1. Why Visit Cuba? Cuba is a fascinating, beautiful, historic, and friendly country. In addition to all the intrigue, Cuba is one of the world’s most scenic nations. It is also one of the safest countries in the world for visitors. Cubans love Americans as individuals—most just don’t trust the American Government. Cubans like to interact with tourists from the U.S., as well as those from Canada and Australia. Some Cubans are less enthusiastic about visitors from Europe, who don’t tip as well, and tend to be condescending.
2. Can Americans visit Cuba legally? Although most Americans believed otherwise in the past, there have always been ways to legally travel to Cuba. There were many licensed religious and educational groups that traveled to Cuba on a regular basis. We are currently in a cycle where people-to-people contact is increasingly encouraged by the U.S. Government. Since President Obama and President Raul Castro have made announcements in December of 2014, our two countries have moved closer to normalizing relations. As a practical matter, there have been more real changes in Cuba in the last 2 years than in the 2 decades before that. Beginning in late 2016, regularly-scheduled commercial flights have replaced expensive and inconvenient charter flights. For those who can afford it, traveling to Cuba with an organized group is usually the best way to go on a first visit. Otherwise, it is easy to miss some of the many unique and historic sights in Cuba. Unfortunately, President Trump has advocated a return to the old days of the Cold War. However, his “updated guidelines” have no significant real effect on Cuba travelers, except that they have caused many to reconsider their trips to Cuba.
3. What are the differences between specific and general licenses? Specific Licenses are obtained by groups which apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a particular purpose. An example would be a university sponsoring a trip to study Cuban music or culture. Another example would be a religious organization sponsoring members who take donated items to a particular church in Cuba. Traveling on a General License never required anybody to apply to the Treasury Department. A relatively new category is “Support for the Cuban People.” It was purposely written to be general and all-inslusive. Everybody qualifies, including children. Travelers can obtain a Travel Affidavit from any airline flying from the U.S. to Cuba. For more information, go to my Travel Newsletter and scroll down to December 10, 2016: https://www.jameslewisrn.com/blog
4. What are the most common and convenient flights to Cuba for Americans? Check out the link above. The most common flights depart from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Other departure airports include Tampa, Orlando, Charlotte, and New York City. Non-stop flights from LAX are no longer offered. You can also fly to Havana from Canada, Mexico, and other Caribbean/Latin-American cities, as well as from Europe. Beijing recently started direct flights to Havana, with a refueling stop in Montreal. In spite of recent articles claiming that fewer Americans are interested in traveling to Cuba, airlines are actually ADDING flights and departure cities. JetBlue, Southwest, and United Airlines are increasing their flights by 30 per week, beginning this fall.
5. Why do we keep hearing and reading about how bad the Cuban Government is to its own people? The situation between the U.S. and Cuba is very complex. To understand this relationship, consider that the countries of Cuba and Saudi Arabia are exactly the opposite with respect to their relationships with the United States. The governments of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have cooperated with each other in many areas, but the overwhelming majority of Saudi citizens HATE Americans. In contrast, the governments of Cuba and the U.S. have confronted each other since 1959–the year Fidel Castro came to power. However, the Cuban people have always loved and admired Americans. Even during the most confrontational years, Cubans have always followed our culture—our movies, musical groups, athletic teams, etc. Cuba is surrounded by island-nations where English is spoken with a British accent—Bahamas, Jamaica, and the Caymen Islands. However, when Cubans learn English—they learn AMERICAN English, not British-accented English.
There are currently about 1.5 million Cubans living in the U.S.—-mostly in south Florida. Most still have relatives living in Cuba. They send several billions of dollars to their friends and families in Cuba every year. The majority of Cuban-Americans support Normalization of relations between our two countries. However, a relatively small minority of Cuban-Americans remain bitter because they or their relatives lost their homes and real estate when they moved to the U.S. after 1959. (Those who remained in Cuba did not lose their homes or automobiles.) Most Cubans living in Florida want to visit their families easily and inexpensively, so they want Normalization to proceed as fast as possible. However, those who are against this continue to write and publish articles describing how terrible the Castro government has been to its own people. Their outrageous claims sound normal to Americans who have been hearing these items for several decades: “The Castros are imprisoning catholic priests and have thousands of political prisoners; the Castros foster child sex-slave operations; Cuba is a transfer point for billions of dollars in dangerous drugs heading to America; Cuba is developing cyber warfare programs, biological warfare” etc. It just goes on and on. After these claims are printed on the front page, then later fact-checked. Retractions are usually buried deep in the back pages of newspapers. Americans who have never been to Cuba read these headlines, and articles written by others who have never been to Cuba. They then develop a very inaccurate view of Cubans, Cuban society, and the Cuban government.
What about those who are “unjustly imprisoned?” Consider a Cuban who steals a truck. He will probably be sentenced to prison. Once there, he can claim he is a Christian, and he has been jailed because of his religion. He can also claim he was jailed because of his political opinions. He can claim he is totally innocent, so his families believe him. Then a Cuban-American in Miami hears about his case, and writes about all the political prisoners and religious persecution in Cuba. Other Americans read about these activities, and demand that the process of Normalization must be reversed. Multiply this scenario by thousands, and stretch this out over decades. (The same things happen in the U.S.–some criminals who try to kill police officers end up dead. But all too often, the lead story is about an innocent, sweet young man who was murdered by the police for no reason.)
But—let’s assume for the moment that all these horrific claims about the Cuban government are true. If so, why would we stop Normalization and reverse the process? When punishment is applied, it doesn’t hurt any Cuban government officials. It only makes life tougher for the Cuban people—the people who love and admire us—the American people. During the Cold War, Americans were encouraged to visit the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, make friends, and tell them about democracy and America. This would have been the best policy towards Cuba for the past 5 decades. Significant change in Cuba would have happened much more quickly.
Today, it is rare to find an American who has visited Cuba who believes these outrageous claims. In my opinion, the most disgusting Cuban-Americans are those who continue to make these claims, but HAVE NEVER BEEN TO CUBA! Two examples would be U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. All they know about their homeland is what their parents told them about Cuba in the 1950’s and 60’s. In contrast, many conservative, Republican Cuban-Americans have visited Cuba in the past two years. All of them now support Normalization.
So if you still believe all the Cold War rhetoric, I urge you to visit Cuba soon. If you keep an open mind, I’m sure you will change it. Cuba is a safe, friendly country full of people who love Americans. They just can’t understand why the Embargo continues, even though a large majority of Americans are against it. They ask, “so what’s the point of a democracy, if the majority doesn’t rule?” It’s a great question.