It has been a complicated year for Cuba Travel. For no rational reason, the Trump Administration suddenly decided to make life much more difficult for everyday Cuban People. Cruise ships departing from the U.S. are no longer authorized to stop at Cuban ports. However, Americans may still fly to Cuba and take part in programs that are designed to “Support the Cuban People.”
Unfortunately, this fact has been obscured by contradictory articles and explanations by many travel writers as well as the U.S. Department of Treasury.
One of the most important overall points about Cuba travel is this: Many of my fellow travelers have been accomplished and well-traveled Americans–doctors, lawyers, architects, CEO’s, artists, etc. Many had visited other exotic places like the South Pole and Uzbekistan. And yet—NONE had ever been to Cuba! Their decisions were usually explained by one or two reasons—the HASSLE factor and the FEAR factor. The hassle factor involves licensing, regulations, guidelines, etc. which are really not very complicated. The fear factor involves the unknown–“Will the Cuban government arrest me for something? Will the U.S. government fine me or detain me when I return? Let’s not take a chance and just go somewhere else.”
A recent travel industry magazine poll indicated that 75% of Americans have no interest or desire to visit Cuba. However, many Americans who DO visit say it was one of their very best trips abroad.
Another important point is that Cubans love American culture and interacting with individual Americans. If you asked representative groups of citizens of various countries if they “liked Americans and American culture,” I believe that you would get the highest percentage of “yes” responses in Cuba than in any other country—certainly in the top five. To Cubans, the American flag represents its people, not the American government. Cubans are very Americanized–they follow our culture: our music, movies, movie stars, television shows, and sports teams.
If you have not traveled abroad recently, you may not realize how most of the rest of the world now views us and our government, even by our former best allies. Since you can still travel to Cuba legally, NOW is a great time to visit with your friends or family, including children. Cuba is very kid-friendly, and one of the world’s safest countries for visitors.
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.
Confusion continues regarding non-stop flight schedules from U.S. cities to Cuba. Most current flights arrive at Terminal 2 or Terminal 3 at Havana’s José Martí International Airport. There are still a few flights to other cities—mostly in the east—and the schedules seem to change from week to week.
I still have not seen anything printed that confirms the rumor of Southwest Airlines beginning flights from Las Vegas to Havana in December, but I’d sure bet on it. It’s a little ironic—it is a common belief among historians that if the Cuban Revolution never happened, Las Vegas today would be about half its present size. When Fidel kicked The Mob out of Havana in 1959, most of the mobster money in Cuba ended up in Vegas, and stayed in Vegas.
Please click on the link below to read a current informative article from Insight Cuba regarding current and projected flights to Havana.
First—an update on my last article about President Trump and Cuba: My friends and contacts in Havana have reported a serious increase in the number of visitors from the U.S. Government—not just tourists and private investors, but U.S. Government officials. This would seem to add support to my beliefs mentioned in my previous article. But once again–with issues involving Cuba and the U.S. Government—few people know what will happen and especially when it will happen.
Currency trading is one of the most common questions I receive from potential Cuba travelers. It is also a relatively complicated subject which seems to change frequently. Rather than re-explain my opinion and experience with currencies, I am providing a link below to an article about this subject. It is followed by comments by an equally informed author with a contrarian viewpoint. I suggest you read the back-and-forth comments, which were recently published in HavanaTimes.org. (My personal beliefs align more with commenter Bob Michaels, who provided the contrarian viewpoint.)
While reading this article, I also suggest you scroll through this online newspaper. Read the Opinion section, and articles that are not necessarily favorable to the Cuban government. Unless you have been closely following a variety of bloggers and commentators who write about contemporary Cuba, you may be surprised to discover that dissent in Cuba is not automatically crushed.
I seriously believe that President Trump will soon make a move towards normalizing relations with the government of Cuba. While watching Trump’s historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, I first mentioned this theory to friends as a joke. I soon realized that there are several reasons to now believe that a deal is in the works.
Regardless of how one feels about President Trump, it is clear that one of his major goals has been to eliminate the legacy of President Obama. I personally liked some of Obama’s executive actions, and disapproved of others. If you look at this list of goals objectively, you can see that Trump has reversed (or tried to reverse) all of them. It would be the ultimate insult to Obama if President Trump reaches an understanding with Cuba. Trump could claim, “Obama screwed up normalization, but I negotiated it successfully!” And even though 5 years ago, President Raul Castro said he would step down early in 2018, most of Trump’s base of supporters don’t know that, or don’t care, so Trump can claim that he “got rid of the commie Cuban Castro Brothers.”
Trump is unpredictable, and he likes to appear erratic to keep his adversaries confused. Normalization would be consistent with this behavior. Trump has been interested in Cuban real estate for decades. In 1998 he sent representatives to explore business opportunities on the island. They even prepared sketches of what a Trump Tower Havana would look like, even though this research could have been considered illegal at the time by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Because of today’s family-separation crisis along the Texas border, Trump may decide he finally wants to or needs to promote a cause that is actually supported by most Americans—an end to the embargo against Cuba. This goal is also advocated by a majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami. Many of them previously invested with relatives in Cuban real estate and businesses following Obama’s 2014 opening. This was followed by a sharp decrease in property values after Trump’s speech last year, which discouraged—but did not prohibit—Americans from traveling to Cuba. These actions artificially produced bargain prices for properties and businesses that will eventually be worth many times today’s values. It’s probably a coincidence, but this sounds like a plan straight out of Trump’s bestseller: The Art of the Deal.
While Trump has purposely alienated our best allies such as Canada and the UK, for whatever reasons he has been cozying up to powerful dictators who are considered by most Americans to be our competitors and even potential enemies. Think about a scale of 1-10, where “10” is the most evil tyrant imaginable. China’s Xi could be rated “6,” Russia’s Putin could be an “8,” Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman could be a “9,” and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un would definitely be a “10.” The former chief diplomat to Cuba during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Wayne Smith, rated Fidel Castro as a “3” on the scale of dictatorial tyrants. Fidel’s brother Raul, who assumed power in 2006, was less repressive, so let’s assign him a “2.”
And now, the Castros are gone, much to the delight of the declining number of radical Cuban exiles in Miami. Cuba now has a younger, more moderate and pragmatic President. Miguel Diaz-Canel appears to be intelligent enough to realize that if he simply praises Trump, and offers him oceanfront property to develop, an end to the embargo might be negotiated.
Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach is only an hour from Havana by air and less than a day’s cruise by yacht. A meeting somewhere in the Caribbean would logistically be many times easier than Trump’s 16-hour flight to Singapore to deal with Rocket Man. Can you just imagine the publicity and video footage that could be produced if Trump eventually visits Diaz-Canel at Revolutionary Square and announces and end to the embargo? Of course, Congress would have to approve. No worries–the Democrats would approve enthusiastically. Most of the Republicans would do whatever Trump orders them to do.
A good time for President Trump to go to Cuba would be in October, just before the November U.S. elections. (By the way, the Russian Embassy in Miramar would be a terrific, ultra-secure site for Trump to meet up again with his BFF Vladimir Putin.)
Massive Russian Embassy in Miramar, west of Havana
Trump could actually learn to appreciate Cuba as a potential American ally. Most Cubans, who have relatives in nearby south Florida, are very America-focused. They closely follow our movies, music, television programs, and sports teams—they even have Super Bowl parties! Unlike so many dead-beat countries around the globe that only want U.S. dollars handed to their dictator-leaders, Cuba simply wants American investors and cash-paying tourists. Most Cubans would also greatly appreciate it if the United States government would finally abandon the idea of regaining control of their beautiful Caribbean island.
My theory may seem far-fetched at a time when travel to Cuba is officially discouraged by our government. Various current articles about Cuba in newspapers and travel magazines discuss declining American interest and half-filled flights. In the last 12 months, Spirit, Frontier, and Alaska Airlines have cancelled all services to Cuba. The future of airline service appears gloomy and hopeless. But consider this: United, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines are quietly adding flights to their Havana schedules, beginning this fall—30 more flights a week! Why would CEO’s of these companies even consider such a move? Probably because they have received leaked insider information, and probably because they’ve read The Art of the Deal. ¡Viva Cuba Libre!