Cuba: Tourists Flock to a Once Forbidden Land

Musicians in Cuba
Musicians in Cuba.

Cuba: A Mysterious Neighbor to the U.S.

The Modernized Cuba in 2015

By Daniel Maldonado

Cuba, a beautiful Latin and Caribbean country just 90 miles from the United States’ Key West is geographically so incredibly close to the US, but otherwise a distant and mysterious land. But not for long.

Still getting a feel for the lifestyle during the beginning stages of my four-month stay in Cuba (studying at the University of Havana), I was not sure how myself and the rest of the North American students I was staying with would be received by our Cuban compatriots due to our controversial intergovernmental relationship.

Kids on the beach in Havana. Daniel Maldonado photos.
Kids on the beach in Havana. Daniel Maldonado photos.

To my surprise, I never received the slightest hint of animosity nor an expected excitement that I thought might come after I revealed my nationality. Cubans treated me like one of their own from the jump, with the exception of the occasional questionnaires about what the United States is like.

The Cuban people are already used to seeing people from the United States around, though they may not be as abundant as Canadian or European tourists.

Americans have been able to travel to Cuba for years prior to the announcements of December 17, 2014. For instance, traveling to Cuba for educational purposes has been allowed since the early 2000’s. More recently, in 2011 President Obama facilitated travel for purposeful exchanges including education, religious, and cultural exchange.

So, an American citizen would not be permitted to travel individually as a tourist but would be allowed to join an Ernest Hemingway group traveling to Cuba as a cultural exchange to learn about Hemingway.

Putting an end to the Embargo

On December 17, 2014, both Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced their mutual goal to end the embargo set between the United States and Cuba.

Many people in both countries believe that this simple statement ends all restrictions between countries and that now citizens can freely travel when they want.

If only it were that easy. These statements are just the first step to a very long process of normalization between both countries. Since this announcement, President Obama facilitated travel under an existing list of 12 categories containing general licenses permitting the travel to Cuba.

Pure tourism is still not permitted. If you want to travel to Cuba, you will have to find what category of travel you fall under in order to obtain a Visa.

These categories, according to the White House, are:

Family Visits

Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Journalistic activity
Professional research and professional meetings
Educational activities
Religious activities
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
Humanitarian projects
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Beautiful and colorful architecture in Cuba.

Cuban Concerns

A common concern faced by many is that Cuba becomes like many other countries the US has economically influenced, and be polluted with large, unwelcoming monopolies. This is something that world travelers like myself hate seeing when visiting a country and wishing to experience its cultural wonders.

When speaking to my Cuban friends about this, no one seemed too concerned about this worry that I had. Instead, they expressed how excited they were at first when the announcements were made, primarily since they were so sudden. But that excitement soon died once they realized how little if any effect this would have on them.

“There have been no changes since December,” said Reinier, a local security guard in Havana. “The country should improve and it shouldn’t have to buy things from far away countries as it’s cheaper to buy from the USA,” he said.

The Cuban people have come to realize that the only changes that they will see as of now are at the government level. Many were hoping that the talks would ease travel restrictions especially to the US, and bring economic justice to the country.

It is very difficult for your average Cuban citizen to leave the country because of economic barriers and the rarity of being granted a visa.

Those who do see themselves benefiting from the embargo being lifted are non-state workers who work in tourism and as taxi drivers. Unlike people who work for the state, i.e. doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. who get paid a fixed monthly wage, private workers get paid on commission, allowing them to benefit greatly from an influx in tourism. “There haven’t been any changes, but opening relations are good,” a taxi driver told me in April. “It means more business for me and other private companies,” he said.

Children come together to play.

It would be hard to believe if the embargo ended and relations resumed like nothing ever happened. The embargo has been on for over 50 years, so it is impossible to

just end it. Both countries have their individual goals when resuming relations, and will have to compromise on each little aspect involved, which is why this process will take many years to finish.

“Changes also depend on the next election,” said Elier Ramirez, a Cuban author and historian, when regarding the upcoming presidential elections of the United States. If a conservative president is elected, talks with Cuba may take a turn for the worst or simply go stagnant.

Positive Influence Creating Change

Cars are still not as frequently seen as they are in other islands in the Caribbean.

There have been noticeable changes in Cuba within the past few years, stemming from Obama easing travel restrictions in 2011, and the Cuban government allowing for citizens to

obtain licenses for private businesses also in 2011.

Lucitania Hernandez, a graduate from Marist College, had attended the University of Havana for her semester abroad in 2013. She returned this year, 2015, and was shocked to notice all the differences she did.

“The four big changes are in the presence of American music, more modern cars, more businesses, and the increase in crime,” she said.

The increase in restaurants, or paladares (restaurants and cafes run by the self-employed, usually out of their home), is one of the most noticeable changes. A decade ago, people would complain about the lack of food, and now there is an abundance. “

There are way more paladares and restaurants than before, I felt like it almost doubled. Thats crazy. But ever since they allowed people to own their new businesses a few years ago, it has grown rapidly,” said Hernandez.

The increase in crime is a negative that comes connected with the increase in tourism. The crimes that take place are mainly petty ones, and are very avoidable if you walk around consciously with awareness of your surroundings. Just try not to flaunt your wealth, making you stand out.

Do not feel afraid, as there are police on almost every block of every main street, who are known for placing extra attention on foreigners safety.

Cuba is a very safe country, and this is just one of the many reasons why people love it so much. Cubans are welcoming, social, and caring, to a level you would normally only see between close friends.

I advise you to visit Cuba in the next couple years before any drastic changes occur and enjoy the beautiful weather, the surprisingly starry city nights, the disconnection from the outside world, the amazing people, and everything in between.

Daniel Maldonado
Daniel Maldonado

Daniel Maldonado is currently studying Journalism and Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In the past couple years, as a freelance writer, he has written for newspapers in Boston and Amherst, while also exploring his interests in photography, radio, and video. As an avid world traveler, Daniel also hopes to pick up travel writing.

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