Guidebook Author Demystifies U.S. Travel to Cuba

Michael Griffith
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2003

A growing influx of international tourists visits Cuba each year. And while the Caribbean island has been off-limits to United States citizens for more than four decades, some reports estimate that 40,000 Americans visit the country illegally each year.

National Geographic Books recently issued a new guidebook to the island, National Geographic Traveler: Cuba. National Geographic News spoke with guidebook author Christopher Baker about his impressions of the Carribean nation, the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, and legal avenues to visit the island.

Why visit Cuba?

Cuba is a surreal destination, a unique blend of socialism and sensuality, dour communism blending with Caribbean colors and warmth. First-time visitors have a sense of being inside a romantic novel, enhanced by the louche quality of its urban settings.

Music—from traditional son tunes to the beat of salsa—flows like a river through potholed streets cruised by 1950s automobiles and lined with tumbledown structures in a dramatic amalgam of styles. Old Havana and the historical cores of other cities have been restored to colonial glory, with castles and palaces and cobbled plazas and fascinating museums to explore.

The people are gracious, easy-going sensualists. And the countryside—graced by dramatic limestone formations, slender royal palms, peasants in straw hats, and oxen drawing ploughs through the rust-red soil—is caught in its own lyrical time-warp.

Except in special circumstances, travel to Cuba is still illegal for American citizens. So why has National Geographic Books published a guidebook to the island?

Tourism to Cuba has been booming. Visitors from the United States are now third in numbers behind Canadians and Germans. Although a majority of U.S. visitors are Cuban-Americans legally traveling to visit family members on the island, U.S. law also permits legal travel by journalists, athletes, researchers, fully-hosted travelers, and even business folk, plus individuals within several other categories.

In addition, scores of educational institutions are licensed, permitting students and scholars to travel legally. Educational study programs to Cuba are increasingly popular. And scores of tour agencies and miscellaneous organizations are similarly licensed to offer cultural study programs to Cuba. Almost every U.S. citizen can travel legally as a member of such a licensed group. [The eclectic range of offerings spans art, bicycling, jazz festivals, music and dance, among others.]

Moreover, the current fascination for Cuban culture, partially spawned by the success of the Buena Vista Social Club [an album and documentary film produced by musician Ry Cooder and filmmaker Wim Wenders that showcased the collaboration of forgotten Cuban musical greats], has fostered interest for travel to Cuba. National Geographic Books is therefore catering to this rising tide and in anticipating of possible changes that might permit legal travel to Cuba.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which regulates travel to Cuba, have been quoted in the past stating that companies that market trips to Cuba commit "a horrendous disservice to the American people." They also disputed assertions that it is legal to visit Cuba if you pre-pay expenses to a third country. What's your take?

Many would argue that current restrictions are a violation of every U.S. citizens' constitutional right to freely travel. In addition, by restricting travel to Cuba, the U.S. government prevents individuals from ascertaining for themselves the reality of contemporary Cuba.

Travel involving payment to a third-country entity is entirely legal as long as no financial transactions involve a Cuban entity or Cuban national, and as long as the traveler refrains from spending money while in Cuba. Many foreign tour companies offer fully pre-paid packages.

No U.S. citizen has yet been fined merely for traveling to and spending money in Cuba. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sent "notices of intent to fine" to several hundred individuals identified as having traveled to Cuba "illegally." However, the U.S. government seems reluctant to test the proscriptions in court. Therefore individuals who respond by requesting a hearing have had their cases shelved indefinitely. Only a small fraction of individuals traveling to Cuba "illegally" and returning to the U.S. are questioned. Of those only a fraction have received notices.

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