Music Video by local artist Miguel Perez, “90 Miles”, miguelperezmusic.com
by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Last week, I was doing some research, looking through some of the early issues of The Blue Paper when I ran across a little article headlined “U.S. Could Authorize Travel to Cuba.” According to that article, which was published in our April 15, 1994, issue, then-Senator John Kerry was seeking “to pry open the Clinton administration’s hardline Cuban policy by pushing for an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (FRAA).” The amendment. which was subsequently approved by Congress, allowed Americans to travel to Cuba for informational, educational, religious, humanitarian and cultural purposes. That caused a lot of excitement here on the island of Key West, especially among the large Cuban community. There was a time, before Castro, when Havana was Key Westers’ nearby big city– just a three-hour ferryboat ride away. Even when Hemingway lived in Key West, he often hung out in Havana. There was even a Sloppy Joe’s Bar down there.
But in reality, with the passage of the 1994 amendment to the FRAA, nothing much changed here. Any American citizen who thought that they would be able to just jump on a plane or a ferryboat (or even their own boat) and legally hop the 90 miles down to Cuba were to be disappointed. Any American who wanted to go to Cuba still had to get permission in advance from the Office of Foreign Assets Control– which means that they had to explain to some bureaucrat in Washington that their purpose in traveling to Cuba was really informational, educational, religious, humanitarian or cultural– and not just to go sightseeing and laze on the beach. Some Key Westers and other Americans did go to the trouble to qualify and did legally travel to the island. But most didn’t.
But it’s all different now, you may be thinking. After all, just last year, the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with Cuba! So, now– right now– you can just jump on a plane or a ferryboat (or your own personal boat) and legally hop down to Cuba. Right? Wrong. That may happen sometime in the future. But not now. Let me give you the bottom line here, plain and simple, according to the Treasury Department’s latest Frequently Asked Questions document, dated December 21, 2015. Q: Are sanctions on Cuba still in place? A: Yes, the Cuba embargo remains in place. Most transactions between U.S. citizens and Cuba continue to be prohibited. Q: Is travel to Cuba for tourist activities permitted? A: No. Got that? It is still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists.
But having said that, the government has now introduced 12 “categories of authorized travel” under which Americans desiring to legally travel to Cuba might qualify: 1. Family visits; 2. Official government business; 3. Journalistic activity; 4. Professional research and professional meetings; 5. Educational activities; 6. Religious activities; 7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions; 8. Support for the Cuban people; 9. Humanitarian projects; 10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; Exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials; Certain other export transactions. Again, note that going to Cuba as a tourist is not one of the authorized categories.
The good news here is that, if you qualify for one of these authorized categories of travel, you do not have to get approval from Washington in advance to travel to the island. You simply make your flight arrangements– there is no ferry service between the Key West and Cuba right now– and tell your carrier which travel category you will be traveling under. Sort of like the honor system. But you will also have to sign something like an affidavit and, presumably, that info will be forwarded to the U.S. government– and federal investigators will make the decision as to whether or not they want to followup to check on your truthfulness. Both airlines and travelers are required to maintain these records for at least five years. Although several airlines have announced they will soon begin direct flights from Key West to Havana, only Havana Air seems to be actually selling tickets and flying the route. According to the company’s website, Friday and Monday flights are currently scheduled aboard nine-passenger commuter aircraft. A round-trip ticket costs $540, plus $20 per checked bag.
If you plan to travel to Cuba, you will need a current U.S. passport (with an expiration date of at least six months beyond the date you plan to leave Cuba and two blank pages for entry and exit stamps), a Cuban visa and non-U.S. health insurance. Both the visa and health insurance are Cuban government requirements and will probably be bundled into the cost of your airline ticket– or you will be advised how to obtain them. A visa costs $25. Health insurance costs $3 for each day of your planned stay. There is also a $25 departure tax when you leave Cuba. Americans who travel to Cuba under one of the authorized travel categories may bring back up to $400 in goods for personal use, including up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco products– including Cuban cigars.
It should not be surprising that many travel experts are saying that Cuba is not ready for an influx of American tourism– that accommodations and related amenities are simply not up to the standards to which many Americans are accustomed. This may be a plus for some Americans– overcoming the challenges and putting up with the inconveniences in order to see Cuba now, before the destination is ruined by massive American tourism. But others will choose to wait until the destination becomes more “American,” as it surely will. Here are a few examples of the “inconveniences:”
CREDIT CARDS AND TRAVELERS CHECKS. Are you ready for this? Generally, credit cards and travelers checks issued by American banks are NOT accepted in Cuba. Even if you might find a merchant who will accept your credit card, expect to see a huge “commission” added to the total. In essence, Cuba is a cash society. This means that you have to bring enough cash to cover your entire stay– because, if you run low on money, it is very difficult to get additional cash through the local banks. Do not count on being able to use ATMs. Once in Cuba, you will not be able to spend your American dollars. You will need to exchange them for Cuban pesos– at a cost of about 10 percent of the amount you’re exchanging. Use only official exchange locations, such as a hotel, bank or government exchange bureaus.
CELL PHONES AND INTERNET. Your American cell phone won’t work in Cuba. And there is little or no access to the internet. Some hotels have internet service for guests, but you should expect to pay a premium per-minute rate and encounter slow connection speeds. Perhaps part of the “adventure” of visiting Cuba is to experience how it feels to be unplugged.
SAFETY. Cuba is an impoverished nation and, although crime is not a major problem, tourists are logical targets for bag snatchers and pickpockets. They know that you will probably be carrying what is to them a significant amount of cash. Use common sense. Don’t walk alone at night, especially in Old Havana. Keep your wallet and passport in a front pocket. And you might consider leaving your “bling” at home. Tourists walking around wearing dazzling jewelry and designer watches are just asking for trouble. Beware of street hustlers.
POLITICS. You are advised not to express any negative opinions about the Castros or the Cuban government. By our American free speech standards, this advice may seem ridiculous. But keep in mind that you are visiting a communist country, and government officials are often paranoid when it comes to Americans. You are also advised not to take photos of military or police personnel or installations.
HEALTH. Don’t drink the tap water. Drink only bottled water. And brush your teeth with bottled water, too. This way, you will only be able to blame too many mojitos for any stomach upsets. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites typhoid and hepatitis A as possible concerns in Cuba.
If there is a conclusion here, it is that– while it is now just a little easier for Americans to travel to Cuba legally– the fact is that Cuba ain’t “open” yet. Not by a long shot. It is likely to get there. But probably not for awhile. But another fact here is that some Key Westers and other Americans have been traveling to Cuba illegally for years. And you still can, if your’re willing to take the risk. Just book a flight that stops in another country– like the Bahamas or Mexico– before continuing on to Cuba. Reportedly, the Cubans don’t care and, reportedly, they won’t stamp your passport if you ask them not to. Some of the airline websites actually promote this strategy for “adventurous” travelers.
If you live in Key West, you may know private boat owners who have traveled illegally to Cuba. But most boat owners would probably not take the risk. Keep in mind that the U.S. Coast Guard patrols the waters between Key West and Cuba. If caught cruising to Cuba illegally, a boat owner could face a $10,000 fine, up to 10 years in jail and confiscation of his boat.
POSTSCRIPT. Things are changing rapidly in Cuba as relations with the United States improve– so some of the information I am reporting to you here may be obsolete before we even go to press. So, if you have recently been to Cuba or if you have new information from other sources, please leave a comment. If you’re interested in more information about traveling to Cuba, start with the 18-page Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba document available from the U.S. Treasury Department. Just Google “frequently asked questions related to Cuba.”
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