Travel restrictions to Cuba eased — but only a bit

El Morro fortress
Photo by Catherine Watson
The view from the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard

President Barack Obama on Monday officially eased one aspect of the half-century-old standoff between Cuba and the United States, dropping restrictions on visits and remittances from Cuban-Americans to their relatives still on the island.

The reasons include furthering the civil rights of Cubans in Cuba and, as one policy adviser said, there could be “no better ambassadors than Cuban Americans.”

Left unanswered, however, was another civil rights question — one that comes up for American travelers every time the island nation is mentioned:

When will the rest of us potential ambassadors get to go to Cuba?

Some of us, including me, go anyway, despite the U.S. government’s longstanding travel ban. I went this winter, in fact, for the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution on New Year’s Day — a trip I can defend because American journalists are officially “licensed” by the U.S. Treasury Department. It was my fourth working trip to the island.

‘I’ve only met one other American’
“I’ve been coming here for 10 years,” a tourist from London said, overhearing my accent in a Havana restaurant on this visit, “and I’ve only met one other American. Why is that?”

He must have been the only guy in the country who didn’t know. All the Cubans I’ve met over the same last 10 years know perfectly well why we’re not supposed to be there. Cuban immigration officers don’t even stamp American passports — the Cuban visa is a separate piece of paper, and they stamp that instead, leaving U.S. passports unsullied so we can get home again.

“My government says it’s illegal for us to come here,” I told the Brit. That’s an oversimplification, but the real answer defies logic:  “Technically,” I said, “Americans can go to Cuba — we just can’t spend any money in Cuba.”

The idea made him laugh. I’d have laughed too, if the American trade embargo and its consequences weren’t so sad.

A rare relic from the Cold War
Cubans call it “el bloqueo” — the blockade — and it is almost as old as the Cuban Revolution itself. It is a rare relic from the Cold War, pinned in place like a dead butterfly in some museum exhibit and just about as effective.

The original idea was to pressure Castro’s communist government until it collapsed or at least improved, but the embargo only caused more hardship for the Cuban people.

“You are friends with China!” a middle-aged Cuban man told me this winter, frustration in his voice. “You are friends with Vietnam! Why not Cuba? Cuba is no threat to the United States!”

We had this conversation in an unlikely place — high above Havana, on the open rooftop of the Bacardi Building, one of the city’s most beautiful office towers. The building, an Art Deco gem, is the former headquarters of the famous rum-distilling empire, some of whose exiles in Miami wouldn’t exactly mind getting this property back. The political power of Cuban-Americans like them has helped keep the embargo in place.

In U.S., opinions are all over the map
Elsewhere at home, opinions vary all over the political map. Some Americans say the embargo should stay in force and that U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba are trading with the enemy.

Others — and I am one of these — believe that travel is a basic freedom and that as long as the embargo holds, we’re simply giving the Cuban government a scapegoat: The embargo lets it blame all of its social and economic ills on Imperial America. Which it does, tediously.

Amazingly, ordinary Cubans don’t. Even now, they still manage to make the distinction between the American government and the American people.

I’ve traveled nearly the whole length of this almost 800-mile-long island — laid over a U.S. map, it would stretch from Missouri to Washington, D.C. — and I’ve never once met a Cuban who wasn’t friendly. Even after I explained that I wasn’t a Canadian.

That nationality is always a fair guess there, since Canada accounts for more than a third of Cuba’s flourishing tourist trade, the country’s biggest industry. Cuba’s official total was 2.3 million international tourists last year, an astonishing number given that the island’s population is only 11.4 million.

Plazas overrun with Italians, French
That is why the magnificently restored plazas of Old Havana were overrun this winter with noisy, sun-hungry tour groups from Italy and France, and why there were enough independent tourists from other countries to make up a small multilingual army.

Well-done museums and exquisite shops have been opened to serve them, and more and more of Havana’s Spanish-Colonial convents and palaces are being turned into hotels to lodge them.

These restorations make the heart of the capital the best example of historic preservation that I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The restored veneer, however, is mighty thin.

Go a block or two off Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s main pedestrian street, or stray beyond the popular restaurants on Plaza Vieja, and you see how the rest of Havana is still living. Very little of it had changed since I was last there, in 2002.

Streets strewn with rubble
Most streets are still potholed and strewn with rubble. Streetlights are so scarce that I carried a flashlight whenever I went out after dark. Once-handsome buildings, victims of 50 years of hurricanes and neglect, look derelict even when they’re occupied — facades broken, shutters hanging, windows patched with plywood and cardboard. And their occupancy is dense: Family laundry flies like flags from every balcony — a clue to how many households an apartment building actually holds.

Cuba sounds — and in many ways looks — like a Third World country. But it isn’t, and that’s disconcerting. No matter what you think of its politics, Cuba defies comparisons. It is truly like nowhere else.

Consider: It’s a poor country, but its people have universal health care. Its child-mortality rate is lower than ours. Its primary schools have been ranked highest in the hemisphere, and its literacy rate — 99.8 percent — is higher than in the States.

This explains why, whenever I’ve gotten lost, every Cuban I asked — including janitors and field hands — could read a map and give me directions, something that isn’t always the case at home.

Hardships and shortages still persist. People I met this winter complained that fresh fruit, eggs and potatoes were scarce because of last year’s hurricanes, and in the neighborhood where I stayed, somebody was going door to door, almost every day, selling cooked rice or some other surplus foodstuff.

But nobody denies that things are better than they were in the mid-’90s, after the old Soviet Union collapsed and took the island’s sole market for sugar down with it.

‘The special period’
Fidel Castro called those years  the “Special Period,” a time when ordinary Cubans endured shortages of everything, including food, fuel, clothing, even toiletries.  (As late as 1999, when I made my first trip there, old ladies would still come up to you on Havana streets and beg for soap.)

To survive, Cuba turned to an almost virgin resource: its beautiful beaches. There are about 400 of them, mostly undeveloped. Through joint partnerships with investors from other countries — but not ours — the Cuban government began to create a resort empire on Varadero Beach, a gorgeous stretch of sand east of Havana. It flourished.

By 1996, tourism had become Cuba’s economic mainstay, and it’s still growing. So far, the new wealth benefits only a small section of the population, but more people seemed better off this winter than they had when I last saw the island.

There were more stores, with more goods that ordinary folks might actually want — attractive shoes, washing machines, TV sets, even cell phones — something that Fidel’s younger brother Raul, now in charge of the country, allowed Cubans to own this year.

The downside: Social equilibrium is upset
The downside of tourism is that it upsets whatever social equilibrium Cuba had managed to establish. It isn’t just a matter of having a lot of wealthy strangers in town.

Because people who work with tourists get tips, a taxi driver in Old Havana can easily make more money in an evening than a government doctor can in a month. That’s spawned a lot of inventive entrepreneurship, some attempts more successful — if less legal — than others. 

I saw many examples every time I walked through Old Havana this time: Women in flouncy Carmen Miranda costumes charging tourists for taking pictures of them. Stilt walkers in satin and feathers stalking the streets, performing for money. Scalpers outside the Gran Teatro undercutting the official price on tickets to the (superb) Ballet Nacional. Cute young Cuban girls enthusiastically arm in arm with old, baggy-skinned tourist men in shorts and street shoes.    

Entrepreneurial families
Tourism even turns some Cubans into spur-of-the-moment entrepreneurs. One night, heading home after dark, I hailed a taxi, but what stopped turned out to be a young family — dad, mom and toddler — in a 10-year-old sedan.

“What do you normally pay?” the dad asked. I told him, and off we went.

Cuba’s pre-Revolution American cars — the pre-1958 geriatrics that are now a national icon  — are still on the streets. But they aren’t as noticeable in Havana as they used to be because newer ones, like my “taxi,” have been coming in. Some of the oldies, restored and polished, are now available for tourists to rent; they tool around with “Rent a Fantasy” stenciled on their doors.

If this sounds like free enterprise, it isn’t. Cuba’s tourist industry, now sophisticated enough to offer everything from budget tours to five-star hotels, is still tightly controlled by the government, like everything else.

Just as most Americans can’t yet travel to Cuba, Cubans can’t freely leave, and communication from the outside remains limited. There are four government-controlled TV channels, for example, and while I was there, one was largely given over to sober speeches and documentaries commemorating the Revolution.

“We can get television from Florida, too,” one woman said — the island, after all, is only 90 miles from Key West — but before she switched it on for me,  she checked to make sure her front door was safely shut, and she kept the sound turned down low, so the wrong people wouldn’t hear.

An alternate universe
Even though it’s geographically so close to the United States, Cuba always makes me feel as if I’m on the other side of the moon, in some tropical version of an alternate universe, where my assumptions get turned upside down and my expectations smashed. Case in point: The 50th anniversary itself.

I’d gone to Cuba this time expecting that the Revolution’s big birthday would be celebrated the way the old Soviet Union feted May Day — outdoors, not just on TV, and with lots of boastful hoopla,  parades, marching bands, and cadres of soldiers strutting down some important street.

None of that happened. There were a few more banners around Havana, and some smallish commemorative posters bearing Fidel’s image, but I saw more Christmas decorations in shop windows than patriotic displays.

And instead of a military parade, the Communist government held — wait for it — a rock concert. A free New Year’s rock concert on a stage set up on the Malecon, Havana’s lovely seaside boulevard — set up, rather pointedly, smack in front of the U.S. Special Interests Section, which substitutes for an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations.

The concert started at 10:30 p.m., and by then people had been streaming into the area for more than an hour. There were no seats — people just stood, packing tighter and tighter together, until the crowd got so big and dense it could have passed for one of Fidel’s mass rallies.  

Boulevard filled with Spandex
Every teenager in Havana must have been there. Cubans are good-looking people anyway, and when they dress up, they really glitter. This crowd wore gold chains and spangles, hair cream and heavy perfume, and so much tightly stretched Spandex that the clothing of both sexes practically twanged.

A political speaker opened the show, but none of the kids around me paid him the slightest attention until he got to the mandatory vivas, and even then …  

“Viva la Revolucion!” he yelled over the loudspeakers. Viva, a few voices murmured back.

“Viva Fidel!” Viva, a few more people said, slightly louder.

“Viva Cuba!” Loud vivas this time, but still not inspired. Everybody was too busy flirting.

Then the music started to blast, the strobes came on, and the crowd exploded. A girl in front of me, in big hoop earrings and a tight white dress, turned around to look at me. I stood out like — well, like a tourist. But I shouldn’t have minded.

“Want some rum?” she asked. “We’re not supposed to bring it here, but …” She opened her purse to reveal a wrapped bottle, and the other kids with her grinned, and her boyfriend offered plastic cups.

“Where’re you from?” she asked. I told her, and the reaction I got is what I suspect we’ll all get, when the rest of the American travel ban is finally lifted.

“Welcome to Cuba,” the girl said, in English, and offered to pour.    

Catherine Watson is an award-winning writer, photographer and teacher. A former travel editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, she is the author of “Roads Less Traveled ” (Syren, 2005) and “Home on the Road” (Syren, 2007). Her work appears in two new collections, “Best American Travel Writing” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and “Best Women’s Travel Writing” (Travelers’ Tales, 2009).

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Chris Mau on 04/15/2009 - 10:07 am.

    While I agree that the US should normalize relations with Cuba, I’m concerned that the Cuban government will be unable to withstand the “pressures” of a potential massive influx of capital into their economic system. Corruption and vice could easily overwhelm the government as it did prior to Castro. The article even hints at one of these problems in stating that, “Cute young Cuban girls (are seen) enthusiastically arm in arm with old, baggy-skinned tourist men in shorts and street shoes.”

    I think it’s essential that the US move slowly and deliberately towards removing all sanctions against Cuba. This will give their government time to establish the regulatory and social structures needed to prevent a return to the mafia-dominated pre-Castro years. Obama’s recent easing of travel and money transfer restrictions is a good first step. A good second step might be for the US to facilitate investment in Cuba by established reputable American high tech and manufacturing corporations. By helping Cuba create good jobs for its people, I think we can greatly increase the odds that Cuba one day becomes a stable prosperous nation and a good friend of the US.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/15/2009 - 02:42 pm.

    Not only do Cubans have universal health care and a 99.8% literacy rate, they also don’t die from hurricanes. When one is forecast, everyone gathers up their kids and chickens and other important stuff and head for the hills. When the storm is over, they go home.

    We cling to our embargo to please the Cubans who fled their country when the revolution led by Fidel Castro succeeded, but apparently are also troubled by some human rights violations (some 500 Cubans have been jailed without charge for decades).

    The administration says it wants Cubans to have the right to freely choose their own government, by which I suppose they mean to freely choose “democracy and capitalism,” as George Bush used to say, rather than following the truly enlightened Latin American leaders who are building economies like those of post-World War II Europe. (Or so it seems from the administration’s public announcements.) The Europeans called it Democratic Socialism; the Latin Americans call it Bolivarian Socialism, but it seems to work the same.

  3. Submitted by Peter Frost on 04/16/2009 - 02:35 pm.

    Good read. Thanks, Catherine.

  4. Submitted by Bruce Glasrud on 04/16/2009 - 10:23 pm.

    How exactly, is it not discrimination based upon ethnic,/national origin, for Cuban-American citzens to be allowed to travel to Cuba, but not Scandinavian-American citizens? I’ll flippantly hope that the ACLU gets this straightened-out before winter sents in again. But, I’m quite serious that this is a discriminatory practice that an Administration, one founded upon equal rights no less, should have certainly not taken forward.

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