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Story Publication logo February 25, 2013

An American in Cuba: Confronting Expectations


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Farm workers at Organoponico Vivero Alamar, an organic, sustainable farm in Cuba can earn more than...

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Tourist buses line up in La Plaza de Revolucion in Havana, full of visitors from across the globe. Groups from the United States are required to travel with a government-approved tour guide. Image by Rachel Southmayd. Cuba, 2013.

When you tell people in the United States that you're traveling to Cuba, you usually get one of two responses. It's either, "How? I didn't think it was allowed?" or "Why would you want to go there?" In fact, just a few weeks ago, while waiting in line for passport control at Miami International Airport, one fellow U.S. citizen made a face of visible disgust upon learning where our trip had taken us.

It's understandable. The U.S. government turned its back on Cuba during its 1954 revolution after Cuba had existed as a near colony of the U.S. for half a century. And unless you live in Miami or another small pocket of the U.S. that happens to have a substantial Cuban population, chances are the details of Cuban history may seem a closely guarded secret. Like the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the 90-mile span of ocean between Florida and Cuba often seems like an impenetrable wall. Anyone who crosses it must have certain privileges or be crazy.

But it's not like that at all. Here are several common American myths about traveling to Cuba—debunked.

Americans can't travel to Cuba and there are no direct flights from the United States to Cuba.

This simply isn't true. While there are restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, there are many exceptions. The U.S. Treasury Department has a full text of the sanctions on its website.

To travel to Cuba, a typical U.S. citizen must attain a special license as part of a "people to people" policy instituted by the Obama administration. Travelers must have their trip planned and supervised by a licensed touring agency.

The Miami airport has multiple daily direct flights to Havana. From Havana, you can fly to several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. The carriers include American Airlines. You can also take the more traditional route and travel through another country, like the Cayman Islands or Mexico. But either way, our American passports gained no more attention from Cuban border control than passports from any other nation.

No one travels to Cuba.

Cuba has a bustling and thriving tourism industry. Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Europeans and other people from across the globe make their way to Cuba to experience its history, its food, its beautiful beaches and ecology and everything else the country has to offer. Old Havana in particular, is a neighborhood that seems to only cater to tourists, with hotels and restaurants every few feet.

This isn't to say that there aren't limitations. Group tours that come to Cuba, particularly American groups, must meet certain criteria: They must have a tour guide (from a tour company owned by the government) and the tour group must have a bus and driver. Big, white, shining Chinese-made tour buses proliferate in Havana. And, if you're with a tour group on an "educational tour," police officers won't give you a hard time when you take pictures or just wander. An independent traveler may not have the same guarantees.

You can't bring any souvenirs back because of the U.S. embargo.

According to U.S. law, the purchase and transportation of any Cuban product is illegal, from silly touristy souvenirs to expensive alcohol and tobacco products, Cuba's most famous export. Our group still purchased some items and braced ourselves for customs in Miami, well aware our goods could be confiscated. But, the officers didn't blink as we handed in our forms, much to our surprise.

I've no idea what would have happened if someone took an interest in our bags, with Cuban goods tucked neatly away, but my friends who bought mini-license plate magnets and coconut shell turtles are quite glad they weren't discovered.

And here's another truth about travel to Cuba: You'll note that my passport lacks an entry or exit stamp from the country. The official just stamps a small visa that goes inside the pages. Upon exiting, that visa is taken back. It's like the visit never happened. But, this seems to be a formality, too, because again, no one in an official capacity seemed to mind who we were, where we were from, or where we were going.



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