There’s been something weird between Cuba and the US for a long, long time. The two nations have never had a (formal) war to speak of, but for over 50 years we’ve been imposing economic sanctions and not allowing any citizens to visit.
You could actually end up in jail for visiting the country or even trying to bring in a Cuban cigar through customs—no wonder they taste so good. Stranger still, no one was allowed to visit, but the US has a military base on one end of the island. Did it make any sense? Not really. However, things are changing, with increased calls for lifting the travel embargo after the restrictions were recently loosened anyway.
Americans have been sneaking into Cuba for years. This island country has been one of the Caribbean’s most popular destinations for European tourists and many travel-jaded US citizens have figured out a way to skirt the rules that our government has placed on travel there. Pull up any American-based travel site and try to find a flight to Cuba. There are none. US planes won’t even use the country as a stopover.
So, how have travelers gotten around this inconvenience? Simple. They just fly there from Canada or Mexico. Actually almost any Caribbean island can get you there, except for the American ones of course.
It’s still a little trickier than it sounds. If you’ve got a passport with just a stamp or two and there’s a Cuban entry stamp emblazoned on the first page of your passport, you’re going to get caught. However, the truth is that Cuba hasn’t really cared if you come there or not, so they’ve been fine with not stamping your passport for years.
Dollars spend just as well as Euros and they’ve been happy to take our greenbacks with no complaints. Cancun is the closest airport to Havana, so many travelers have flown there and pretended to stay there while they were drinking verboten Cuba Libres and smoking forbidden cigars.
In 2014, America decided to kiss and make up with our Communist neighbor. Well, not completely; It’s really more of fast dance than a kiss. The laws have relaxed somewhat for those who would like to travel there legally, but it’s still not that easy. Officially, these are the requirements for people who are allowed to travel to Cuba:
- Family visits
- Business of the US government, foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic/other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support of the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission or information materials
- Export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations
This list creates a lot of loopholes that didn’t exist prior to now. Travel deals are springing up but they’re expensive. Why? Because you have to squeeze in cultural and educational activities all day long and that’s not cheap. Technically you’re not supposed to be in Cuba as a “tourist” unless you’re getting a little cultural indoctrination with your rum. You’re also required to have a license to visit. As you may have guessed, getting one is contingent on the applicant having family ties, a humanitarian project, a journalism assignment, or some other credentials that can somehow benefit the people of Cuba.
If you’re thinking about sneaking into Cuba like Americans did a long time ago, all the way back to last year, think again. Cuba has changed its policies about not stamping passports. Maybe with the new relations with the US in the past year, they’ve decided to play by American rules and help catch the capitalist rule-breakers in their tracks. You can still get in some serious trouble by going to Cuba without following US policy.
At the moment, there are several agencies that can get you started on your trip to the “land of black beans and rice.” Cuba Travel Services and Insight Cuba are both Miami-based companies that can answer your questions regarding a potential trip.
If history is any indication, it’s not going to take long for all these rules to completely change. The Berlin wall came down one brick at a time, but the bricks started falling a lot faster once someone knocked off the first few.
For more on Cuba, don’t miss Houstonia’s June issue devoted to Great Escapes!
Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com.