CHICAGO – During her recent two-week trip to Cuba, Linda Rivers of Hayward, Calif., visited museums, walked along beaches, sipped rum and watched a professional baseball game.
Just don’t call it a vacation.
Counter to conventional wisdom, Americans such as Rivers can get to Cuba legally and quite easily. In many cases, there is no wait for a visa, license or government approval.
The wrinkle is that the words “vacation,” “tourism” and “leisure” aren’t to enter the equation.
Though the United States maintains a prohibition against travel to Cuba – or, more accurately, spending money in Cuba, which is why such travel is regulated by the Treasury Department – there are still several legal avenues for getting there.
Among the most common are group “people-to-people” trips like the one Rivers joined. When you dig slightly below the surface, it’s clear these trips are not so different from what people usually do on vacation.
What is mandated is “meaningful interaction” with Cuban people. Though that might cast doubt on scuba diving or sunning yourself at the beach, is dancing late into the night in a Cuban jazz club meaningfully cultural? Or taking in a baseball game where frenzied locals dance and beat on drums?
“It did give me more appreciation of the culture,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of drumming and dancing at baseball games in the States.”
As part of her person-to-person trip in a group of 16 mostly Bay Area residents who work in affordable housing and academia, she also met with cultural and government officials from across Cuba to discuss the arts, racism and housing.
“It was not a standard trip to any country, but I didn’t feel hemmed in by the guidelines,” said Rivers, 45.
People-to-people trips began in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, ended under President George W. Bush and were restored last year under President Barack Obama.
Yet they remain a hot-button issue. As recently as December, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents moved from Cuba before he was born (and before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959), castigated person-to-person trips as “outrageous tourism, which, quite frankly, borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials.”
Such watchful eyes make organizations with person-to-person licenses take pains to promote the educational aspects of their trips while playing down tourism. But it’s still there.
“The purpose of the person-to-person program from our point of view is to get as much face-to-face time with local people as possible,” said Sandra Levinson, of the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies. “That doesn’t mean going to a lot of lectures or meeting with a lot of government officials. It means being involved in activities where you meet and greet a lot of Cubans.”
Though the United States largely stands alone on restricting travel to Cuba, a stance taken since the communist revolution, most travelers, regardless of where they originate, go to Cuba with a group. The reasons are many: Poor infrastructure makes it difficult to get around; a hotel shortage can make accommodations difficult to come by; the cost of getting around the island, especially renting cars, can be prohibitive; and the dialect can be tricky even for Spanish speakers.
But Cuba does get an increasing number of solo travelers. From the U.S., that includes people who qualify for general licenses (journalists, academics, people with religious purposes and those with “close relatives” in Cuba); they can go as easily as drawing up an itinerary, signing an affidavit through a Travel Service Provider (there are dozens, mostly in Florida) and swearing they’ll keep to it.
A person who does not qualify for a general license can apply for a specific license, requiring a more laborious process that involves applying through the Treasury Department.
The mechanics of actually getting to Cuba also are restricted: The only way to get there legally from the United States is on a sanctioned charter airline, as arranged through a Travel Service Provider. Flights leave daily from Miami and elsewhere in Florida and less often from larger cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Rivers plans to take the trip again. “You take off, see the Keys and – boom – you’re in Cuba,” she said. “It was amazing. It seemed too close not to be able to go there more easily.”