From the Los Angeles Times
Despite travel restrictions, American tourists are still finding their
way to the little island to our south
By Rosemary McClure
Times Staff Writer
February 12, 2006
9HAVANAThe Rev. John Bakas walked the crowded cobblestone streets of Old
Havana, dined on spicy red beans and rice at an outdoor cafe and led
vesper services at a two-year-old Greek Orthodox Church near Havana Bay.
Several members of his congregation, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral
in Los Angeles, joined him on the November trip, his third to Cuba.
At the same time, Kim Zimmerman, a Los Angeles pediatrician on her first
trip to Cuba, was visiting the capital with a group of health care
workers on a tour designed by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human
rights organization. She watched young dancers in colorful folk costumes
swirl across a makeshift dance floor at a hospital for Down syndrome
children, then joined them for a few moments, earning hugs and broad
smiles from the troupe. ÀôÀ
Bakas and Zimmerman were among an estimated 40,000 U.S. residents who
visited the off-limits island of Cuba last year. Despite tough new
sanctions from the Bush administration, about 2 million tourists
traveled to Cuba in 2005. Most were from Canada and Europe, but U.S.
citizens came too.
Some, such as Bakas and Zimmerman, visited legally on authorized tours.
But many did not, defying U.S. regulations by flying to Havana from
Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas or Mexico. When I visited in November –
journalists are allowed to travel to Cuba – I interviewed tourists who
were there legally, as well as others – whose names I will not use
because they could be subject to fines and prosecution – who traveled
there without U.S. permission.
Regardless of how they arrive, most tourists are drawn by Cuba’s
legendary mystique. It is an intoxicating destination for travelers: a
place of fine rum and cigars; sugary-white Caribbean beaches;
attractive, friendly people; unbelievable ’50s kitsch; potent music and
dance; and a wealth of untouched Spanish Colonial architecture.
Once a U.S. playground, Cuba has been forbidden fruit for its giant
neighbor to the north since the U.S. trade embargo began more than four
decades ago. For some, that makes it all the more inviting.
The Havana of long ago isn’t hard to find. I needed only to step outside
Josi Martm International Airport to vault backward in time. Old
Studebakers, DeSotos and Oldsmobiles were everywhere, their horns
honking and black smoke belching. In town, the 75-year-old Hotel
Nacional, onetime host to notables such as Winston Churchill and Frank
Sinatra, overlooked the blue waters of the Straits of Florida in serene
elegance. And down along the 7.5-mile seafront boulevard – the Malecon –
couples embraced or strolled arm-in-arm.
But that night, when I heard a conga drum and the words, “Babalz,
babalz, babalz,” I really sensed I’d entered a time warp. Desi Arnaz
wasn’t here, but the Tropicana was, still entertaining guests on its
stage under the stars just as it has since 1939. Six platforms from
rooftop to aisle were full of swirling dancers in gauzy costumes, many
parading hats that could have doubled as hotel chandeliers. Men toked on
fat cigars, couples mixed rum-and-cola drinks at their tables and guests
swayed to the steamy rhythms of the music.
As my week in Cuba unfolded, I explored Havana on foot and by pedicab,
horse-drawn carriage and taxi. The city swept by in indelible images:
live chickens being hawked by habaneros to earn extra cash; front-stoop
musicians jamming for their neighbors; young ballerinas practicing
pirouettes in a storefront studio; newlyweds smiling broadly as they
rolled down the Malecon atop a gleaming ’52 Chevy convertible, the
bride’s long white veil streaming behind her in the wind.
Like most tourists, I stayed in Old Havana, La Habana Vieja, the
historical core. It was founded in 1514 – more than 50 years before St.
Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States.
Old Havana is a warren of narrow cobblestone avenues lined with Baroque
buildings that have changed little since the 17th and 18th centuries.
The street life is vibrant, the surroundings impressive. One of my first
stops was the fifth-floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest
Hemingway worked on his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
My self-guided walking tour took me to Plaza de Armas, the city’s oldest
square, a beautifully landscaped park where booksellers barter with
tourists and residents. I walked a few hundred yards farther to Castillo
de la Real Fuerza, the oldest stone fort in the Americas, and listened
as a guide explained an archaeological dig and restoration project under
Restoration – I heard the word often in La Habana Vieja. During the past
decade, charming hotels, cafes and shops have emerged from the
disheveled ruins of once-beautiful mansions.
Neglected for more than four decades, Havana is rife with imperfections:
Sewage runs in the streets; water pipes won’t work; abandoned
structures, some converted into slum housing, collapse overnight.
When Fidel Castro’s rebel army won victory in 1959, life changed for the
Cuban people; it changed again in 1990 when the Soviet Union departed,
taking its financial subsidies with it.
Cubans have little cash – incomes range from about $10 to $18 a month –
and supplies are hard to come by. A ration system allows each person
eight eggs, 6 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of beans and 2 pounds of sugar
monthly. But Cubans also have universal health care and an effective
Despite the economic hardships, residents have a contagious energy and
enthusiasm. They savor life, are warm to visitors and are passionate
about their famous city.
He’s a Chicago businessman who loves Cuba. He visits frequently and has
used backdoor travel when he couldn’t find a legal way to enter the
country. He was caught when a Cuban customs official stamped his
passport and a U.S. Customs official noticed it. He wasn’t fined, but he
thinks his name went onto a list.
“I should be able to travel anywhere I want in the world,” he said. “I
can go to other communist countries like China or Vietnam. Why not Cuba?”
Backdoor travelers risk more than being on a list. U.S. penalties can
range from a warning letter to $65,000 fines. But many play the game
anyway, saying they enjoy the thrill of doing something forbidden.
Some are experienced travelers drawn to the lost-in-time ambience of
Cuba. Others are travelers seeking a destination where prostitution is
common. Still others say they want to see Cuba before it changes. During
my visit, I met a young couple from Atlanta who had been in Jamaica on
vacation, were bored and decided to detour to Havana for a couple of days.
The Cuban government cooperates with backdoor travelers; customs
officials generally do not stamp the passports of Americans when they
enter. “All travelers are legal as far as we’re concerned,” said Miguel
Alejandro Figueras, a Cuban tourism official.
U.S. sanctions limiting travel to Cuba have waxed and waned in the past
four decades. Travel loosened up during the Clinton administration; it
has tightened during the Bush administration.
Backdoor travelers usually play down the hazards, but the U.S.
government managed to ferret out about 500 of them between January and
October last year.
“If you do get caught, it’s probably going to cost you $1,000 to $2,000,
if you’re represented by an attorney,” said Oakland lawyer Bill Miller,
who has done pro bono work for about 100 clients who faced fines for
visiting Cuba. “If you ignore it – the warning letter – then it will be
sent to collection and you’re going to owe $7,500, plus interest.”
Outside the city
We were driving west, away from the heavy pollution and crowded streets
of Havana. Cuba, about the size of Pennsylvania, was turning into a land
of mountains, beaches and vast farmlands.
We saw few tourists on the road. Although Cuba’s tourism industry is one
of the fastest-growing in the world, most visitors see only the
country’s beach resorts or Havana.
Varadero, about 100 miles east of Havana, draws many Canadians and
Europeans to its surfside hotels, which stretch along a sandy isthmus
facing the Straits of Florida. It’s a magnet for budget travelers.
Canadians can purchase a weeklong, all-inclusive vacation for $700,
including airfare. More than 600,000 arrived last year.
Cuba continues to expand tourist facilities, planning new resorts and
encouraging foreign investment in hopes of luring more Canadian,
European and Latin American tourists. But the big plum is just next door.
“The highest spenders are Americans,” said Figueras, the tourism
official. “We want them to come. We think they want to come.”
He’s hopeful that change is on the horizon. If it is, will Cuba be ready?
“The first million American tourists will be no problem. But give us
notice for the second million.”