It takes less than an hour to reach Cuba from Tampa, Florida by airplane. Simple, really. And yet it is still hard to see that Cuba is just 90 miles from the United States. The island has been forbidden land for most law-abiding Americans for so long. For the most part, it is still not legal to travel there unless you book, like I did, an educational tour through one of the roughly 100 organizations certified by the State Department to run people-to-people cultural tours.
The U.S. government allows travel to Cuba for up to 12 different reasons. Tourism isn’t one of them. So while the Canadians head straight for the beaches and stay there, Americans visit senior-center projects, organic farms, child care centers, artistic sites and museums. For most, it’s a pretty packed schedule.
Getting there was part of the fun. I felt a sense of nervous excitement as I waited for the chartered flight to board in Tampa. I sipped a Starbucks and sent a few last messages to friends and family.
Looking around the terminal gate, I could see I wasn’t the only person experiencing last-minute nerves. As the man sitting next to me fidgeted anxiously, all I could think about were reports of Cuban interrogations and political detentions. I tried to look away.
Most people in the terminal appeared up for the adventure of a new experience. I met several people traveling on a 30-person tour hosted by The Nation, a left-leaning political magazine. We compared our itineraries in anticipation of the unknown.
Some people brought gifts for the Cuban people–pencils, candy, batteries and games.
Everybody brought cash—lots of cash. For the most part, U.S. credit cards do not work in Cuba. Travel advisors recommend bringing enough cash to cover your spending needs throughout your stay. Some people exchange U.S. dollars to Euros or Canadian dollars due to a high rate of tax on the U.S. dollar.
Once we boarded the plane, there was no turning back. We were in the air and on the ground in Havana within an hour. Stepping out into the warm air, I felt a wave of excitement.
Another plane had recently landed, and everyone made their way inside. Young women in fishnet stockings directed people to the customs lines, where other young women inspected passports. It was clear they took their jobs seriously. When it was my turn to go through customs, the official directed me to look into a small camera while she studied my face on her screen and my passport carefully.
“No smile,” she said, shaking a finger at me.
I waited patiently, and then I was in—an American in Cuba.
Beyond customs it was clear the two plane arrivals had completely overwhelmed the José Martí International Airport. People crowded around the two baggage claim carousels and waited.
At first, the only items coming out on the carousels were big packages covered by clear blue wrap, making them appear indistinguishable from one another. Other news sites have reported that many Cuban-Americans who travel back and forth between the United States and Cuba supplement their incomes by working as “mules” who transport goods into the country. They reportedly transport everything from clothes to car parts to medicine. I saw several wide-screen television sets ride along the carousel as I waited.
Eventually, my luggage came, freeing me to find my tour guide. Her welcome sign made her easy to spot.
“Go to bus number 1640,” she said, pointing to the mini bus where the rest of the group gathered. “1640.”
Onward, We Go
As we drove out of the airport, we passed two large political billboards: One of Fidel Castro and the now-dead Venezuelan President Hugu Chavez, read “Verdadero Ejemplo de Hermandad”—translated as “True Example of Brotherhood.” The other of an image of a noose read “Bloque. El genocidio más large de la historia”—or “The Embargo. The largest genocide in history.”
The impossible-to-miss billboards stood as a cautionary reminder that U.S.-Cuban relations are still tense, despite the recent reopening of diplomatic relations and loosening of travel restrictions. Cuba is still a place where men who call U.S. presidents “el Diablo”—the devil—are celebrated and where the United States has active policies that harm people in ways the Cuban government considers extreme.
The billboards foretold of a week ahead that would challenge ideas, historical knowledge and diplomatic abilities. It may be a new dawn for U.S.-Cuba relations, but it is also one where severe economic differences and a history of 50 years of conflict have the potential to ruin the chance for resolution.
The ride into town went smoothly. Everyone on the tour seemed to relax a little after the journey.
“It is safe to walk around Old Havana, as long as you don’t do anything stupid like flash expensive cameras,” our tour guide said. “Do not be afraid of the police,” she added. “They are here to protect you.”
She was one of only a limited number of tour guides trained and certified by the Cuban government to work with Americans. When she was not hosting tours, she helped her agency train other guides with the anticipation that the tourism will continue to grow as more Americans venture Southward.
Tourism is one of the most significant industries for Cuba, with an expected 3 million visitors this year. Although the Canadians and Europeans have been visiting the island as tourists since the 1990s, many Americans are just beginning to look to Cuba as a destination.
I could not wait to see it for myself.by Cuba, diplomacy, tourism