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The Americans have landed [in Cuba]

The Americans have landed [in Cuba]

“You’re American?” a German woman asks my two companions, eyebrows raised in surprise. “How did you get in?”

We’re in a lift on our way down from the top floor bar of Parque Central Hotel in Havana where we had accidentally gate-crashed a well-to-do drinks reception. Yes, well-to-do drinks receptions do happen here, especially in bars of international hotels, and the German woman’s question is always the first to be asked of anyone wielding a U.S. accent.

“Well, we just sailed right in,” they admit, proudly. “We’re crewing a boat from the Caribbean.”

“Is that legal, then?” a young girl in front of us turns around to join the conversation.
“You’re American too?” I ask.

It turns out another gentleman in the lift is American as well. In fact, all the Americans I have yet met in Cuba are in this one elevator. Four of them in total, well, four-and-a-half including me. It would seem improbable, but we happen to be in one of the most suave international hotels here, which with its internet access and bona fide Coca Cola (as opposed to the Cuban own-brand Tu Cola) is something of a tourist haven.

For the short time we are in the lift together, there is some strange sort of camaraderie between the four-and-a-half of us, like we’re all part of a secret club, which the other 300 million Americans don’t know about yet. We’re the ones who found the door to Narnia and opened it.

“So how about you?” I ask the young girl. “Student?”

“I just jumped on a charter flight from New York,” she replies.

“How does that work? Won’t you be hassled getting back in?”

The bell chimes for her floor.

“Who knows what will happen,” she says nonchalantly as the doors close behind her, and then she’s gone.

I wish I had stopped her to find out exactly what she meant; Cuba has been under a US economic embargo for a preposterous 50 years, and just hopping on a flight to Havana is not an option. She had a point, though: Who knows what will happen? It seems to be the only sensible answer to speculation about the future of a post-travel ban Cuba.

It is equally hard to say when that time will come. President Obama’s policy change may have eased restrictions, resulting in the Treasury Department once again allowing so-called “people-to-people” licenses facilitating cultural, religious and educational travel to Cuba, but whether this is indicative of the proximity of a total lift of the travel ban is a subject for much debate.

So, what is the situation for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba now? While it is not technically illegal, US citizens are prohibited from spending money in Cuba, which is tantamount to the same thing. A great many flout the ban and travel here illegally, flying to Mexico or Canada from where they can buy a ticket to Cuba. The chance of getting caught is slim. The Cuban authorities do not stamp your passport, instead issuing all travelers (not just Americans) with a 30-day visa on a separate piece of paper, which is stamped upon exit. Lose it at risk of entering the theatre of the absurd that is Cuban bureaucracy, but that peril aside, unless you march up to U.S. Immigration and announce you had a great time in Cuba, it is unlikely they will ever find out.

You don’t have to break the law, though. Up until now only scholars, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reason to travel to Cuba have been able to get licenses to spend money here, but Obama’s reintroduction of “people-to-people” licenses has opened the window of opportunity, albeit only a crack.

There are now a whole host of official cultural programs on offer from travel companies licensed under new rules passed in 2011. These are not typical rum-glugging, cigar-smoking, beach-bumming Caribbean packages. The emphasis has firmly been placed on learning about the Cuban culture, and the itineraries are packed with educational activities from art tours to music programs. I’ll write about these in more detail later.

The result of these changes has seen legal travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens rise, though the effect of this is yet to be felt on the ground with Americans a scarce sight. They still have a certain novelty factor here, and each conversation begins with the question of their arrival.

Americans are as universally greeted with friendliness by Cubans as any other nationality. What many people don’t realise is not only the huge curiosity here about the world outside of Cuba — travel beyond Cuba is not a possibility for most Cubans — but also the open-arms policy for tourists, who represent the greatest opportunity for financial stability.

One taxi driver summed up the attitude you will most likely receive here very well; he shook my American friend’s hand, and thanked him for taking the risk of coming to experience the country for himself to make up his own mind.

May 2010

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