In January 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama expanded the categories of authorised travel to Cuba for Americans – 55 years after it was first put in place. So now the hot topic in question for all American travellers who have longed to visit this forbidden island is: How to travel to Cuba from the U.S.A.?
But before we get into how Americans can travel there, let’s take a look at the history of:
Why Americans could not travel to Cuba
During the height of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, ally to the United States, was forced into exile and was replaced by 26th July Movement led by Fidel Castro. The beginning of the Cuban-American conflict began when Castro expropriated American economic assets and started to develop strong links with the Soviet Union. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower started to become alarmed of these ties and in March 1960, he allocated 13.1 million dollars to a CIA-lead invasion to overthrow Castro’s government (Bay of Pigs invasion). This April 17, 1961, invasion was unsuccessful, and the CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups surrendered, which in turn, further strengthened the Cuban-Soviet relations.
By this time, Cuba had already entered into trade agreements with the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Polland, which was viewed by the U.S. as:
“an extension of Communist influence in the sphere of American influence”
Once Castro nationalised all American owned refineries without compensation (after the U.S. had refused to refine Soviet petroleum due to an outstanding debt owed by Cuba), the U.S. retaliated by cutting all sugar imports from Cuba. And by October 19, 1960, the first of the American embargo was placed on Cuba for all exports excluding food and medicine. On February 7, 1962, under the Kennedy administration, the embargo had been extended to include almost all imports and a complete travel ban for all U.S. citizens visiting Cuba.
Has the embargo been removed?
Not exactly. But congress is working on lifting it once the two countries can resolve their differences on issues such as democracy and Human Rights issues.
So then, how can Americans travel to Cuba?
President Obama has made travel into Cuba legal for Americans if they engage in activities in one or more of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s 12 Categories of Authorised Travel:
Where previously it was required to obtain a license which was subject to approval on a case-by-case basis, most Americans can now visit Cuba by “self-licensing” and by stating that your visit falls within one of the 12 categories.
However, visiting for the purposes of tourism is still prohibited.
Ways to fly into Cuba
While there still hasn’t been an Aviation Agreement drafted between the two countries as Cuba is still suspicious of another potential CIA invasion. There are a few ways to legally fly into the country.
American Airlines and JetBlue Airways are offering a number of daily flights departing from Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles. But because there is no Aviation Agreement, they cannot sell tickets and they must be purchased through a Charter Company.
Below is a list of Charter Companies that are offering daily flights which can be booked either online or by telephone:
ABC Charters – 866-4ABC-AIR or 305-263-6829
Cuba Travel Services – 310-772-2822
Marazul – 800-993-9667 or 305-559-7117
Xael Charters, Inc. – 305-643-2200
How to visit under the 12 categories
Unless you are a journalist, professional athlete, professor or government official, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has implemented strict guidelines as to who qualifies for travel licenses under the 12 categories.
The easiest way to qualify is either by visiting family members who resides in Cuba, or to visit for the purposes of Supporting the Cuban People.
However, if you do not have any family members who reside in Cuba and are interested in visiting under the humanitarian category, the OFAC guidelines for Supporting Cuban Peoples is:
Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba
So what does all this mean…
It means that staying in a 5-star hotel and sipping cocktails on the beach all week is not going to happen! In order to gain a cultural experience and to give back to the Cuban people, you need to stay in non-government facilities, eat at locally owned restaurants and markets, and be engaged in the Cuban community. Airbnb is a good way to go as you will be essentially staying in a local’s home and submerged into the Cuban culture.
The Charter Companies listed above also have accommodations offered that they can assist you with booking that will fall under the required criteria.
It also means that you are legally allowed to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars.
What to expect when you arrive
Cuba is hands down, one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Miles of white sand beaches and turquoise water, surround this tiny island paradise. The people are extremely friendly and the nightlife and entertainment are remarkable.
However, after a more than 50-year ban on American imports, there are quite a few things that will not be customary to U.S. visitors.
Food in the resorts and some restaurants is not always delectable. Common staples such as ketchup and cola, are the Cuban versions. Most of the vehicles that are driven around the country were built in the 50’s (which is actually pretty awesome to see. It’s like being at a car show for your entire vacation!). The Internet is comparable to the old Dial-up version – and some places still have it!
But if you can get past the transition to new tastes and you have no problem with rolling up in a classic car, you will find that Cuba is one of the most stunning island countries you could ever visit. And the Cuban people are forever trying to welcome you and help you enjoy your stay.