through US customs after a one week trip to Cuba in September, via
a third country, was not a pleasant experience. US laws prohibiting
such travel are not very clear. I knew this much though:
The travel ban, and Us policy toward
Cuba are absurd. It seemed to me the laws merely hurt the less fortunate
Cubans and did little to change destructive policies set by Castro's
regime. My trip strengthened these convictions.
Large fines could be imposed on
me and my fellow travelers if custom officials found out we were
Apparently, no American had been
penalized to date for unauthorized travel.
We passed through customs without
One week earlier I stepped off a
plane with my companions and found a hotel room in the town of Veradaro.
The seaside resort is thought by many to have some of the most beautiful
beaches in the world, and indeed was a haven for rich American tourists
before Castro seized foreign assets.
Thousands of Classic American cars
dot the countryside, adding to the surreal atmosphere of Cuba
Some of the town's former glory
remains in the form of crumbling villas. But the old resort was
not an entirely pretty site. There was a vast income inequality,
and gambling and prostitution were ubiquitous. Castro's 1990s joint
partnerships with companies in Spain, Italy and other countries
have produced several four star hotels, insulating the town from
the rest of the country. Veradero is not a place to go to see Cuba.
We rented a car and set out for Havana the next day.
From what I saw, most Cubans living
in cities have a standard of living comparable to that found in
the better housing projects in American inner-cities.
Cuba's main source of income comes
from the tourist industry. I was happy to put my dollars into people’s
pockets as I traveled, but felt a pain in my side every time I thought
my money wound up in Castro's coffers.
After a week's stay, I was satisfied
that my spending did more good than harm. Had I stayed in the tourist
resorts, all my money would go straight to the government. Traveling
independently, I met scores of Cubans in seven days and shared more
good-will in that time than in seven months in the US.
Clearly, most Cubans hold nothing
against Americans or our government. It is the wealthy ex-patriots
Cubans dislike, feeling that these individuals have used their money
to influence US lawmakers. They question how some of their former
countrymen promote an embargo on the country which makes many individuals
suffer, while they live a comfortable life in the US.
There is another group the majority
of Cubans I met disliked: Castro and his government. I heard a lot
of stories of government corruption and human rights abuses. A young
women who was given the privilege of studying in the most prestigious
university program for tourism told me 2000 people were sentenced
to death in one year in her city: Santa Clara. The city is not large.
There was no mistaking her story. Whether or not it was entirely
accurate is not a certainty.
Hot afternoon in a small town
hearing numerous examples of extreme punishments handed out in Cuba,
it is difficult to believe everyone is making up stories. Women
caught associating with foreign men are sometimes jailed. A Canadian
government official I met in Cuba told me his translator had been
punished for being with him. Figuring out what is true, untrue,
legal, illegal, is an art for a traveler in Cuba. Indeed, it is
an art for everyone in the country, with the exception of government
Cubans told me foreigners could buy villas in seaside towns for
under US $40,000 without any Cuban sharing the ownership. A reliable
source later told me this is entirely untrue, that many Cubans simply
do not have access to information about their government's policies
all the uncertainty and confusion that accompanies a traveler in
Cuba, there is an undeniable truth: the natural beauty of the country
is stunning. Industrial pollution has damaged areas, but for the
most part there are vast expanses of land which remain pristine.
We drove for hours on the main highway, in excellent shape because
very few people have cars, seeing scarcely a sign of human life.
of your nationality, if you go to Cuba, try to get your money into
the hands of the people living outside the tourist areas. Most Cubans
have a very low standard of living, especially now that the country
isn't being artificially propped up by the USSR. There are beautiful
towns and cities to visit as an independent traveler. The government
won't mind you roaming the country (although they don't want you
to spend money outside of the official tourist infrastructure).
of the many town squares rich in Neo-Classic Spanish architecture.
tourist infrastructure outside the government's control is not always
easy to find. Whenever possible, we stayed in private homes and
paid money directly to residents.
you change foreign currency to Cuban Pesos, you can live as Cubans
do, buying food in peso stores rather than the stores which sell
special products to rich Cubans and tourists. With Pesos, some of
the worst food you imagined anyone digesting is available-- for
nickels and dimes. Beer is unattainable to Cubans on normal government
salary and can only be paid for in dollars.
final words of wisdom: don't try independent travel in Cuba unless
you at least have survival Spanish. Cubans are well educated, but
English language speaking, like a lot of popular movements around
the globe, has yet to catch on.