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Ask Georgia

Ask Georgia

I’ve been back from Cuba for almost two months and, with the fervor of the mildly obsessed, will talk anyone’s ear off about it if they ask me one simple question. Most people ask the same sorts of things, and I’ve decided to take a few minutes to really answer these questions instead of just saying “Oh, Cuba was just great,” over and over again.

Was it like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights?
This is the number one most-asked question that people have about Cuba, I kid you not. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen that movie (although now I guess I should). However, if it’s like the first one, then no, I did not fall in love with my creepily age-inappropriate dance instructor.

This question just proves though, how little Americans actually know about Cuba. Most people’s knowledge of Cuba is extremely limited, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is  probably the most that they know about Cuba. Think about your American and world history classes- did any of them ever mention our southern neighbor, except maybe a cursory nod at the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War unit?

Before going to the island, I was like that too. As far as Cuba went, I knew a handful of buzzwords: Castro, cigars, Bay of Pigs, Mr. Worldwide (yes, embarrassingly enough Pitbull is one of the few *illustrious* Cubans I knew of). I spent three months there soaking up everything I could, but I feel like I only discovered a tiny fraction of the history, culture and lifestyle of Cuba. Sadly, that tiny fraction is still a world more than most Americans have ever been exposed to, so I’ll take it.

Wait, I thought it was illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. How did you go?
?Technically, it’s not illegal for Americans to go to Cuba, it’s just illegal for us to spend money in Cuba or on Cuba-related travel transactions. Unfortunately, last time I checked, plane tickets weren’t free.

Americans can receive a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, authorizing spending money in Cuba and hence, travel to Cuba. OFAC grants general licenses to people with family in Cuba, journalists, educational programs through accredited universities, religious organizations, and professionals conducting research, and also grants specific licenses for different cases, including trips that promote “meaningful people-to-people cultural exchanges,” which is how many Americans are getting to see Cuba these days.

Doesn’t sound that hard to go, right? Well, these are the eased-up regulations that Obama introduced in 2011. Prior to that, educational programs had to be at least 10 weeks, family visits were limited to once every three years , and any organization, like National Geographic or a city’s chamber of commerce, who wanted to take a group on a cultural exchange could forget about it.

Since I went through the College of Charleston’s annual semester abroad, we traveled under a general education license, but before Obama’s changes, CofC had to apply for a specific license for the program.

I thought that more of the people we met on the street would be surprised to see us forbidden Americans waltzing around Havana, but no one was particularly stunned. For years, Americans have been going on vacation to Cuba, just sneaking in through a third country, like Mexico or the Bahamas, and having the Cuban Customs officials look the other way. Cuban Customs won’t stamp your passport, no matter if you’re traveling licensed or not. Our CofC program director pointed out that having a Cuban stamp on your passport will put you through undue scrutiny in the future, whether you were allowed to be in Cuba or not, so I had to content myself with letting Cuba stamp itself on my brain and not a little embossed booklet.

How was Cuba?
Sorry friends, this is the absolute worst question. Would you ask someone “How is America?” That is the most open-ended question. What do you want to know?

Cuba, like any other place, can’t neatly be summed up in a few sentences. It’s a rich and complex world, practically another planet away from our cushy lives in the U.S. I’m trying to avoid generalizing and acting like a know-it-all expert about Cuba just because I spent a few months there.

I saw what I saw: a place where kids aren’t inundated with commercialism from day one. A country that may not be the wealthiest in the world, but didn’t seem to have the abject poverty and misery of its Latin American compatriots. A world where success is not necessarily defined by what sports car you drive. A society that will laugh and joke with you, no matter where you’re from or what you do.

So, how was Cuba? It wasn’t perfect. But it gave me the chance to see life under a different system, a system where exorbitant medical bills and college tuition don’t exist and, though it may not equal our land of excess and abundant choices, everyone gets enough.

July 2011

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