Some years ago, I went to Cuba on an academic research trip. To do so, I had to obtain permission from the U.S. government, because ordinarily, Americans are not allowed to travel to this tropical island. (Citizens of most other countries are, in fact, free to explore this Caribbean nation, but the United States has an embargo of Cuba.) After spending about a week in Havana, I was smitten by its architecture, people, and exotic beauty.
Our Cuba expert, William "Harris" Strickland, has been wondering whether it's time that Americans get to travel to Cuba on vacation. Some people feel very strongly that the embargo needs to stay in place. Others feel that Americans are missing out by not being able to visit this beautiful tropical country. Harris has given it a lot of thought, and knows the issue very well. Let's see what this travel professional and novelist thinks...
Island Runaways: The U.S. Embargo of Cuba is a touchy issue. Do you think the government policy will change?
William "Harris" Strickland: I learned a long time ago that it is best to keep my opinion to myself. It’s like a heated argument about politics. You are not going to change the minds of people whose minds are already made up. Therefore, I leave it the citizens of the United States to make up their own minds, but I have a few thoughts of my own about the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and, for that matter, about traveling to Cuba.
(Cuba: 90 Miles south of Key West. Photo by W.H. Strickland)
Island Runaways: Maybe you should start off by telling us a little about why we have an embargo and why Americans can't travel to Cuba legally, at least in most cases.
Harris: From my research, I have surmised that the embargo was put into place to cripple the Cuban economy and lead to a change in the regime. The embargo forbids American companies from trading with Cuba (with a few exceptions), and forbids travel to Cuba except for certain tightly controlled specific purposes. It’s actually not illegal to travel to Cuba, its illegal to spend money there. You will go hungry in a few short days if you cannot spend money there, and you will need to pay the $25 exit tax to leave.
Island Runaways: One thing is certain, it's hard to ignore a gorgeous Caribbean island only 90 miles south of Key West. The images we've seen of Cuba's beaches and scenery are just amazing.
(The beauty of tropical Cuba; photo by Momo, Flickr)
Island Runaways: But back to the subject of the embargo. A lot of people in the United States, especially Cuban exiles, have very strong feelings about this issue. Let's start out with the "pros" of the embargo. Why should it stay in place, and Americans not travel there:
Harris: Here are thoughts about why the U.S. keeps the embargo in place, and forbids most travel to the island:
I sympathize with the Cubans who lost everything after the revolution. Many of these people are still bitter, and rightfully so. Many of them fled to the US and many have relatives still living in Cuba. Most of the exiles I have met love their homeland, but detest Fidel Castro.
(A Cuban tour guide, photo by William H. Strickland)
The reputed jailing and repression of Cuban dissidents. I have witnessed a few examples of Cubans, inside Cuba, protesting the Castro regime. Not many, but a few. I was surprised that they are allowed to do so. However, there are too many reports of oppression to ignore. Should the US send a message?
(Children in Cuba; photo by William H. Strickland)
Politics. It is politically popular to support the embargo in certain voting demographics. Calling Cuba an “Axis of Evil” is sure to win a few votes. Cuban Missile Crisis, Mariel boatlift, Bay of Pigs—both sides have added fuel to this fire. Side note: Cubans love Americans. I cannot imagine the Cubans wanting to kill us like the other countries named in the “Axis of Evil” collection.
Is it working? Not much has changed over the 54 years that the embargo has been in place. I have yet to meet any Cuban who wants to “overthrow” Castro. Maybe that’s just the Cuban culture—warm, happy people who have learned how to survive under harsh conditions. What the Cubans really want is better economic opportunity. The embargo seems to offer the regime an excuse for the lack of economic prosperity and possibly even bolsters the current condition. Is the embargo hurting the Cuban people more than hurting the regime?
(A luncheon in Cuba; photo by William H. Strickland)
Families separated from love ones. Many people think that it is Cuba preventing its citizens from traveling to the US, when in fact, it’s the US who does not easily grant visas for Cubans to visit. This policy seems to stem from the “wet foot, dry foot” rule where Cubans who can set one foot on US soil are allowed to seek political asylum.
There are many other repercussions of the embargo, but far too many to mention. On the bright side, there is opportunity to visit Cuba through a US program known as “People to People."
(A group on a "People to People" exchange.)
Island Runaways: Can you tell us a little about this program?
Harris: This program allows US citizens to visit the island with the understanding that the journey must adhere to a strict itinerary of meaningful interaction with Cuban citizens as a means of peaceful transition to a more democratic nation.
Several US tour companies offer such trips. If you have the opportunity to join one of these trips, you will have a better understanding of the overwhelmingly complex relationship between the US and Cuba. And…you will probably have a very good time doing so.
Thank you, Harris, for sharing your thoughts about travel to Cuba and the pros and cons of the current situation for Americans. Another reason that some travelers hope the embargo will end? The fact that Cuba has stunning natural beauty, from its mountains to its beaches. Only time will tell whether the embargo is lifted or remains, but meanwhile, the "People to People" programs definitely sound interesting to us here at the Island Runaways travel blog.
(Playa Largo del Sur; photo by: Topyti, Flickr)
William “Harris” Strickland is not only an expert on legal travel to Cuba, he is also the author of a terrific new novel set in Cuba, Africa, and Georgia entitled Hemingway Lies and the Search for Sam. You can see his bio on our Island Experts page.