News / USA

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

U.S. "people-to-people" tourists stand beside a natural sea pool in the Zapata Swamp in southern Cuba, April 7, 2012.
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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy 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.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid