|Jose' Marti Airport in Cuba|
As travelers, Americans have traditionally been well treated by other countries. Most allow us to enter with a tourist visa obtained at the entry point – whether by land, air or sea. Occasionally, a visa must be requested prior to arriving by sending passports to embassies for processing. Because of where we entered, Cambodia, Argentina and Jordan demanded this procedure. It is much harder for most of the world to travel to the United States, requiring months of petitioning and providing verified information. Cuba is different. Getting in is not a problem. It’s returning to the United States that’s tricky.
On January 1, 1959, Fulgencio Bautista, the U.S. friendly dictator of Cuba, fled to Spain. Fidel Castro’s army entered Havana and began the rule of Cuba that continues today. Castro didn’t start as a communist but moved that way quickly when Russia offered financial support. In response, the United States declared an embargo against the island. No American companies could do business there with some small exceptions such as agriculture. And Americans could no longer travel to the emerald island. Actually, the rule allowed Americans to be in Cuba but they couldn’t spend any money – an impossibility that ensured termination of tourism.
Over the years, rules have softened. President Obama’s changes now allow those of Cuban descent to visit whenever they want. Cuba has also released its citizens to travel wherever they want as long as the country accepts them. Consequently, almost every person we met in Cuba had family in the United States and most had been to visit.
For the rest of us, there are two methods of visiting Cuba – one legal and one not. Wouldn’t you know the illegal way is easier. Simply fly to another country such as Mexico, Guatemala, or Canada, buy your Cuban tourist visa at the airport and fly from there to Havana. Ask the customs officer not to stamp your passport. Have fun in Cuba. Return to Mexico, Guatemala or Canada. Reenter the United States and simply fail to disclose that you took a detour to Cuba. Thousands of Americans do this every year. Truthfully, the risk is low. I could find only one notable case of an American being caught in the lie and having to pay a fine.
Uneasy with that approach? Worried about your passport? Then let’s look at the legal way which has been expanded significantly by the Obama administration. Before, a license had to be obtained through Washington, a lengthy process. Now, you must be able to prove upon reentry that you’ve qualified for one of the new methods. These include visiting Cuba on a cultural tour. People to People is doing a brisk business in this category as is National Geographic, Road Scholar and university alumni groups. If you are conducting a study, you can come back in. And if your church confirms you as the church’s representative in Cuba, you’re good. We worked with our local Holy Cross Episcopal Church to meet that requirement and with the Episcopal Church in Cuba to obtain the Cuban religious visa.
U.S. airlines cannot run regular flights to Cuba but charter flights are allowed out of several cities, including Miami. These companies must be sure their passengers have the visa to enter Cuba and of equal importance, meet our requirements to reenter. They also provide the health insurance required by Cuba.
We used ABC Charter which is actually owned by American Airlines. The plane had the bright new AA logo on its tail and its crew appeared to be seasoned. Judging by their accents, most passengers on the Havana flight were Cuban, either returning home or visiting relatives. Our seatmate was doing just that. Upon return to Miami, two People to People tours filled much of the plane. Leaving Havana at about the same time was a Jet Blue charter flight. I think both American and Jet Blue are poised for the lifting of the embargo, although there’s no sign of change yet.
The details of our trip took eight months to confirm. Charter flights can’t be booked until two or three months out. Email to the Episcopal Church in Havana was not always reliable. Delays in getting a Cuban visa were notable. Ours arrived 10 days before scheduled departure. But it did finally come together and we touched down on a beautiful September morning. Customs was smooth and we saw Cuba for the first time.