Tag Archives: cuba travel advice

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.

I Am Not Breaking the Law

I kinda can’t believe I haven’t covered this yet, but I really should:

I am an American.

I am not in Cuba illegally.

Rules of Engagment

I don’t have an extra passport or Cuban family.  I flew directly from Miami to Havana.  Both governments know I’m here.  Northeastern University applied for the licenses for all eight students and our accompanying professors.  I have a visa, which has been renewed.  We’re required to be here for at least ten weeks because changes made by Bush jr., and we’re required by CASA’s schedule to only stay here twelve weeks.

I am allowed to bring home art, handicrafts and educational materials. No cigars, no rum. Cuba would let me–America will not.

Well, How Did I Get Here?

That being said, it’s not hard to come here illegally.  Many more Americans than you would suspect come and go.  And some just come–but that’s another story.  You can fly through Canada, Jamaica, Cancun, Haiti, the Bahamas or any other Caribbean country.  From what I’ve heard, Cuba won’t stamp your passport (my visa is removable), and illegal travelers talk of slipping some money in your passport upon return to

There are many ways to come here legally.  If you are a diplomat, an athlete, a student or a Cuban-American you can apply for specific visas.  Humanitarians and business people can also come, under certain circumstances.

The Travel Ban

There’s also the oft-overlooked fact that we are not actually banned from traveling here: we are only banned from spending money.  That, coupled with the fact that few airlines and travel agents can fly us here make it pretty impossible to show up without crossing the line.  The so-called “travel ban” is actually just an aspect of the economic embargo.  The whole ordeal falls to the US Treasury, not the Department of State.  So if you get into trouble, don’t hesitate to go to the US Special Interest Section–they promise not to report you to the treasury.

So if you’d like to come here, which I recommend doing at some point, see if you can apply for a visa legally.  It’s a little time consuming, but it means not having to worry about any problems with customs.  And if you do come illegally?

Don’t lie, don’t have any Cuban money on you, and just plead the 5th.