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    Forbidden Cuba

    From the Los Angeles Times
    Forbidden Cuba
    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.

    Hello yesteryear
    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
    way.

    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
    education system.

    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.

    Backdoor travelers
    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.”

    http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/bal-tr.cuba12feb12,0,5824508.story?coll=bal-artslife-travel

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