With all that is happening in the world and on television news channels these days, Cuba has essentially dropped to the bottom of the daily news feed. Although most Cubans enjoy meeting Americans and believe that we will be best allies someday, that day continues to be pushed further into the future.
With this in mind, I want to update my fellow Americans regarding travel to Cuba now—in the fall of 2018. I realize there is a wide range of how much Americans know about Cuba, so I will present a brief summary for those of you who might not keep updated about visiting our Caribbean neighbor.
Politics aside, there are many reasons for Americans to visit Cuba. If you Google a list of why travelers would want to visit a particular country, most or all of these reasons would apply to Cuba. It is nearby—not halfway around the world. Havana is just 90 miles from Key West and 210 miles from Miami. Travelers can now fly there directly on five US Airlines: American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. It is one of the safest countries in the world for foreign visitors. Cubans are naturally friendly and fascinated with our country. They follow our movies, television programs, musical groups, sports teams, and other forms of our culture.
English is the second language—many street signs and menus are in both Spanish and English. It is geographically diverse—there are five distinct mountain ranges. Its longest river is over 200 miles long. There are about 40 other significant rivers. There are over 400 beaches. It is NOT a tiny island (as it has been commonly referred to in the past by U.S. officials for a specific reason)—it is almost as long from west to east as California is from north to south. The northern and southern coastlines of the main island are longer than the entire west coast of the United States. There are another 4200 smaller islands with some of the world’s clearest waters for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. The groups of islands off Cuba’s north coast represent one of the longest barrier reefs in the world.
There are a lot of significant world historical sites in Cuba. Columbus visited this land on his first exploratory trip in 1492. The oldest fortress in the western hemisphere was built in Havana in the mid-1500’s. For the next two centuries, Havana was the economic, military, and cultural center of the entire western hemisphere. Colonial architecture in Cuba is exceptional. Yes–some buildings are crumbling, but many others have been rehabbed and are absolutely gorgeous.
There are many U.S. historical sites in Cuba. In the 1890’s many Americans supported anti-colonial activities against Spain’s repressive and brutal occupation. In 1898 the U.S.S. Battleship Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor, which was supposedly a justification for the U.S. intervention in the Cuban Spanish War. A few months later Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill to capture a Spanish outpost towards the end of the war. The Cuban-Spanish War had become the Cuban-Spanish-American War, and after it ended, it was referred to as simply the Spanish-American War. Most Americans wanted Cuba to become an independent country, but it became a de facto colony of the United States, ironically known as the “Republic of Cuba.”
For the next sixty years Cuba was influenced, developed and often exploited by American investors and mobsters. Some of the world’s richest people had lavish homes in both the U.S. and in Cuba. Many bought or built mansions in Havana, Varadero Beach, and elsewhere. During World War II, Ernest Hemingway used his fishing boat Pilar to search for German submarines off the coast. The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo contributed significantly to the war effort, but today this is not widely known among Americans.
Much wealth was lost after the Cuban Revolution, which peaked in 1959. After Fidel Castro took control, many wealthy Cubans departed for Miami or other cities in south Florida. Most expected to return within a few months “after the U.S. regains control.” Those who remained in Cuba were generally allowed to keep their homes and cars. American citizens forfeited their properties to the Cuban Government.
The following 60 years brought continual conflict between both governments, producing several major historical sites which visitors can see today. For example, the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion site & museum, and the sites of Soviet/Russian missiles which were deployed prior to the 1962 Missile Crisis. In the 1980’s, many Cubans had a reasonable standard of living due to being subsidized by the Soviet Union. When the Communist government in Moscow collapsed in the early 1990’s and stopped sending aid, Cuba came close to economic collapse. It suffered through a major depression known as the “Special Period.” It probably would have collapsed, except for investors and government assistance from one of America’s best allies—Canada. The Canadians built airports and encouraged its citizens to invest and visit as tourists. Cuba also benefitted from visitors from America’s other allies, such as Italy, UK, France, Germany, Mexico, and countries in South America. When you visit Cuba today, you may be asked by tourists from Europe or South America to explain, “What is the point of the U.S. Embargo?” It clearly makes life much more difficult for everyday Cubans, but does not affect Cuba’s leaders.
During the last few decades, the American government has discouraged its citizens from visiting Cuba, but has not absolutely prohibited them from traveling there. The U.S. Department of State and Department of Treasury concocted an arrangement that made Americans believe or assume it would be difficult or impossible to visit Cuba legally. Paradoxically, an exception was allowed for “purposeful visits” by groups and individuals. Various categories of American visitors were created–educational, humanitarian, scientific, etc. It has not been difficult for any American to fit into one of these groups. Companies or individuals currently offering trips to Cuba should be able to guarantee that your travel will be absolutely legal.
In 2006 ailing President Fidel Castro turned over control of Cuba to his brother Raul. In my opinion, much progress was made for the next decade. For example, laws were changed that allowed Cubans to sell their houses and cars for profit. In 2014 President Obama began the process of Normalization of Relations with Cuba. This process was facilitated by the government of Canada and by Pope Francis. This resulted in an “opening-up” of Cuba to American investors and tourists. Cuba became the “next hot destination for discriminating travelers.”
At the end of 2016, mysterious “acoustic wave” neurological incidents were reported among some embassy personnel and other officials. The cause has yet to be determined. The two most prominent theories involve Russian experimentation: purposeful and accidental. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.
These incidents stopped by the end of 2017, but President Trump said he needed to drastically cut embassy staff because of this threat. The State Department recently rescinded the travel alert, but not before the new private sector in Cuba suffered significant economic losses. Cuban entrepreneurs, as well as thousands of other Cubans with family in the United States, have been hit hard by the closure of the consulate section of the embassy. This has prevented them from obtaining visas in Havana to travel to the United States on business or to visit relatives.
In 2017 President Trump made a speech in Miami to a small group of hard-core Cuban exiles. He told them that he would fulfill a promise he made during his 2016 election campaign by making it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba (as if that would somehow magically improve the lives of everyday Cubans). Fortunately, the changes were minimal and did not affect group travel from The States. Unfortunately, most Americans interpreted his speech and subsequent announcements as a new prohibition of travel to Cuba. Many travel companies went out of business. U.S. airlines decreased the number of flights, or cancelled service altogether. Because of decreased tourist spending, life once again became more difficult for common Cubans. Ironically, back in 1998, Trump sent his own developers to Cuba to discuss building a Trump Tower Havana. This was during a period when Fidel Castro was in power, and the Cuban Government was much more repressive than under Raul two decades later. This trip was probably not legal under regulations existing at that time.
In April 2018, new President Miguel Diaz-Canel took office. In the last 6 months, the number of Americans visiting Cuba has significantly increased again. Instead of cutting service to Cuba, U.S. airlines are adding 30 flights a week in the next quarter. It looks like Cuba is poised to once again experience major growth in the number of visitors from The States. This is happening at a time when U.S. airlines still do not even advertise flights to Cuba. Expect steady price increases by airlines, at hotels, and for tours for the next several years.
Due to constant, ever-changing political news, we have been hearing very little about the rest of the world, and almost nothing about our neighbor to the south. While we’ve been distracted by our polarized political crises, the following has happened in Cuba during the last week of September (links to articles below):
Cuban President Diaz-Canel has been visiting the United States and spoke at the United Nations.
Conservative Republican U.S. Representative Roger Marshall from Kansas spoke with Cuba’s President. They discussed trade opportunities between Cuba and the U.S.
President Diaz-Canel met with Cuban-Americans who live in the U.S. He also met at Google Offices in New York City with representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, VaynerMedia, Connectify, Mapbox, Virgin Group, Airbnb, Revolution, Udacity and Bloomberg.
New York state and a medical institution in Havana formed the Innovative Immunotherapy Alliance–a partnership to research and develop new cancer treatments.
In conclusion, Cuba is a beautiful, friendly, and safe country with many historical and current ties to America. There are so many different sites, attractions, and activities that it would take you several trips to see everything of interest. You can travel there legally as an individual, but I strongly recommend traveling with a small-group on your first trip.