Sunday, May 11, 2014

Americans Going to Cuba: Part One... The Risks? The Costs?

Todo por la Revolucion, Pendejo! 

If you made it here, you've most likely already read a number of other bloggers telling you the secret ways on getting to Cuba... as an American. I'm sure you found the guy who "does it all the time in protest of the embargo" and the other guy who goes with his church or as a journalist. And then there are Cubans going to visit family and Obama's remittances and on and on...

It seems there is always that American traveler who intrigues the other American travel enthusiasts when they can claim Cuba as a "been there, done that." It's dickish. It's so cavalier. I mean, how do most Americans get there? Most of them do not, and the rest fly to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands or some country in Central America and then pay cash for a flight on a smaller regional airline to Havana. There is the assurance from folks who have been that the Cubans don't stamp your passport because they know you're American... That's not how it works really...

So many stories.

Well, I'm not the guy who snuck in. I went legitimately with work. Myself along with a few others. So if you can go legitimately, you probably already know how. Let me discuss the risks and the costs. I'll explore the ethics of this ordeal in the next post...


Economic: In the past, there were fines of more than $10,000 and jail time. I remember working on a research paper about Cuban travel and finding an article about one guy that the government decided to make an example of while roughly 70,000 Americans were sneaking into Cuba each year. But word on the street is that the folks paid to enforce one's breaching of the embargo laws (note: Americans can be in Cuba. They just can't spend any money there) have been given other tasks. Back in 2006 I dated a girl whose mother's boyfriend worked at MIA and acquired a number of confiscated Cuban cigars and rum for his personal use from these airport personnel who took them from the little abuelitas coming off of the airplane. A dick move if you ask me, confiscating contraband just to sell and trade it amongst your fellow airport employees. But that's another discussion. Shame on you, George! Anyway, now there are a number of exceptions made by the Obama administration allowing Cuba travel agents to arrange group travel to Cuba so long as they carry a detailed itinerary.

To see some of the possibilities that allow Americans to legally travel, this is the company we used that arranged a no-hassle trip. Our flight went from Miami to Havana in about an hour or so. They essentially rent a plane from American Airlines and rent pilots and take the passengers and about 300 blue eggs full of Wal-Mart, K-mart, and Target goods destined for family members that can't get something as basic as a socket wrench due to the embargo and their depressing socialist salary.

Passport Stamp: I remember meeting this English guy, I think in Mexico or Australia... can't remember, but I do remember his enthusiasm for Cuba and how much he loved it. "I mean, you've got a communist country, and in my passport they post 'Hasta a la Victoria' with a picture of Che on it," he said. Yeah, they don't. If you are American, they just pull a perforated visa paper in half and you keep one part until you leave. Don't lose it.

One thing I always wondered was if you would be questioned by Immigration the United States if you flew into Cuba from a foreign country like Mexico. Your passport will have a stamp marking the exit from the US, the arrival and exit out of Mexico, and then you return to the US. So what would they say if they saw you left the US, then went to Mexico, left then returned to Mexico and went back to the states? I always wondered to what extent our names ping on a satellite when our passports go certain places...  Someone who reads this and did this tell me...

I'll say this much, one of my colleagues had a contact in the FBI that she hadn't talked to for some time, and then he showed up at her house out of the blue and asked why she was going to Cuba. Remember, we went legitimately, but our names on the flight manifest pinged on a computer screen somewhere. The agent said he was just eager for a report of what it was like.... hmm....

Costs: You'll need to carry more than an itinerary when there as an American. Regardless of how you get into the country, expect to pay way, way more than you imagined. If I were to go again, I would have a budget of $300 a day. One might not spend close to that, but if you get into trouble or need to fly home early or lose some of your money, you need enough to get by until you get out. For a nine day trip, I brought $800 in spending money. My job covered our hotels and travel etc. But be aware that using American money comes with an automatic tax.

The exchange rate was:     $1 = .92 CUC

The value of the Cuban convertible peso was .92 but all cash exchanges took an additional 10% from customers exchanging American money.

So really: $1= .82 CUC

Why? Consider it an extra charge for our embargo. Europeans exchanging Euros pay an exchange fee as does anyone changing currency, but exchanging the dollar requires one pay ten cents more per dollar. It doesn't help, as far as I can tell, to convert your money to another currency and then convert it to CUC.

And since the embargo is a treasury law that all American banks or American customers of banks must follow, no ATM or credit card will work if registered to an American. If you are going there, it's cash only. Luckily, Cuba is safe--even for Americans. I remember walking through Havana drunk at 3 am and there being a police presence there--both to help if needed and make sure we didn't talk to the locals for too long.

Be aware that if you are guided by a local or seen hanging out with locals for a decent amount of time, there is a chance those locals will be questioned about what you spoke about. The police will not mess with you, but if you get that local to discuss politics openly or misbehave or do something illegal with them there is a good chance that they will pay for your actions after you go home.

So the only risk I can really point out that makes many people hesitate is the cash only bit. I advised two friends on how they might get into Cuba from the Bahamas who decided once they reached Nassau that the Bahamas were close enough since they knew no Spanish and only had around $1000 for four days.

Dining: So why do I say bring $300 for each day you will be there? Well, at an exchange of $0.82, you now have $240 CUC. Of course, you can eat meals with the locals if you like bread made of what tastes like sawdust and meat filled with TVP and vegetable protein fillers. I mean, Cuba has closely studied the ways of adulterated food much like our fast food industry in the states. How else would you stretch an island's worth of food amongst 11,270,000 with an embargo and only so many resources to generate an economy? More than likely you'll find the little restaurants or, paladares, in each town that cook food for tourists. Here are a few things to expect:

1. The amazing Cuban food you find in the States or at your grandmother's house does not exist in Cuba. What you eat in America is an example of Cuban made with the best, proper ingredients. What you will find in Cuba is what is available and what is close enough. There might be no black bean crop or plantains in season when you get there. The lobster every idiot comes home to rave about is frozen not fresh. The vinegar for your salad is white vinegar or the pepper on the table is white pepper. The oxtail tastes like butthole--no surprise there. Maybe your mojito is nothing like you expected, and sadly you might discover TGI Friday's mojito is more to your liking. You'll hate to admit it, but it might be.

2. For the best food you can find in Cuba, you'll be going to paladares. Expect to pay around $30 for a plate of food and a drink. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. But Cuba was more of a learning experience of myth and reality than it was some cheap, sneaky travel paradise. If you paid $30 for any of these meals in the states, you'd write a nasty yelp review about it. But in Cuba, you'll spend that $30 bucks with a bit of sympathy and be like, "Oh, it was... interesting.... very nice... I'm in Cuba..."

Paladare cuisine--the best food you'll find, with little surprises throughout.

Street vendor, Havana. Waltzing around drunk at night I told him, "Yo soy hermano de pizza!"

3. You are going to get diarrhea. There is no way to avoid eating in a Cuba and not shitting your brains out. Hopefully, your hotel has toilet paper. Bring a roll with you anyways, and keep some in your day bag, as I one day had to shit and wipe my ass with dollar bills out of my wallet.
If you have diarrhea and go out in Cuba, good luck finding a bathroom with a seat or toilet paper. My solution was the beach. I swam out about a hundred feet, pull my shorts down, sank to the bottom and shot out a brown cloud of nasty. I came up for air--repeat. By the time I was done, I could open my eyes underwater and see four brown cloudy swarms of poo water drifting away from me, one larger than the one before it as they diluted into mother ocean. Thanks Fidel... 

Hotels: If you get an official license to visit Cuba, you might be able to book a hotel in advance. To stay at the famous mobster hotels like the Inglaterra in Havana, you'll be paying insanely high rates $200+ for a room that would score quite low on any hotel review site. The positives to a room in the Inglaterra would be a flushing toilet, toilet paper, and a somewhat clean shower. The mattresses might feel like they were salvaged from a camper van in 1979, and the televisions run state channels and some cable channels deemed "okay" by the regime. I did like the notes left for me by the maids expecting tips for cleaning my room each day. On the other hand, towns like Trinidad had European corporate chain hotels like Iberostar that were amazing, and again they cost hundreds a night. Remember, I wasn't paying. Since European companies don't deal with the embargo they've had a few opportunities to set up some swank accommodations. One problem, however, is that they wouldn't let our local Cuban guides hang out with us in our rooms. We had to hang out with our local friends in view of hotel staff in the lobby. Not sure why other than perhaps the control of interaction with foreigners. Most people venturing into Cuba that I talk to stay in a room of a local home offered by the local families in each town, which usually comes with breakfast. Most of my European friends that have been to Cuba found a home stay situation once they arrived on the plane, and I can't imagine there being a high season where accommodations would be impossible to find.

Internet: Aside from running at a 56k speed, none of my e-mails made it home after I sent my first one saying that "Cuba looks very communist and drab." After that, my girlfriend and mother didn't hear from me for nine more days. It's also very expensive.

Mail: One can mail postcards home to America, so long as you don't say anything crazy. How do I know? Well, four out of five postcards made it home. One criticized the coffee of Cuba saying how it was watered down with chicory and nothing like "Cuban coffee" in Miami, and other postcards had the usual "having fun" sort of thing. But one postcard I sent to my friend David really tested the censors and never made it. I bought a postcard of a young Fidel Castro, just a close up of his face while ranting at the microphone. I tore a hole away where his mouth was, and on the back of the card I wrote, "Hoyo de Gloria" or "Glory hole." I then wrote, "David, our mission to install hoyas de gloria was a success. Long live Fidel and Raul." What can I say, my friend David and I think that the concept of a glory hole is funny, and the censors, while I doubt know what a glory hole is, snagged the card in fear that I somehow disrespected the "old ghost" as the Cubans call Fidel.

Sex Trade? Drugs? Supporting the Regime? Of course, I don't condone any of these... I'll discuss in Part Two....

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