American Citizens Traveling to Cuba: Updated Information for 2017

Old Havana Plaza Church Travel US Citizen

So many US citizens have been dreaming of visiting Cuba — and now, it is easier than ever! The travel restrictions have been loosened and Americans can finally legally and openly get to know this amazing country with its wonderful people. Read on and see for yourself how un-intimidating and simple getting to Cuba was for us.

When, back in November 2016, we came across a “Newark – Havana” flight for under $250 round trip, my husband and I pounced on the “pirate fare” for the much-overdue week-and-a-half get-away in early January of 2017.

Given decades of the travel ban, it felt strange to be booking a direct flight from New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport straight to Havana’s José Martí International Airport  with a major US-based airline like United. When things are iffy or unclear, the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” in me awakens and doubles down on research, to make sure I’m not missing any pertinent details or caveats.

United Airlines provides an informative breakdown of travel requirements on their website, but let’s elaborate on how it works in real life.

REASON FOR VISIT

Before you can purchase your ticket, you will be asked to certify your reason for visiting Cuba by choosing from the following “general licenses”:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official government business
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research or meetings
  5. Educational activities or people-to-people exchanges
  6. Religious activities
  7. Sports and public events
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Research
  11. Informational materials
  12. Authorized export activities
  13. Non-immigrant Cuban National

Unfortunately, “Cultural fascination” and “Lifelong dream” are not among acceptable reasons to visit Cuba. Also, it seems that most of the items on that list would require documentation.

However — there are a couple of options that are vague enough to allow for a variety of interpretations, without requiring any official paperwork! We checked off “Support for the Cuban people” and proceeded to book our tickets. It was the right, hassle-free way to go. The exact legal wording for the clause can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations here.

Going through the customs, it seems like a good idea to make the officers’ jobs easier by getting one’s story straight. Jokes, ad-libs and small talk might set off more alarms than chuckles with the border agents. It’s best to have all documents in hand, look ’em straight in the eye and answer the questions to the point and without wavering.

When they ask: “What is your reason for visiting Cuba?”  — avoid coming back with: “I hear the rum is pretty good!” It deviates from the script. Because “booze tourism” — or any kind of tourism — is not on the bloody list of 13 permit-able causes for entry for US citizens!! It is wiser to answer: “Support for the Cuban people” (or whichever one you picked when you booked your ticket) and move along when prompted. Save the “adventure” for after you successfully cross the border, wise guy 🙂

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: As an added measure of security, I brought back-up materials, in the off-chance we would be asked to explain what, precisely, we mean by “support for the Cuban people”.

It so happens that my husband works in library science and visits libraries wherever he goes, always on the look-out for potential collaboration. I printed out a list of libraries across Cuba to point to, if questioned by customs. Our story was: the husband is visiting libraries for establishing contact / I am a sociologist and serving in the capacity of Spanish translator to my husband. This narrative demonstrates how it’s not tourism, and establishes the potential benefit to the Cuban people in the form of intellectual exchange and professional networking. It helps that ours was true.

Mark Twain quote truth remember anything

HEALTH INSURANCE

It is mandatory for U.S. citizens entering Cuba to have health insurance recognized by Cuba which, apparently, excludes most, if not all, US-based health plans. Thankfully, United Airlines built a temporary health insurance from ESICUBA into the cost of their ticket, covering the passenger for the first 30 days. I imagine other airlines flying into Cuba do the same — but I would check with them to make sure.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: I just couldn’t take United Airlines’ website’s “word” for this and contacted their representative to clarify. The operator confessed that the route and rules were brand new and they did not have all the answers ready. Eventually, she confirmed that a $25 portion of the United ticket, indeed, accounts for 30-day health coverage.

Later, at the airport, upon my request, the check-out representative printed a separate receipt and circled the $25 charge for health insurance on it for me. It’s listed in fine print as OOCU25, which could stand for absolutely anything. But I felt safer having the print-out to point to, if need be. Gratefully, it was never disputed.

Can you spot the Health Insurance tariff?

If anyone is wondering why the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” me is so obsessed with print-outs — it’s because she knows that in socialist regimes, when the shizzle hits the proverbial fan, a piece of paper can be mightier than the proverbial sword. Nothing greases the wheels of a bureaucracy better than a nice, crisp sheet of papyrus with some text, official-looking stamps and, preferably, a signature or two. Conversely — to loosely paraphrase a Soviet Russian saying — “Without paper, you are vapor.”

AND THAT’S WHY                                                             YOU ALWAYS BRING A PIECE OF PAPER

CUBAN ENTRY PERMIT

At the Newark Liberty International Airport, the United Airlines check-in line for the Havana flight was sectioned off in a separate corner of the terminal. In addition to charging $50 for the “entry permit”, the Cuban Travel Service collected a service fee of $25 each, which comes to a total of $75 a person for visa expenses.

MONEY: WHAT TO KNOW IN ADVANCE

It used to be that US Americans were not supposed to spend a single penny on anything in Cuba, evidenced by complete lack of “stuff” or receipts brought back stateside. This is no longer the case: Americans can spend liberally and bring back all kinds of goodies (most seem to opt for cigars and rum which are now legal to bring back to the USA, allegedly, in unlimited quantities, as of recent.)

In a complete 180-degree turn-around from the preceding rule, US Americans are now expected to hold on to all their receipts from Cuba for one year. I had full intention to do that until I set foot in Cuba and saw that almost nobody was willing to issue a receipt for anything, like, ever…

In fact, shopping itself in Havana, seemed neither easy nor fun. Shopaholics will be shocked disoriented underwhelmed by socialist marketplace offerings — Cuba is no retail paradise.

But who goes to Cuba for shopping — other than buying pieces from local artists? Go for the beautiful people, the vibrant culture, the gorgeous nature, the unbroken spirit, the awe-inspiring history, the  musical language, the voices in the streets, the whispers in the night and, yes, even the ears in the walls — and you’ll have the time of your life!

Credit Cards

The use of credit is not terribly widespread in Cuba, especially away from the couple of touristy spots in the country, so we did not even bother trying to use ours, as we did not purchase any high-ticket goods or services.

Also, we have heard multiple rumors that U.S. bank cards are not likely to be accepted by Cuban ATMs and did not want to chance it. We brought the amount of cash we conservatively estimated to carry us through the vacation without getting nervous about it.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: Make sure to alert your bank / credit card company about going to Cuba — or they will cut you off after just one charge having anything to do with “those commies”. Back in Newark airport, my husband paid for entry permits and Cuban government service fees with separate credit cards and, in a matter of minutes, both bank companies shut off all access and texted him a suspicious activity alert. By then, we were rushing to get on the plane and had to leave it unresolved until our return stateside.

…Methinks charging a Cuban visa on a Visa credit card must have raised some red flags in America…

Cash

So, the Internet will tell you: don’t bring US dollars to Cuba — bring Euros or British Pounds! With USD, you will get slayed on the extra fee they tack on to punish the United States for the trade embargo. The official currency exchange services pay out just 87 cents on the dollar and it hurts.

OK, I hear that! And if you’re coming from Europe or you’ve got a big stash of Euros / Pounds lying around, by all means, do bring them to Cuba!

But I’ve done the calculations and it does not make sense to convert USD to Euros or Pounds and then exchange them into the Cuban currency — you’ll pay conversion fees TWICE! That will leave you with even less than 87 on the dollar.

The verdict: bring US dollars. Suck up the crappy government exchange rate — OR — engage with local people for a better deal. Obviously, don’t fall for the fast-talking street con artists — but there are plenty of decent, enterprising Cubans who will have an honest and mutually beneficial transaction with you.

Your best bet will be your “casa particular” hosts, who will likely oblige with a rate between 90 and 94 cents on the dollar. Or they’ll find someone else who will. The key is to be super tactful and indirect when broaching the topic with a new person: instead of “Do YOU exchange money?”, a less threatening phrasing is: “I am looking to exchange money — can you recommend where I can do that?”

Currency: CUC vs. CUP

Yep, Cuba has the frustrating double-currency system: the Cuban Peso (CUP) used by Cuban citizens and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for foreigners. The two sets of bills are similar looking but have dramatically different value and buying power. At the time of writing this, 1 CUC is worth 26.5 CUP.

[The Paranoid Ex-Soviet has some very strong feelings on how insulting and hypocritical the Cuban double currency system is to its own citizens, but she will have to save it for another post…]

As a foreigner, you will be using Convertibles (CUC). Exchanging dollars for Cuban Convertibles is easy math because it corresponds one-for-one with the US Dollar. Say your exchange rate is 90 centavos on the dollar. If you give $100, you get back 90 CUC; if you trade in $200, your return is 90 x 2 = 180 CUC, etc.

Cuban Convertible Peso Travel US Citizen

Cuban Convertible Peso: the currency for foreigners

It is my impression that, in Cuban cities and tourist resorts, local pesos are not something you will ever need, unless you are absolutely set on paying the lowest price for the lowest-cost items, such as spending the bottom penny on a single loose cigarette, sold by an elderly lady in the street.

If paying 50 cents for a 20-cent item absolutely kills you, pocket-change CUP used by locals won’t be hard to obtain: go to a non-tourist tobacco / water / sweets stand, store or   window and buy something trivial with a Convertible bill. The vendor is likely to give you change in local pesos.

Cuban Peso Travel Che

The Cuban Peso: the currency of the Cuban citizens.

Obviously, there is a ton more to know about Cuba but at least now, you can go ahead with the ticket booking process without anxiety 🙂 More Cuba posts coming soon — in the meanwhile, check out our podcast detailing the entire trip.

Happy Trails! Enjoy the wondrous country that is Cuba and please be a kind, respectful and generous representative of the ole U.S. of A. 🙂

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 3: PRIORITIZING PROPERTY OVER HUMAN LIFE

In this several-part series of posts, I address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: Property damage caused by arson and looting is the worst thing happening in Ferguson, MO.

REALITY CHECK: When did the concern for damaged property trump the care for the wellness of fellow human beings? Have capitalist aims and consumerist desires eclipsed our ability to care about anything other than material stuff???

Again and again, I come across angry rants about private property being destroyed in the riots, as if this, somehow, justifies inhumane measures against the protesters. Property destruction is wrong and disturbing, to be sure and NOBODY IS ARGUING WITH THAT! But the outrage about loss and defacement of property seems disproportionately high comparing to how little the same individuals are regretting the loss of Michael Brown’s young life that has taken place in Ferguson. As I recall, in the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not kill” comes before “thou shalt not steal”.

Nonetheless, “If someone came looting at me, God help them” seems to be a popular sentiment. Fair enough! And if someone shot your unarmed child and let his corpse lie in the street for four-and-a-half hours and did not have to go to trial that would at least give your child’s death some kind of due process – what would you do then?

Personally, I am very impressed with how few people in Ferguson let their anger guide their public behavior – they deserve a lot of credit and respect for being so orderly and in control of their tempers as they, once again, find themselves dodging tear gas and cruel public judgment for peacefully speaking up. I am always awe-struck and humbled seeing black people maintain patience, calm and poise, in the face of belligerent whites urging them to “get over it” and accept that we are all living in a purely equal, meritocratic, post-racial society.

Have you ever been in horrific pain, while everyone around you is telling you that it is all in your head and you should just get over it and stop making something out of nothing? If you have, you know what this does to the human spirit. If you haven’t – lucky you – but try not to take it for granted as if it is the only reality that exists.

I cannot express the bitterness, fury and incredulity I feel about this – and other displays of obliviousness and indifference towards social abuses of this nature. It is hard to fathom how otherwise seemingly decent people can so flippantly dismiss and devalue the cries of sorrow and frustration of tens of thousands of their own brethren but raise hell over theft and arson committed by a handful of loose cannons and saboteurs. Injustice and indignity scar us socially and psychologically – how can we allow this to keep happening in plain sight to whole populations and not only turn a blind eye but agitatedly defend it with the air of moral indignation and socio-economic superiority? Don’t you have children of your own? But you must think that you raised them better than getting shot by the police, right? Therefore, none of this applies to you whatsoever?

The cultural worship of the American Dream is, in very large part, to blame for this element of self-delusion. It is hammered into everyone’s brains from an early age that one is the end-all master of one’s fate and there is nothing else to it. For many in positions of relative social privilege, the illusion of perfectly independent self-sufficiency does not dissipate through life, but sticks and becomes more reinforced by examples of their own success. “Success” in this country traditionally translates into accumulation of material goods. Hence, having our earthly possessions attacked means more to us than just property damage — it is a symbolic assault on our core values, on our sense of self-identity and esteem and it feels so personal and sacrilegious, it can overshadow all other concerns and considerations.

It may be hard, but we must work on recovering our empathy for others from under the thick layers of self-interest and unhealthy preoccupation with “stuff” as a marker of our self- and social worth. The myth of all-reaching meritocracy makes it easy to think that the misfortunes that befall others could never happen to ourselves because we have done nothing to deserve them. It makes it challenging to comprehend that many others have done nothing to deserve it either, yet, terrible social injustices happen to them all the same. To grasp this would lead to having to admit that we are not in complete control of our lives and that is an unsettling and jarring revelation for an individualistic nation. It would also mean that we have to give a hoot about each other a little more…

If you are white and you are, somehow, not deeply upset about the dehumanization of your black compatriots, you have got to cut through the noise of loudmouth media talking heads, friends and family and get in touch with your own, unique humanity. Feel kinship – not hate – for all the hard-working, law-abiding, morally concerned individuals – just like yourself – that are being routinely ignorantly mistaken for criminals and treated as such by the police force that has no understanding or empathy for the population it has been hired to serve and protect.

Does it look like the police of Ferguson, Missouri are serving or protecting anybody other than themselves? There is a huge difference in attitude and, hence, outcome between a police force that walks around flexing its muscles and lording its authority over others – as opposed to public servants who are honestly and passionately committed to doing what they must to shield the populace from harm.

A fair, caring law enforcement agency would be beloved and admired by the people it serves but, unfortunately, it is too often the above-the-law bullies with badges that roam and rule our city streets. We must do away with the insular fraternal culture of the police – they owe loyalty to the public, not each other. Again, it goes without saying that not all cops are abusive or corrupt but the system of fraternity-above-fairness encourages – nay, forces – officers of the law to indiscriminately protect “their own”, regardless of the quality and integrity of each other’s character and actions.

You know what people want and need even more than justice for the past? Dignity for the present and hope for the future! It is that simple but those values are truly in the shortest supply. The wounds of the past history of ugliness and injustice will only begin to heal after the echoes of those eras are no longer felt in the Today. So, when people are raging like this and in such numbers, it is not because they have nothing better to do. It is because they are still kicked in the teeth by powers that be while we, the majority, stand by and watch our brothers and sisters being demeaned and vilified – and refuse to acknowledge that it is happening and it is wrong and it must stop.

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

In this several-part series of posts, I address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: Justice is colorblind but the police have no choice but to go after blacks, many of whom are criminals.

REALITY CHECK: What nobody wants to admit is that the police are afraid of black people, black men in particular. Very, very afraid.

Many people siding with the Ferguson police are saying that it is a tough job and that the officer who shot Michael Brown had a hard decision on his hands and will have to live with this burden for the rest of his life. This is a very reasonable argument and does apply to countless officers who put their lives on the line and have to live with all the psychological trauma of the consequences of having to make these impossibly difficult judgment calls on the spot. Those officers deserve our support and appreciation because they go through private hell most of us know nothing about.

I cannot say I believe this is the case here because, instead of treating it as a tragedy, the police are arrogantly defending their right-ness with zero regard to the personal and social fall-out. Even if Officer Wilson had every reason to fear for his life and shot Michael Brown in absolute self-defense (though that does not at all look to be the case here), he could still be really, really sorry about it, he could be human about it and appeal to the community by sharing their grief, by acknowledging how unfortunate and heartbreaking the event had been – even if he had no other recourse but to use lethal measures.

But that is the thing: neither Officer Wilson, nor any of his colleagues seem remotely broken up over taking the life of the boy. They don’t seem to perceive him as a human child whose life ended too early. They appear to think of him as street vermin that had to be put down. This could have been an opportunity for all of us to come together, as a nation, addressing the social problems of unruly street teens and the complexities of handling them. Instead, the Ferguson Police Department is sticking to their guns, so to speak. They show no remorse or intention to build bridges with the people of Ferguson, only hyper-defensive hostility, backed up by demonstrated willingness to use more violence and do more damage to the already suffering community.

Officer Wilson may sincerely believe he acted out of duty by killing Michael Brown because he genuinely felt THAT MUCH threatened by him. And if you don’t think that race was a defining element in this, well, you are, unfortunately, a part of the problem, no matter how “good” a person you may be otherwise. The jarringly sad truth is: the American police are TERRIFIED of black men in a way they are not threatened by any other social demographic.

Unarmed white people do not get weapons discharged into them nowhere nearly as frequently (and without consequences) because “white people” as a category are not deemed an unequivocally intimidating, unpredictable bunch. Likewise, white people congregating in large groups, no matter how drunken and obnoxious (and violent), are not perceived as inevitable trouble the way a gathering of black people, especially black male youths, is interpreted.

When we look at the psychology behind what happens in white police vs. black men stand-offs, a hellish catch-22 emerges. The police are afraid of black men and do not hide their suspiciousness and hostility towards them. Black men, on their end, have grown up under the suspicious and hostile gaze of the law enforcement and may show aloofness and mistrust towards the police, which, in turn, prompts the police to feel more threatened and suspicious. The negativity only escalates on both sides when they come in contact with each other, resulting in every kind of misinterpretation of motive, which can lead to rash violence with irreversible consequences.

But the endless loop of fear and damning stereotyping must end – and it absolutely must start with the police. They must, to begin with, acknowledge their ugly part in all of this and accept their responsibility in initiating the healing process. Unfortunately, this would require a massive paradigm shift in how law enforcement is done in this country. We would have to overhaul the entire police training system for an entirely new set of priorities, attitudes and boundaries. It is time to put the Wild West behind us already and cultivate a whole new generation of public servants sincerely invested into the well-being of their people, and rid the system of state-sanctioned goons with guns harassing the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

 

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

PART 3: THE VALUE OF PROPERTY VS. HUMAN LIFE

 

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

In the wake of the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for the killing of Michael Brown, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, once again, became the hotbed of clashes between the police and civilians. Social media did not fail to explode with forceful opinions, rants and accusations in every which direction. It is as if – as a new popular meme mockingly suggests – “millions of FB users suddenly got their law degrees”. And, whether they arrived at their conclusions through heavy contemplation or by mindlessly repeating soundbites overheard from TV or the Internet or friends or family, everybody takes their own opinions very, very seriously.

In this several-part series of posts, I would like to address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: “Those people” are wrong to resort to disorderly conduct and violence to make their point.

REALITY CHECK: Peaceful protesters and rioting looters are not the same crowd!!! (Also, referring to the Ferguson community and other black Americans as “these people” is offensive.)

Throughout the Ferguson social unrest, there are two distinct groups of people who have taken to the streets for entirely different reasons:

The peaceful protesters are expressing their genuine disappointment, sadness and – yes – anger – about systematic police brutality and neglect towards African Americans – but doing so in an organized, civil and constructive manner: by calmly exercising their right to speak freely.

In the country where I was born, people were hauled away in the middle of the night in black vans for not only voicing their dissent but for even “thinking” about it – and still, some refused to stay silent in the face of oppression. One should never take free speech for granted and I am proud of people of Ferguson for swallowing the very natural impulse to lash out in anger or to shut down and withdraw in grief and hopelessness and futility – but, instead, coming out, voicing their hurt and marching together! Considering how much backlash they are facing, that takes wisdom and courage and we should all stand with them for this!

Violent rioters, on the other hand, are driven by a wholly different set of motivations: the promise to possibly make a profit from busting up stores or an opportunity to channel emotional rage into testosterone-fueled, peer-encouraged violence. Personally, I can understand that some of these guys don’t feel too bad about messing up people’s property: they do not get much love or respect from their surrounding environment and, hence, do not have much respect or love for other people or their stuff. Humans are notoriously prone to either live up to the high standards or degenerate to the low expectations the community and society at large sets for them and many kids branded as “thugs” early in life will end up embodying this identity, as a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. This is not a justification but an explanation of origins of lash-outs, such as these.

Also, like it or not, violence can be a form of self-expression and I bet, if you went from person to person, you would find a mix of far-gone, unscrupulous criminals but also decent young men who are misdirecting their legitimate frustration into destructive behavior because they have few means to be heard otherwise.

Nonetheless, rioting and looting and brawling are not the answer and, here is the thing: NOBODY IS ACTUALLY DEFENDING THE RIOTERS AND THE LOOTERS! People may be offering explanations as to what compels rioters, trying to set the context for why people are angry. But has anyone said: “Yes, power to those looters! They should be left alone to do their looting”? No, no one has said this because nobody is on the side of lawlessness.

The thing that the whites who gripe about the street unrest in Ferguson fail to understand is that the normal, regular people of the Ferguson community hate the bad eggs in their midst just as much as anyone else. They don’t enjoy being terrorized and subjected to property crimes and physical violence any more than you. They came to the protest to express grief and frustration and have a peaceful show of solidarity – they cannot be held responsible for the criminals showing up too!

So, let us quit grouping together a small number of rogues with a huge collective of people who came out for an admirable purpose – to seek solace in togetherness and to start a national dialogue. They would happily be rid of the troublemakers too, if they could. If only there was a social organization dedicated to serving and protecting peaceful demonstrators… Oh, right, right – they are over there – firing tear gas into the crowd of unarmed citizens.

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

PART 3: THE VALUE OF PROPERTY VS. HUMAN LIFE