Cuba: The U.S. Sanctions Situation
16 - 22 June 2017
"Now a writer can make himself a nice career while he is alive by espousing a political cause, working for it, making a profession of believing in it, and if it wins he will be very well placed. All politics is a matter of working hard without reward, or with a living wage for a time, in the hope of booty later."
I've been around.
So far, I've worked in, lived in or simply traveled through 43 countries.
In the past 4 years alone, I've thrown myself around the planet with an increasing amount of ambition. Russia. Thailand. Cambodia. Finland. Estonia. Vietnam. Myanmar. Those are the "new" places; the familiar include Sweden and The Netherlands.
Each and every one of those places — including Russia — was a marvel in some way, shape or form. And I'd go back to any one of them — including Russia — without hesitation. I humbly consider my December 2016 trip to Asia as a masterpiece, a miracle of on-the-fly, make-it-up-as-you-go travel that organically transformed the experiences — and me.
Then there's Cuba.
I've never experienced stress surrounding a trip like the tension surrounding my visit to Cuba. Part of it was self-inflicted. I had grandiose ambitions of taking my two consumer-grade 4K cameras (a Sony A6300 and a Sony RX100 Mark V) to Cuba and conducting multi-angle video interviews with filmmakers, musicians, artists... Whoever. I wanted to ride the wave of those recent trips to Asia and continue pushing the personal envelope of blending travel and journalism into something not seen elsewhere.
The bulk of the tension, though, was driven by politics. And the harsh realities of life in Cuba.
It got to the point where I made myself a promise: My next trip's gonna be something simple. (That promise is being kept. The next trip is on the calendar: A long weekend in San Diego — to see U2.)
Let's start with the media.
In this era of "fake news" and "alternative facts," I'm appalled by how the easing of sanctions on Cuba has been covered in the U.S. media. It's been almost entirely wrong. No fact-checking. No research. Just high-level regurgitation of key concepts that ultimately is out of whack with the reality of the situation. And that includes coverage from American media in Cuba and other reporters who have recently returned from their own "journalistic activities" in Cuba.
Early reports made it sound like Cuba was back on the map for American travelers. Go! Book a flight on JetBlue! Have a good time!
I was shocked when I started digging into the weeds. At this point, Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba as tourists. There must be a reason for travel that extends beyond simple tourism. Currently, there are 12 valid reasons (or general licenses) for Americans traveling to Cuba:
- Cuban family visit
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities, including people-to-people travel
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firms
It was the notion of "journalistic activities" which ultimately made me shift from "never mind" to "wait a minute." This is a unique opportunity.
The day before I was set to leave on my trip (by way of Florida, to see U2), CBS This Morning had a reporter in Cuba talking about the disappointing demand for airfare from the U.S. to Cuba — and, at the same time, he strongly advised those going to Cuba to book hotels as soon as possible. Places fill up fast, he said. Some charge $500USD/night, he said. I've heard that exact same advice before, from other sources.
Even so, somehow, against all odds, I found myself booking three hotel nights (half of my stay!) the day before check-in — and I never saw anybody charging anything approaching $500USD/night for hotel stays in June. Perhaps June isn't peak season, but it's certainly not a time to be considered off-off-season.
As for the airfare situation, that explains why Spirit suspended service to Cuba at the end of May. My search for fares in June came up with zilch.
Americans aren't flocking to Cuba and maybe it's because people receive less-than-welcoming airfare reservation follow-up emails such as the following:
There's an intimidation factor that comes along with planning a trip to Cuba (a proper trip, not a circumvention trip by way of Canada or Mexico). Granted, at least part of that feeling is intended to squelch an overflow of American tourists on a nation that's not prepared for the extra attention. The infrastructure simply isn't there to handle tourism of any significant volume.
Even with that thought on my mind, I've never found myself questioning a trip so consistently, right up to the point of boarding. To make it all the more painful, my flight was set to depart Tampa at 7:30 in the morning on 16 June, a Friday. The flight was delayed for 3 hours. And that was the same day Pres. Trump went to Miami and made his announcement regarding the revisitation of the U.S./Cuba relationship.
That report on CBS This Morning? The guy interviewed a few seemingly random Americans who appeared to be of college age (and, I might add, they looked like tourists). It wasn't clear why they were there; he didn't ask. But he did ask them what they thought of Cuba. "It's awesome" was the basic impression they were conveying. Brilliant. Completely and utterly sub-par reporting, live, on-the-spot, from Havana.
Sanctions? So what?
The notion of sanctions would indicate measures taken to, essentially, punish or otherwise restrict the activities of a given country. At first blush, the impact on the citizens of the nation imposing the sanctions would seem to be relatively inconsequential.
In the case of Cuba, though, those long-standing sanctions have impacts on both countries.
For Americans — and I'd say these impacts are not fully understood or appreciated by the average Cuban — it means planning ahead for a visit is critical.
- Credit cards issued by U.S. banks won't work
- Most businesses don't accept credit cards anyway (except for some hotels, most businesses are strictly cash only)
- ATMs aren't exactly abundant, but it doesn't matter; ATM cards issued by U.S. banks won't work
- Cash is king: Bring enough for the entire trip
- Smartphones from U.S. carriers won't work
- Unlike most countries, it's not possible to buy a SIM card for local use
- In part because of the U.S. sanctions, technology in Cuba is woefully behind the times; Wi-Fi access is painfully limited (even in hotels which offer Wi-Fi, it's typically accessible only in the lobby area, not within the rooms)
- U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel to Cuba as tourists, even under the easing sanctions; U.S. citizens must self-identify under one of 12 pre-approved reasons for travel or else apply for an individual license
- Additionally, a visa and health insurance are required for entry into Cuba; some airlines, such as Southwest, bundle insurance with the airfare and offer extremely simple visa arrangements online
And these U.S. sanctions — particularly those restricting American tech companies (AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) and their ability to do business in Cuba — ultimately impact everybody living in or visiting Cuba.
Don't forget: As otherworldly as some of this sounds, Cuba is a mere 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.
Sanctions: A “Quality of Life” Question
It's become a theme for me this summer: Who determines the baseline for quality of life?
I encountered that question while traveling around greater Havana, while watching The Glass Castle and Captain Fantastic and — most personally — while confronting a hospice caregiver's notions of "quality of life" in regard to my own mom's life.
Regarding the U.S. sanctions on Cuba, the media's essentially ridiculed their existence. "C'mon! They've been in place for 50 years. It's so silly to hold a grudge for so long."
Well... That's an over-simplification. The sanctions date back 5 decades, sure. But what's changed in Cuba? The place has issues. Servers in bars and restaurants smile and some joke around; musicians play music like there's no tomorrow and display an astonishing amount of energy.
But are they happy?
Is it enough that people visiting the country think it's "cool" to take a trip back in time at the expense of well-meaning Cubans?
They're not easy questions to answer. But I talked to people. I listened.
And I heard despair.
The Flip Side
The following photo was taken at the bar in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a place where Hemingway used to stay.
The photo shows people mesmerized by CNN. The program was covering the latest incident involving police brutality in the U.S.
People watched with rapt attention.
It's food for thought. How exactly is the U.S. perceived outside of its borders?
This was fascinating to watch because it put the event in a broader perspective. I know such instances are not the norm, but the exception. The impression made on Cubans, though, was quite different. America is one brutal place when based strictly on coverage of events such as this. The trouble is, there've been a lot of wild, violent events in recent times.