I’ve never much liked being told no.
Telling me not to do something almost always makes me want to do it more.
And so it was with Cuba.
Most of you know that the American government has had its panties in a bunch for the past, oh, 55 years. In 1960, after Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries overtook the government in the Cuban Revolution, they upset the U.S. by increasing relations with the Soviet Union, nationalizing U.S.-owned companies without providing payment, and of course, implementing a socialist regime.
The U.S. retaliated by refusing to export anything to the island-nation, and threatening to punish other countries for doing so, resulting in a country that’s left with signs of progress and money up until 1961, when it suddenly stopped.
Along with such stringent policies for importation and exportation, the U.S. went one step further and made it illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba.
Well, actually, it’s not illegal for us to go. But it’s illegal for us to spend money there. And therefore those oh-so-smart politicians declare anyone who’s spent more than 24 hours on the island in violation of the law.
The panties are beginning to unbunch, though, thanks to the Obama administration, and things are changing almost as fast as I can put words on this page. I’ve been trying to write this post for a few days, but I fear posting information that will be outdated as soon as I hit “publish.”
When I bought my ticket to Mexico several months ago, it was partly in spite of being told I couldn’t go (but also because I’ve long been fascinated by Cuban culture). Then, less than a month after I had my back-door plan booked and ready, Obama and Castro shook hands, signaling improved diplomatic relations to come.
Soon after, changes began to occur, and while it’s now easier to qualify for a visa to enter the country for things such as education, family, journalism, etc., it’s still illegal to go solely or tourism (for more than 24 hours, that is).
But getting to Havana, Cuba was easy. I simply boarded a plane in Mexico, hopped the pond, and touched down. There, the immigration officer asked me if I wanted my passport stamped, to which I nervously replied “No, por favor.” And that was that. There was nothing to it. The short story is Cuba is open for business. And now that their dictator has begun to lighten up, locals are even allowed to own their own businesses (with restrictions and high taxes), so they really can profit from your money.
That is, if you can access your money…
As of three weeks ago when I left Havana, there was still a 10% penalty for exchanging U.S. dollars into Cuban pesos, on top of the regular exchange fee. And, American bank cards still refuse to dispense money at an ATM. This means two things. One, you should exchange your money into Canadian dollars, Euros, Mexican pesos, or virtually any other currency before you go to Cuba. Two, you should take enough money with you to last the entirety of your stay.
This can be a bit scary. I was planning to be on Cuba for five weeks. How much money does one take for five weeks?
Not enough, if you’re me.
With Cuba’s double currency system (one for locals and a separate one for foreigners that’s equivalent to the USD), my money ran out before my time did, and I was forced to leave earlier than expected.
It’s scary to have all your money on you in cash, and I feared losing it or getting mugged and therefore ended up taking less than enough. So when no bank would give me money and all my Mexican pesos had been converted and spent, I was forced to make my way back to the airport in Havana and use $80 of my remaining $130 to change my departure date and fly back to Mexico two weeks early.
It turns out three weeks was enough for me though, and I wasn’t terribly upset about leaving. As fascinating and beautiful as Cuba is, I found it to be rather exhausting. More on haggling, cat calling, 22-hour bus rides and all the other things that make travel less than glamourous is coming in future posts, but I’m so glad I went and saw the island before McDonald’s and Subway make their way into the cities and American businesses change the island forever.
On Monday, the U.S. reopened the consulate in Havana, and established a Cuban consulate in Washington D.C. This holds big promise for all the change that’s to come, and usually I would be saddened by the potential loss of culture and life on the island as we know it, but this time I’m not. Life is hard in Cuba, and nearly everyone will tell you so. The Cuban people are ready for change, and they’re crying out for it.
Let them have it.
Is It Legal to go to Cuba?