Tuesday, December 15, 2015

CUBA CAN-DO – Forbidden Fruit At One Third the Cost

If you’re like me, telling you something’s off limits only makes you want it more. Am I right?

That’s the way I’d felt about Cuba ever since I first read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the coincidental US blockade of all trade with the island neighbor we preferred be a ruthless dictatorship than a communist annoyance.

But recently, after half a century cinching a pit bull choke collar ‘round the neck of a bichón*, the US, led by an enlightened Obama administration, has taken the first steps to ease the long-since-ineffectual embargo.

    We were cinching a pit bull choke 
    collar ‘round the neck of a bichón.

It’s never been illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba; it’s only illegal for us to spend money there. Thus, the matter’s been overseen not by the US Immigration and Naturalization, but by the Department of the Treasury—specifically, its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In 2011, after a couple of false starts, the OFAC began allowing a few organizations to offer U.S. citizens “people-to-people” group tours to Cuba. This required formal licensing with stringent, case-by-case evaluation and strict accountability.

Licensees had to ensure that participants spent every waking hour engaged in a prescribed range of sanctioned cultural exchange activities, like tours, lectures and workshops involving music, dance, history and the country’s nascent entrepreneurship. “Sightseeing” and other purely recreational activities like days at the beach were not tolerated.

PHOTO: PillarToPost.org

Tour companies lucky enough to get licenses have been offering nearly identical itineraries at grossly inflated prices—at least partly reflecting all the red tape and middleman costs of arranging and documenting only those qualifying, tightly-organized activities. Prices for a week to ten days averaged $4,000 to $5,000, including airfare from Miami.

(Now, some intrepid Americans have been defying the embargo for years, flying first to Canada, Mexico or Jamaica and hoping US Immigration agents wouldn’t notice either the Cuban Immigration stamp—or the two entry stamps into the connecting country—when they return home. The vast majority of these under-the-radar travelers haven’t even been questioned, or, if they have, have gotten off with a hand slap. Still, the threat of hefty fines or if nothing else a lengthy legal and bureaucratic snafu, was enough to keep Cuba from rising to the top of my bucket list.)

PHOTO: Pixabay

But then, in January, 2015, the OFAC, in conjunction with the Commerce Department, enacted a further easing of travel restrictions to “engage and empower the Cuban people.” The new guidelines affected trade, financial services, telecommunications and travel services.

The changes also loosened—mentioned only as a sort of afterthought—restrictions on individual travel to Cuba. The stringent “specific” licensing of organizations gave way to “general” licensing, allowing individuals to travel on their own for any of 12 specific—though rather broadly defined—purposes. (OFAC's 12 rules) Apparently only one’s own judgement that he/she could in good faith check one of the 12 boxes, is required.

Since I’m a published author / blogger, I made my mental check next to justification number three, journalistic activity. I was ready, just in case, with some credentials, but as it turned out no one ever asked.

I’ve found from past experience that it’s hard to beat the value of a trip centered on a week or two of language classes. I’ve done this in Mexico and Panama, and find it combines several of my requisites for a rewarding travel experience: a ready-made host and home base; an immediate circle of new friends; a doorway (through the newly-acquired language skills) to authentic cultural experiences…and clean, comfortable—and dirt cheap—room and board.

For my Cuba adventure, I signed up with a program called Jakera. Already well rooted in Venezuela, they’ve just opened up shop in Havana, where they’ve recruited teachers and administrators, selected nearby casas particulares (well-maintained, government-regulated rooms within Habaneros’ homes), and connected with local education, arts and community development partners.

Program participants—already a few from the US, but the majority young Europeans—take Spanish classes every morning and in the afternoon alternate between cultural outings and either salsa dancing lessons or volunteering with one of those community groups.


PHOTO: JakeraCuba

Once I’d signed on with Jakera, all I had to do is line up my air travel (done through the Cuba Travel Network); figure out how to get a Cuban tourist card/visa (available for $25 at most airports with direct flights to Havana); and deal with a few personal concerns like health insurance, currency conversion, and electrical, Internet and telephone (Verizon has just started international roaming in Cuba, so I was able to at least send text messages home.) (SEE LINKS BELOW)

I enjoyed two full, amazing weeks in Cuba, including Spanish and dance lessons; excursions—most of them guided—around Havana and out into the countryside; modest but clean and comfortable lodging; two decent meals a day; and a program coordinator to help arrange for everything…all for $800usd. Even adding the always-inflated airfare** from a nearby US or Mexican connecting airport to Havana, my cost still came in under $1,200.

My only other expenses were for modest evening meals (easily do-able for less than the equivalent of $4usd a day); bus/taxi fares for a few optional excursions to other parts of the country; airport transfers; and the $25usd Cuban departure tax. Airfare from home to one’s connecting city, as it is with nearly all tour companies, is additional.

   Even if you’re disappointed—which 
   you won’t be—you’re only out a third 
   of what a less-adventurous convention-
   al trip would have set you back!

Throw in a few incidentals, and the grand total for my two glorious weeks on this lovely, languid long-forbidden Gulf/Caribbean island came to well under $1500—about a third the cost of most packages available through “sanctioned” tour operators.

(Okay, traveling as I did—staying with a local family (in a private, air-conditioned room with bath); meeting fellow travelers, not just from my own country but from all over the world; eating the same food most Cubans eat; walking a lot; and occasionally embracing the unexpected—is not for everyone. But if you’re open minded, in reasonably good health and a believer, as I am, in doing as the Romans do when in Rome, it’s worth considering, don’t you think? After all, even if you’re disappointed—which you won’t be—you’re only out a third of what a less-adventurous conventional trip would have set you back!)

It’s a question of some debate whether Cuba has advanced beyond third-world-country status. But their national airline, Cubana Air, would suggest it has not. On both my arriving and returning flights—both of them delayed, without warning, by nearly 12 hours—Cubana showed that they fly whenever they want to.

To be fair, perhaps I should say they fly whenever they can. I suspect that, unlike most international carriers, Cubana has no extra aircraft to fill in when a plane suddenly becomes inoperable. And I suppose I should be grateful that they take the necessary time to make repairs.

But travelers considering Cubana should be aware that: 1. Such delays are quite likely. 2. If they do occur, Cubana cannot (or will not) switch you to an available seat on another airline; 3. The closest thing to a real person who might help you merely understand and feel better about the waste of full day of your life may be the airport’s departures screen; and 4. Cubana may add insult to injury by listing your 12-hour-late flight on that screen not as “Delayed,” but “ADJUSTED.” Argh-h-h!

Here are a few links to information you might find helpful in planning your independent travel to Cuba:

¡Vámonos a Cuba!

* The bichón—or more specifically the Havanese—is the national dog of Cuba.

** From either of the closest departure points for Havana—Miami or Cancun—that last 90 miles will likely cost you about the same as your first 1,500 miles. Be aware that it is still illegal for individuals to fly directly into Cuba from the US; only organizations with specific OFAC licenses can make the arrangements. This corner on the market, along, I suspect, with hefty fees from the Cuban government, account for the inflated pricing.

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