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Posted October 13, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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After Dec. 31, visits get tougher for Americans

Sept. 30 — The two elderly sisters who rent a spare room in their Havana apartment to tourists are worried about my headache. Aspirin is scarce in Cuba, but Amalia, 74, puts a pyramid-shaped device on my head and prays over it.

Cuban Americans would be able to visit Cuba more often and without a compelling humanitarian reason, but travel permission would no longer be given for educational and cultural tours.

MARGO, 70, GETS me a cup of tea and takes me on her balcony overlooking the city. When I assure her I am feeling better, she points out the sights and says to make sure not to miss the art museum, a 16th-century fortress and the changing of the guard at the 18th-century Citadel.

Other nights during my visit last winter, I stay in an old Benedictine friary-turned-inn, an upscale hotel that was once a favored haunt of U.S. movie stars, and a beachfront mansion once owned by one of America’s wealthiest families.

Such opportunities are about to end for most Americans, or at least for those not of Cuban descent.

A 42-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba has severely restricted travel, but exceptions had included trips for religious, family and humanitarian reasons, and for “educational, people-to-people contact.” That exception was the largest for Americans without Cuban relatives.
But in March, the Bush administration issued two sweeping changes: Cuban Americans would be able to visit Cuba more often and without a compelling humanitarian reason, but travel permission would no longer be given for educational and cultural tours. 

This month, the House of Representatives countered the administration’s crackdown by passing an amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba. It also passed a less sweeping amendment that would restore permits for educational and cultural visits. However, Bush has vowed a veto.
    Tour operators that held permits for travel to Cuba before the new ban are quietly advertising “last chance” visits before their permits expire on or before Dec. 31. If you want to see Cuba before it becomes a forbidden country, better act fast.
    Mercedes-Benz cabs line the broad circular driveway of Havana’s Hotel Nacional, a symbol of Cuba’s decade-long effort to attract tourists. The strategy has increased tourism visits here from 200,000 in 1990 to 1.7 million last year, according to the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.
    Most came from Europe and Canada. Of the 200,000 Americans who visited last year, about 40,000 came illegally, through third countries. The United States is the only nation in the world to restrict travel to Cuba.
    I step inside the grand lobby of the 439-room Hotel Nacional, opened in 1930 and restored to its full grandeur in 1992. I could be content to just sit in the lobby, in the gardens overlooking the broad, European-style boulevard that faces Havana’s harbor, or in the bar plastered with pictures of former guests: movie stars, politicians, writers, artists and scientists. 

But I am traveling with a friend with endless energy: Helen Chaset, a Montgomery County elementary school principal. Soon we are walking for miles along the harbor seawall, then through a poor neighborhood of beautiful but badly deteriorated Spanish colonial buildings that define much of residential Havana.We meander along some ragged streets, then turn a corner and stumble upon a square that would make the grandest plazas of Spain look modest by comparison. One end of Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal. Completed in 1787, it has been aptly described by a Latin writer as “music set in stone.”
    The recently restored homes and palaces of wealthy Spaniards from the 1700s surround the cobblestone square. One former mansion is now a museum of colonial art. Another, the Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras, is an upscale restaurant with an outdoor terrace in the shadow of the baroque cathedral. An eight-piece salsa band plays as we sip the obligatory mojitos the national drink made of rum, sugar and mint leaves.
    Museums are free, or nearly so, for Cubans, but the beautifully restored restaurants, hotels, galleries and shops accept only foreign currency. Cubans without a source of foreign currency shop at sparsely stocked “peso stores” to supplement rations. In one department store, an entire display case has only a single bag of Cheetos, under glass.
    As darkness falls, music fills the air on nearly every street in and near Old Havana. Several times, people invite us to come into apartments where bands play mainly for locals who can’t afford to dance in bars and restaurants.
    We return, instead, to our hotel and settle on the elegant hillside terrace for some quiet jazz. The terrace sits above the oval-shaped harbor where waves crash against the seawall. The bright lights of Havana are mirrored on an ocean already shimmering from the reflection of a full white moon.
    Helen buys a CD from the jazz band, and we walk on the hotel grounds to an outdoor restaurant where a folk band plays. Helen buys three more CDs.
    The Nacional has bands in every bar, restaurant, terrace and corner. By the time we’ve finished dinner, Helen’s fame has spread throughout the hotel. As we leave the restaurant, musicians walk up to us and, ignoring me, hold out their CDs for Helen to buy.
    The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba boasts hundreds of beaches and more than 2,320 miles of coast. Within a 40-minute drive of the capital, just off a smooth, modern highway, lie white, largely empty beaches. On a golden Sunday morning, we hire a cab and, just outside the historic town of Matanzas, stop at Mirador de Bacunayagua, a mountaintop restaurant with gorgeous views of a wide green valley. A Cuban folk band plays for tips. Our cabdriver, noting the calluses on their hands, tells us they are farmers. Helen buys their CD. 

      At the entrance to Varadero Beach, welcome signs are written in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Europeans have funded the series of upscale, Western-style hotels that line the beach.We head straight to Xanadu, the mansion built in 1930 by Irenee du Pont de Nemours, of the famed du Pont family. The property, named for the fabled palace of Kublai Khan, sat vacant for years after the revolution. In the early 1990s, it became a restaurant, and a few years ago, a small hotel restored it to its original beauty, with polished wood and Italian marble. The mansion perches on a craggy hill overlooking the Atlantic. Below, to one side, is a white sandy beach; on the other side, a golf course.
    That evening, from the stone-tiled terrace of Xanadu, I stand above the ocean and look down on a giant school of small fish that turn a section of the ocean solid silver. Then the fish, following some mysterious dictate of nature, begin darting through the water in odd shimmering patterns that look like mercury rolling along an uneven surface.
    We dine on the porch of the mansion. Helen orders “honey spices roasted southwest of France duck magnet with oporto sauce,” but they are out of it. I order “filet de rape con hueves frescas,” which is translated on the menu as snuff fillet. But they are out of that, too. So, we settle for somewhat tough lamb and agree that while the government-owned restaurants offer glorious ambiance, the best food is usually at rundown little paladores, where families serve food from their homes to as many as 12 paying guests at a time.
    Guidebooks make a big deal about bad service in Cuban restaurants, and I was expecting glum, Soviet-style indifference. But it’s not like that at all. Waiters sweetly and cheerfully mix up your orders. At Xanadu, they disappear for long periods of time, but when they reappear, they act as if they’ve really missed you while they were gone. Returning like prodigal sons, they stop just short of giving you a hug.
We like American cars, we like American people, we like everything American.’
      Back in Havana, Helen heads off to visit schools during the day while I tour the city. The image of slain revolutionary Che Guevara is everywhere, and I ask one man why there are no statues of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “Fidel has the biggest statue, the most modern statue: He is on TV every day,” the man replies.
    I am repeatedly amazed by both the openness and the friendliness of the Cuban people. Some I spoke with criticize their government, but all disparaged the U.S. embargo, saying it made their lives difficult. Even so, none showed any resentment toward us.
    “Ask anyone and he’ll tell you Americans are the best, and the most like us,” a cabdriver says. “We share a language with the Spanish, but the Spanish like bullfighting. Cubans and Americans like baseball. The Spanish like flamenco; Cubans and Americans like salsa. We like American cars, we like American people, we like everything American.”
    Americans, he says, are more friendly than Europeans and bring him information from the outside world. The major hotels offer satellite TV, but the only news show for ordinary Cubans airs for a half-hour or so on Sunday night and is repeated all week.
    It makes you feel a little guilty to be enjoying the lack of homogenization. Cuba, unlike so much of the world, does not seem bland and familiar. Its isolation, bad for the locals, makes it fresh and fascinating for tourists.
    The police, who are so ubiquitous you soon cease to notice them, stir similar mixed emotions: Cubans must find them oppressive. For tourists, they mean that you can safely walk even the poorest streets of Havana anytime, day or night, without fear.
Government officials estimate that if the embargo were lifted, 5 million Americans would visit Cuba annually.

      The fact that Cubans keep American cars from the 1950s running is often cited as a metaphor for the talent, skill and ingenuity of the people here. But the creeping renovation of Old Havana is a much greater testament to those talents.
    The restoration began with a mere $1 million grant from the government to the city historian’s office. The office spent the initial outlay to restore moneymaking enterprises such as restaurants, then plowed the profits into more projects. Students provide much of the labor as they each spend two years learning trades on the job, overseen by architects, archaeologists, engineers and craftsmen.
    Working on a shoestring, the office has rehabilitated large swaths of an area that a decade ago was in danger of collapse. More recently, the office has begun to attract funding from European charities and religious groups. All 242 square blocks of Old Havana are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    Old Havana will be not only a monument to the past but also a living city, says architectural professor Orestes del Castillo. As we tour the old city together, he points to renovations that include apartments above stores and restaurants, to schools that use plazas as their playgrounds, to a center for the elderly next to an art gallery.
    A tour guide tells me that he dreams of the day the U.S. embargo will be lifted and Americans will pour investment dollars into Old Havana. Elsewhere, preservationists who have seen developers at work worry that a world treasure bursting with potential could be destroyed.
    One afternoon, I meet with government officials, who estimate that if the embargo were lifted, 5 million Americans would visit Cuba annually. I ask how the country could suddenly handle such an influx.
    “We would like to assume the challenge,” answers Juan Fernandez, a foreign ministry spokesman. “We want to see Americans here visiting us. Our only limitation is our infrastructure. Our hearts are open.” 

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