anybody we encountered. Some chose not to talk with us, but most openly and willingly discussed life in Cuba. And they didn’t pull their punches…they gave us an unvarnished view of their lives. Some remembered the days before the Castro revolution and had valuable perspectives on how much has changed since then. Younger Cubans only know life in today’s Cuba, and they expressed more impatience toward gaining greater freedom.

One of my most memorable exchanges during our trip came in Havana with a Cuban named Carlos, one of our tour guides. Carlos was close to my age, and as we chatted over the course of a long bus ride, we found that we had more in common than either of us would have thought. At one point he shared his love of baseball, and when I told him I grew up with Oriole’s baseball he proudly showed me a picture on his cell phone from when he played with a community league. His team was the O’s, and he sported an authentic looking O’s jersey. Carlos also shared his desire to visit the U.S., mainly because he wanted to see the 2-year-old granddaughter that he had never met. His daughter left Cuba, legally, and settled, again legally, in Texas. Carlos had permission from the Cuban government to visit the U.S., the only restriction he faced was the slow pace of visa approvals from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. I’ve thought of Carlos often since our visit, as I read about termination of visa processing several years ago and more recently when I read that our embassy resumed visa processing just a few weeks ago. I hope Carlos can soon visit his family in Texas and see the granddaughter he’s never met.

Like Carlos, several of our tour guides related to us that it wasn’t difficult to leave Cuba. They shared their own experience of legally emigrating, only to decide after being away for a few years that the expat life wasn’t for them. They returned because they wanted to live in their homeland, in spite of the difficulties that came along with such a life. And they didn’t shy away from describing those difficulties. Divorce and alcoholism are both widespread in Cuba and make family life difficult. Food is rationed, and it can take several months of saving rations to collect the ingredients necessary just to make a simple birthday cake.

One of the comments a Cuban shared with me struck me as very sad. Before the revolution he worked in manufacturing, but he told me they don’t make anything in Cuba anymore. When Castro brought the Soviet Union into the country, the government turned to Soviet imports to meet almost all of their manufacturing needs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba came to rely on oil rich Venezuela for their needs, but by the time of our visit that relationship too had soured. There were clear signs of China’s growing influence…the brand-new tour buses we traveled on were made in China. But it is costly for Cuba to import products from Asia, and they know that isn’t the answer. The people I spoke with expressed their desire to get back to making at least some of the things they need…in Cuba and by Cubans, but they expressed the need for help to get there.

Tourism remains one of the few bright spots for Cuba’s economy…we are one of the few countries that still prohibit tourist travel. Even Canada allows their citizens to visit with nothing more than a passport and a visa. Cuba’s tourism industry has fueled a growing partnership between the government and private citizens. Money brought in by private business ownership though tourism is taxed…at a rate of about 8% from what we were told, which the Cubans involved gladly paid. It brought in money they could use to buy food and other necessities that are otherwise rationed or in short supply from government stores.

Cuba is a far cry from its pre-Castro heydays. Much of the once beautiful architecture has sadly deteriorated, but the Cuban spirit remains alive in her people. A visit to today’s Cuba is a sobering experience, but one well worth making. I won’t forget the time we spent on our trip, nor will I forget the many conversations we had with people like Carlos. Our visits help fuel their dreams of a better Cuba, with the ability to one day live and work in freedom. I don’t understand all of the complexities involved in our government’s position on Cuba, but I have to think tourism is one way we can improve things without feeding whatever it is our government fears in the current Cuban regime.

Let me say again that I highly recommend visiting Cuba. Even with the constraints of the People-to-People program, you’ll come away with experiences that will challenge what you thought you knew about Cuba, and with a better appreciation for the plight of the Cuban people. Seeing Cuba for yourself is truly the best example of how you can “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” Give us a call and we’ll set you up for a legal, compliant tour that you won’t soon forget.

(Originally posted on 22 Jan 2023)

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