Passing 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 in Cuba.
Apparently, no American had been penalized to date for unauthorized travel.
We passed through customs without any problems.
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.
A Hot afternoon in a small town
After 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 officials.
Many 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 or laws.
In 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.
Regardless 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).
One of the many town squares rich in Neo-Classic Spanish architecture.
The 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.
If 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.
Some 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.