News / USA

Americans' Rare Cuba Trips All 'Work,' No Beach Playground

U.S.
U.S. "people-to-people" tourists stand beside a natural sea pool in the Zapata Swamp in southern Cuba, April 7, 2012.
Reuters
After several frenetic days of traveling, listening to lectures, walking through historic Havana and meeting Cubans, Terry McAbee did not hesitate when asked what the trip with her fellow West Virginia school teachers was missing.

"Beach time,'' she said with a laugh. "They have these beautiful beaches and we can't go.''
 
"We're not supposed to be having fun,'' another teacher, Steve Stanley, joked as they sat sipping drinks with 20 fellow travelers in a small Havana bar.

They are part of the growing flow of Americans to Cuba on so-called "people-to-people'' trips, the only kind the United States government allows for most citizens under its 51-year-long trade embargo of the one-party state.

The trips are regulated to be more like work than fun - "meaningful'' in the political parlance of the times - so no beach time on heavily scheduled sprints through Cuban society.

Despite that, people pay a lot of money to visit the Caribbean island that has been mostly off limits the past half century even though it is just 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.

A four-day trip to Havana for two costs nearly $5,000, not including airfare, but the forbidden fruit aspect of Cuba is a big draw, said Edward Piegza, who led the first trip for his San Diego, California-based travel company Classic Journeys.

"It is a place and a people so close, yet off limits to us that it creates the natural desire of wanting what you can't have,'' Piegza said. It is, he said, a place many travelers want to see before they die.

A tourist displays his tattoos on a beach on the outskirts of Havana, April 14, 2013.
A tourist displays his tattoos on a beach on the outskirts of Havana, April 14, 2013.
Tourists from other parts of the world, mostly Canada and Europe, freely visit the island for its beaches, vintage American cars and Spanish colonial architecture.

 In its short history, "people-to-people'' travel has been a political football, a reflection of the tug-of-war between those who want to change U.S. policy toward Communist Party-ruled Cuba and those who do not.

 It was authorized in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, then shut down by his successor President George W. Bush in 2003 and reinstated in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

While the United States tightly controls licenses for travel to Cuba, Havana approves the itineraries.

Cuba's dissidents, considered by Havana to be mercenaries of the U.S. government, are predictably not part of the "people-to-people'' contacts.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control or OFAC, the U.S. Treasury agency which enforces the embargo, said it has granted  250 licenses since Obama reopened the program.

'Exotic' Americans

One travel agency, Insight Cuba, will bring 150 groups to Cuba this year, its president Tom Popper said. Popper estimates as many as 75,000 travelers could go to the island in 2013.

 The first trips of the Obama era began in August 2011 and since then Americans, once so rare as to be almost exotic, have become a common sight, particularly in Havana.

U.S. singer Beyonce (C) and her husband rapper Jay-Z (R), are escorted by bodyguards as they leave their hotel in Havana, April 4, 2013.
U.S. singer Beyonce (C) and her husband rapper Jay-Z (R), are escorted by bodyguards as they leave their hotel in Havana, April 4, 2013.
So far, the groups are made up mostly of white, middle-aged and retired people, but the most famous visitors were two young, black superstars: rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyonce.

The married couple attracted international media coverage in April as they strolled through Old Havana, met Cuban artists and enjoyed the music scene, often accompanied by adoring crowds.

 The trip touched off a controversy among Cuban-American groups and politicians who oppose liberalization of U.S.-Cuba policy and questioned its legality.

As it turned out, the couple had a proper "people-to-people''
 license - and did not visit the beach.

Before Cuba's 1959 revolution, it was a playground forAmerican celebrities and socialites, among them singer Frank Sinatra, author Ernest Hemingway and actress Ava Gardner.

 For the West Virginians in Cuba in 2013, their trip was organized by Washington-based Cuba Educational Travel. That meant conversations with artists, historians, teachers, priests, and small business owners, who described their work and lives in a country that is slowly modernizing its economy.

They sat on the floor of a cramped Central Havana apartment to talk with hip hop artist Magia Lopez Cabrera and watch her music videos on a laptop. They went to the Madrigal, one of the stylish new private bars opened under economic reforms by President Raul Castro, where they talked with university students and the bar owner, filmmaker Rafael Rosales.

 "Now I have to worry about paying the bills, paying my employees,'' Rosales said with a wan smile.

After a few questions, they rewarded him with a spontaneous rendition of the unofficial anthem of West Virginia, "Take Me Home, Country Roads,'' by late singer John Denver.

Tourists exercise in the water in the Santa Maria Key Resort in central Cuba, April 4, 2013.
Tourists exercise in the water in the Santa Maria Key Resort in central Cuba, April 4, 2013.
Cubans, American like eachother

The tours help to provide people with a different perspective than the propaganda aimed at them by their respective governments.

At the individual level Cubans working in bars and restaurants are enjoying the generous tips Americans are known for, while those who speak to the groups are getting "honorariums'' as high as the equivalent of $250 - a bonanza in a country with an average monthly salary equal to $20.

Opponents of the travel program say the Havana government gives Americans a sugar-coated view of Cuba. Those on the trip said they recognized they were getting a filtered view, but had seen enough to draw their own conclusions - things were neither as good as the Cuban government wants them to think, nor as bad as the United States says it is.

"I'm glad to go home and allay all of those horrible rumors the Americans have heard for so long,'' said Sonya Shockey, a high school world history teacher.

 Perhaps the biggest surprise for both Cubans and Americans is that after half a century of official hostility, they like each other.

 "We had this idea that Americans were unfriendly, aloof and always ordering everyone around, but I've found that isn't true. They're actually very nice, friendly people,'' said Niuris Higueras, whose self-run restaurant is popular with tourists.

You May Like

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More