Traveling to Cuba in the Era of Trump

Barbara Noe Kennedy

 

I’m sitting in my berth on the Celestyal Crystal, watching the velvety green cliffs of Cuba float by through the window. A historic fortification appears, which I know is the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. We had visited it earlier on shore, but from sea I see how it buttresses the cliffscape, protecting the land from ancient seafaring enemies.

 

It’s been a longtime dream to visit Cuba and I can’t believe I’m finally here. And, perhaps, in the nick of time. Just as Cuba was opening up to Americans, President Donald Trump unveiled last June new travel restrictions to Cuba, rolling back previous advances made by President Barack Obama. With the US administration watching Cuba with a wary eye, travel to Cuba for Americans remains in a state of flux.

 

Americans are flat-out prohibited from freely traveling to Cuba like Europeans and Canadians. You can’t just plop down on a golden-sand beach and drink mojitos all day. And individual people-to-people education trips, one of the main ways that Americans previously could visit Cuba, have been scratched.

 

That said, there are 12 categories of travel that still allow Americans to travel to Cuba, including family visits, and group people-to-people travel (including religious and educational trips). And people-to-people trips offered by cruise lines are one of the best ways to achieve this requirement.

 

 

The thing is, I’m not a cruiser. I join the naysayers that cruise ships are merely floating hotels, seeing the world through the ship’s windows. Why visit a destination and then spend more time onboard than actually on land, experiencing the place? Why visit a destination and then eat onboard, missing out on the joys of sampling street food, wandering through markets, and discovering eateries where only the locals eat?

 

I’ve seen how a place totally changes when the cruise ships dock. Locals come out in droves, selling their Chinese-made trinkets. And then, when the ship leaves, life goes back to normal. That’s the kind of travel I like to do -- the authentic, back-to-normal kind.

 

That’s what I thought, anyway, until I realized my best chance to visit Cuba was by cruise ship. A seven-day cruise aboard Celestyal Crystal, organized by Educational Opportunity Tours, made sense. And in retrospect, this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

 

First off, the ship satisfies the person-to-person educational component by offering a full schedule of onboard lectures, cooking and musical demonstrations, and documentary films, all presented by Cubans. At the end of the cruise, you are awarded a P2P certificate confirming you have successfully engaged in a full schedule of approved activities—which you must hold onto for five years per OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) rules.

 

The cruise line also helps you negotiate all the required bureaucratic paperwork—your visa and mandatory Cuba health insurance, which are not fun to try to achieve on your own.

 

 

And as far as cruise ships go, Celestyal Crystal is on the more intimate side, with 1,200 passengers on nine decks. It was easy to get on and off when in port, an endeavor that included having to go through customs each time; yet there was never a wait. The staff was friendly (except for the Russians working in the spa, who messed up my appointment so I never did get a massage). And if you prefer something larger, there are plenty of other ships that are now embarking to Cuba, including Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky, Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas, and Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise.

 

But what about the actual travel part? Yes, it’s true I didn’t get to interact with locals as much as I normally do. 

 

Yes, we were constantly on tours, being shuffled down one picturesque cobblestone street to the next. We were herded into the most touristy spots possible—the Tropicana, the Floridita for daiquiris, the obligatory ride in a fifties car. Though, even though this was not the Cuba of locals, I have to admit it was fun to experience these icons anyway.

 

And yes, two full days of the seven-day trip were spent at sea, as we traveled from one port to the next. This is the time, however, when we enjoyed presentations and shows that contributed to the educational requirements of the trip (and you have to admit that learning how to drink rum and listen to Cuban music are enjoyable ways to spend a day, education or no education).

 

And I still managed to have some amazing experiences on land.

 

 

I explored the Patio de los Artesanos on Calle Obispo in Havana, where local artisans purveyed their artwork, pottery and wooden carvings.

 

I watched kids kick around a soccer ball on Havana’s Plaza de de San Francisco, oblivious to the crowds of tourists walking around with pointed cameras.

 

I poked around a designer homeware shop straight out of Tribeca; but the handcrafted items—plates, lamps, pillows, clothes, all modern with a colorful Cuban flair—were created in the workshop out back, in the heart of Havana.

 

I don’t profess I delved too deeply into the true Cuban situation, but I feel like I gleaned a tiny bit of insight. In one of the rare moments we had to freely wander around Havana, I noticed a ration’s store, barely stocked with some bags of rice and flour. No fruits or vegetables or coffee or cookies. It made me realize that dining on the ship wasn’t a bad thing, where I wouldn’t be taking food from the Cubans.

 

We were able to ask our Cuban guides questions about anything (though not too loudly). We learned about the spies in each town who kept an eye on residents and snitched on anyone who was doing anything out of line. In Santiago de Cuba we actually saw a placard on a door marking the official informer’s home.

 

We asked if conditions are improving and what did the Cubans eat and how could five or eight families live in a house that once held just one? Our guides explained to some extent, providing a challenging but hopeful view, always ending with a shoulder shrug, “But it’s complicated.”

 

The biggest question I had concerned religion. In communism there is no religion. And yet, Cuba is such a Catholic country. You can’t abolish religion just like that, can you?

 

My guide whispered answers as we stood in the shadow of the giant Jesus statue overlooking Havana. “Religion is not outlawed,” she said, looking furtively around to make sure no one was listening. “Castro himself was a religious man. He even went to a Jesuit school.”

 

The statue beneath we stood had been sponsored by Fugencio Batista, just before he was forced out of office by the revolutionaries in 1959. The incoming Fidel Castro never toppled it over.

 

That said, religious Cubans were never allowed to join the Communist Party—meaning they might have very well found themselves without the rations they needed to feed their family. Or worse, they ended up in jail, or a labor camp.

 

 

Our guide promised that religion has opened up recently. Cubans are allowed openly to attend church services—although my impression of Havana Cathedral is more a museum full of tourists than a place of worship. Even if services are held on Sundays, which I was assured they were, I didn’t see anyone actually sitting in the pews and praying.

 

I wanted to know more, but when I pushed further, the only response I got was, “It’s complicated.” And I couldn’t be there on Sunday to attend a service, to see for myself, since our ship was sailing.

 

Cuba is still a cryptic country, no doubt, one that remains fascinating to Americans. It’s hard to get to know, and a cruise is a great place to start. You won’t be stuck in your berth, watching the country through the window, I promise.

 

Author Bio:

 

Barbara Noe Kennedy worked as an editor at the National Geographic Book Division for more than 20 years. She has written four books, and her writings have also been published in National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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