Just before our Miami charter flight to Havana departed, I posted a simple goodbye to my Facebook friends: “Goin’ Cuban.” In addition to the wishes to “Have a blast,” and “Take lots of photos,” were other notable responses: “I didn’t know we could go to Cuba? Is that a code for someplace else?”
Well, this is to confirm that Americans can indeed go to Cuba and we can do (almost) whatever we want when we’re there –or at least try to–provided we work with a licensed operator approved by the recently restarted “people to people” exchange program. Policy changes by the Obama administration that went into effect last August have made it much easier for Americans without special professional status–meaning people who are journalists or scholars–to visit the Socialist island-nation.. The license program was started during the Clinton years and suspended in 2003 when President Bush clamped down on U.S. travel to Cuba.
Purposeful Contact Between Americans and Cubans
The idea behind the licenses is to encourage “purposeful” contact between Americans and Cuban citizens. In other words, the trips are not intended to be typical Caribbean beach getaways.
But such meaningful interactions were precisely the allure for me and the 15 others. We were traveling under a license issued to the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies, an arts-oriented nonprofit.
Ours was the third trip the center had organized, and we provided significant input to the center about how we wanted to spend our time there. We hoped to schedule visits to a school and medical clinic and meet with experts on economics, politics, housing, and the arts. We weren’t promised we’d get to do it all, but we were assured to meet a variety of Cubans over meals and meeting tables for a range conversations—with no topic off limits.
Fun in Cuba Too
But it wasn’t all talks about economic or political matters. We’d also have time to practice our salsa moves and sample mojitos in five different cities. While food ration coupons remain a way of life for Cubans, the supply of fresh mint for the rum drinks we ordered seemed limitless.
Our planned itinerary jibed with Treasury Department guidelines that require tours “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
Cost of Traveling to Cuba
About 30 organizations have received licenses from the Treasury Department including the Center for Cubans Studies.
Our costs were reasonable. Upfront we paid just over $2,800 for 10 days. That included hotels, half of our meals, roundtrip airfare between Miami and Havana and a domestic flight from Santiago de Cuba back to Havana after our cross-country bus journey.
What remains unclear is whether the renewed People to People program is a sign that the official travel ban on regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two nations is poised to be lifted. It’s possible the current program is merely a throw back to the policies in place the last time a Democrat occupied the White House.
But Obama has made his mark in dealing with the half-century struggle between the two countries. He has lifted the ban on cash remittances from Cubans Americans to relatives on the island as well as the restrictions on family travel. But true normalization still feels quite remote.
Economic Reforms in Cuba
For its part, Cuba is gradually introducing Chinese-style market reforms enabling people to open their own small businesses for the first time.
Yet the influence of Cuban American politicians in Florida and along the east coast , who remain entrenched in their support of the 50-year economic blockade is a significant hurdle to normalization.
With so many massive global problems, occupying the minds of American foreign policy officials, don’t expect a lot more engagement by the U.S. on the Cuba issue for awhile.
Relations with Cuba are changing, but that transformation at present seems driven far more by the efforts of those of us who can land a coveted spot on a charter flight than as a result of government-level negotiations.
Former Time Magazine correspondent Wendy Cole is the managing editor of REALTOR Magazine.