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Vamos a Cuba?

HOW YOU CAN GET TO CUBA – AND WHETHER OR NOT TO GO

For Yankees, Cuba has long been a forbidden land. Despite the island being a stone’s throw from U.S. waters – about 90 miles away – decades of communist rule under Fidel Castro, a near-catastrophic missile crisis, and frosty bilateral relations have precluded the chance for Americans to travel to the hermetic, once-rogue Caribbean pariah.

Now, change is in store. In his second term, U.S. President Barrack Obama made ripples around the world when he announced the warming of relations between the two countries. A new iron curtain of sorts was breaking down, and the U.S. embassy in Havana was reopening – it evoked feelings of détente.

“It’s an amazing thing for both countries… and a huge, incredible opportunity,” says Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a group that has organized travel to Cuba since 2000 and sent over 20,000 people to the island. He says that there are many attributes that set Cuba apart as a destination: the geographical proximity, a rich culture, its indescribable mystique, and the intrigue of visiting a place that has been shut off to Americanos for half a century.

On the ground a few years later, though, travel to the country is still a bit confusing. There are commercial flights to the island, but a U.S. embargo still stands. A bevy of laws and regulations stand in the way of easy travel from U.S. to Cuba, so this primer serves to demystify the process and implications of getting there.

For starters, traveling for purposes of tourism is a no-go. The embargo – which was imposed in the Eisenhower era and expanded by Kennedy – prohibits general tourist travel. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) will grant a “general license” for 12 specific categories of travel, ranging from family visits to religious activities to athletic competitions.

Unless you’re conducting research or on government business, your best bet is likely the “people-to-people” category, which entails personal interactions with the Cuban people that foster cultural exchange and improve civil society. Since this is a pretty nebulous and difficult-to-enforce concept, there are licensed American operators that provide tightly packed trips of this nature, with prices ranging from the $2000s upwards.  If you want to trick American bureaucrats into granting you a license to go sprawl out in the sun on a Cuban beach or simply soak up the colonial architecture and vintage cars, think twice – this could result in an audit and fines upon reentry into the U.S.

So you still have a hankering for a taste of the Caribbean untainted by a herd of American tourists. Should you go? Some say that visitors to the island are engaging in a form of ‘poverty tourism’ or that trips are carefully curated as a means of propaganda. Moreover, tourism proceeds funnel right into the coffers of the Castro regime. To a certain extent, sure, Popper agrees, but this is the case with any country Americans go to. He says that as a result of measures of liberalization and streams of tourism revenue, there is a “considerable amount of revenue that goes to the people,” and that “small cottage industries” have exploded in recent years, such as paladeres, small family-run restaurants.

Furthermore, tourism will kick start the economy of a country that could use it, and eventually expand into towns and regions of the island that need it, according to Popper. Cubans have a special affinity for the U.S., he says: when Obama made his announcement, “it was like they just won the world series of international relations,” in the streets with people celebrating, crying, and cheering.

Ultimately, it’s still not the easiest process to get there, but visiting Cuba would certainly be an experience unlike any other. You’d be in good company – Pope Francis, Barrack Obama, and millions of Canadian and European tourists have paid the country a visit in recent years – but still off the beaten path.

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