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Posted November 14, 2003 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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By SETH KUGEL | New York Times

For a 52-year-old Manhattan lawyer, there is a lot about Cuba that is alluring, from the beaches to the architecture to the music straight out of “Buena Vista Social Club.” But the real draw of traveling to Cuba: it is illegal. “There’s certainly an excitement to going somewhere that’s off limits,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said he had been to Cuba three times, most recently for a weekend trip in late 2001.

Indeed, he is only one of a select group of travelers who have made going to Cuba for a weekend and doing it illegally by traveling through Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or some other third country a notch on the belt for the American tourist eager to say he has traveled to a forbidden land.

Over the last months, American travel to Cuba has been caught in a tug of war between President Bush and Congress. In September, the House voted to end enforcement of the longstanding travel ban, followed by the Senate last month, but this week a joint committee stripped the provision from an appropriations bill.

While other Americans eager to experience the country of Fidel Castro and Cohiba cigars may have been disappointed by the committee’s move, some Havana travelers are just as happy with the status quo. “The fact of the illegality makes it appealing,” said an Atlanta entrepreneur in his 30’s who said he had been there seven times alone this year. “The fact that there’s a place on earth that our government does not want us to see is itself an attraction.”

For this man (like most of the people interviewed for this article he would talk only on condition of anonymity or that only a first name be used), long weekends in Cuba have become almost routine, he said, since he met his current girlfriend, who lives in Havana, when he was there in 2001. This year alone, he said, he has been seven times, in a well-planned evasion of federal law. On Friday morning, he takes the first flight of the day from Atlanta to Nassau, then boards the 2:30 p.m. Nassau-Havana flight on Cubana de Aviacion, the Cuban national carrier, arriving around 4 p.m. On the way back on Monday, he leaves Havana at noon. He is back in Atlanta in time for dinner.

FOR Americans, traveling to Cuba is not actually illegal, but it might as well be. Since 1963, the United States has prohibited its citizens from spending money in Cuba, with exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others who the government says have legal reasons to travel there. For all other tourists, unless they can figure out how to spend no money in Cuba, going there means risking a $7,500 fine even if they travel through a third country.

Enforcement of the ban has waxed and waned over the years. As both the House and Senate recently voted to end enforcing it, President Bush vowed to crack down on illegal travelers, saying they were abetting a repressive Cuban government. It was seen as a victory for the president when the provision ending enforcement of the ban was removed from the appropriations bill. The administration’s position, as R. Richard Newcomb, director of the Foreign Assets Control Office at the Treasury Department, told a House subcommittee last month, is that “tourist dollars provide vital hard currency that Castro and his cronies use to continue to oppress Cuba.”

Opponents of the ban, meanwhile, say preventing Americans from traveling freely is unconstitutional, even bizarre, and that the lack of tourism hurts the Cuban people the same way the larger trade embargo does, by starving the economy and encouraging the longevity of a repressive state.

Regardless of who is right, for now, going to Cuba as a tourist is an exercise in careful planning, covering your tracks and keeping your nerve.

Especially keeping your nerve. Keith, a 44-year-old photographer in New York, said that he first started thinking of going to Havana when a friend came back with a bunch of cigars that he sold at a hefty profit. Additionally, he said his friend recommended it because of his photography. ” `You’ll love it,’ he said. `You have to go before they lift the embargo,’ ” Keith said.

It took several years, Keith said, before he persuaded himself to take the risk. Then “all I know is that I was on the phone with the airlines booking the flights,” he said. He traveled through Montego Bay, Jamaica, flying the leg to Havana on Cubana. “I was in total shock the first 10 minutes after leaving the airport in Havana,” he said. “If you’ve ever seen a war-torn country, it reminds you of that. Everything is busted.”

On the way back into the United States, Keith said, he was nervous about going through customs at Kennedy Airport. “You feel like you’re smuggling drugs, even if you’re not smuggling anything,” he said. So when the customs agent going through his bag asked where he’d been, he was prepared with a tale of his trip to Jamaica. But he’d overlooked one detail: the book about Cuba that he had left in his luggage.

Keith says the customs agent asked him about the book, and he replied that it was just reading material. After the agent also turned up a Cuban newspaper and an art magazine Keith had been given by a Cuban gallery he confessed. “I said, `All right, that’s it, I went to Cuba,’ ” he said.

But with 150 rolls of film in his bag, he was able to convince the agent that he had been to Havana on a cultural exchange and was waved through. Besides, he said, “they were really more interested in someone smuggling drugs out of Jamaica than a photographer coming from Cuba.”

Did that brush with the law deter Keith from going back? Hardly. He said that he had been seven more times and planned another trip in January.

BOOKING a flight to Cuba is not as simple as logging onto Travelocity or Expedia. Most Americans who travel there illegally require two round-trip reservations, one from their home city to their connection point (usually Toronto, Cancn, Nassau or Montego Bay), and one from there to Cuba, flying Cubana, Air Canada, Aeromexico, Air Jamaica or Lacsa, the Costa Rican national carrier. Most people book the first leg of travel as usual, then find a Canadian or other foreign travel agent to reserve the flight to Cuba. That is what Veronica, a business student who recently traveled to Havana with her husband, did. Although she was nervous about charging it on her credit card, the agent at the Carson Wagonlit Travel office in Toronto reassured her that her destination would not appear on any statement. It did not. The Manhattan lawyer who took the weekend trip in late 2001, said that he preferred to reserve the flight and pay in cash at the ticket counter.

Some travelers, like David Heslop of Carrboro, N.C., even book tour packages. Mr. Heslop found a Web site for USA Cuba Travel, based in Canada, and booked an all-inclusive trip that included hotel stays in several cities. The next two times, however, he opted for the other popular choice, a casa particular, or private home, where Cubans pay a licensing fee for permission to be hosts to tourists.

The rooms, which go for about $20 a night, are hard to reserve in advance, though numerous casas are listed in guidebooks. There are Cubans who roam tourist areas offering to find houses (and just about anything else) for travelers, usually in exchange for a commission from the business owner. Some unlicensed houses also accept tourists but are constantly on watch for government inspectors and have been known to kick out guests if a raid is rumored.

“We have always stayed in unlicensed private homes,” said a 70-year-old Manhattan stockbroker who said he had been to Cuba six times, the first time in 1995. “They charge $30 a night, and they make us breakfast.” The notion of going to Cuba illegally never worried him. “I like to live on the brink,” he said. “I was willing to take my chances.” But he does acknowledge that he feels a “little bit of paranoia,” coming back through customs, as he usually carries three boxes of Monte Cristo No. 4 and Cohiba cigars. “I know I’ve done what I’m not supposed to do,” he said.

One issue for Americans who go to Cuba on the sly is money. Tourists from other countries happily use their credit and A.T.M. cards, but Americans must bring cash (or make arrangements with foreign banks). Although Cuban pesos are theoretically the official currency, they are all but useless for tourists beyond buying ice cream and snacks in the street. Most restaurants and all hotels accept only dollars (or the colorful and confusing convertible pesos, which are pegged to the dollar).

On his first trip, Mr. Heslop, 41, a technical support supervisor, overdid it: he took several thousand dollars, divided and stashed in different places, even though his hotels were prepaid. On his second trip, an impromptu jaunt from Cancn to Havana later the same year, he took only $500 for 10 days. “I ended up scrimping and losing some weight,” he said. The latest time, in December 2000, he tried a different way: Transcard, a Canadian service that works as a debit card. It was complicated to get, he said, but worth it.

Those who haven’t done their homework can get in trouble. Angel A. Rivera, Angel Ferez and two other friends who went to Havana in October for a bachelor party did not realize that their credit cards would be useless. “We felt like Cubans,” Mr. Rivera said. “We were watching every penny.” On their last day, they left just enough for a taxi to the airport, and then were stunned by the $25-a-person airport tax. A sympathetic Canadian lent them the money.

Then there’s the big question: will Cuban immigration stamp your passport? Reports differ. Some travelers said that officials simply do not; others said a polite no-stamp request is all it takes; still others said they were asked for a bribe. But many are surprised, upon going through United States Customs, to discover that Cuban officials stamped their passport with a small, almost illegible mark on Page 16. Small and illegible, maybe, but familiar to United States authorities who often turn right to that page if they suspect a visitor has been in Cuba. Lisa Wixon, a 33-year-old from Manhattan who is writing a novel about Havana, said that she had accidently escaped notice by asking the Cubans for personal reasons to stamp her passport on Page 8; when she returned to the United States, the officials skipped right over it on the way to Page 16.

Stamp or no stamp, American travelers inevitably say, the most nerve-racking part of the trip is returning through customs. Some, especially those who live near the Mexican and Canadian borders, avoid the problem by flying into Toronto or Tijuana and crossing the border by land, lost in a flood of Niagara Falls tourists or tequila-toting day-trippers. Some who go through customs are careful almost to a fault, disposing of all receipts and even erasing addresses from Palm Pilots.

It’s a precaution worth taking because the number of proceedings against American travelers to Cuba has more than doubled since the start of the Bush administration. Mr. Heslop’s luck ran out on the third trip. After he flew Cubana from Havana to Cancn and US Airways from Cancn to Charlotte, N.C., customs officers picked him out without even opening a suitcase.

“They asked me if I’d been to Cuba, and I said no,” he said. “And they asked me if I’d been to Cuba, and I said no. And they asked again, and I said yes. It was clear they knew. The agent was staring me straight in the eyes and he just knew.” Mr. Heslop, who said that the government offered to settle with him for a $1,100 fine, which he has so far declined, added that he suspected that Mexican officials might have tipped off customs about him and another passenger.

“The other woman was a librarian from Iowa,” he said. “We were a pretty subversive group.”

WHILE Cuba retains a powerful attraction for many travelers, others return disillusioned or depressed. The music is undeniably great, they say, and the people are warm and the beaches beautiful. But other common sights are more disquieting: older tourists hand-in-hand with teenage prostitutes, the crumbling conditions of formerly glorious Old Havana, police officers who question locals just for speaking to foreigners. The country, some travelers find, is a contradiction they cannot unravel during a short stay: free health care but empty pharmacy shelves; brilliant intellectuals but no freedom of expression; cattle throughout the countryside but no beef that most Cubans can afford.

And although there are Cubans who support the government and hate the United States, travelers who do manage to win the trust of Cubans will often hear with blinds drawn and voices down to a whisper bitter complaints about Mr. Castro and urgent desires to emigrate at all costs.

Veronica said that she had seen poverty before, in Puerto Rico, where her family is from, but when a worker at the Tropicana, where she and her husband were staying, invited them to his home, his family’s circumstances took her by surprise. “It was him and his wife and baby and his 39-year-old mother-in-law. They didn’t have a stove, just a two-burner thing; they had a sofa and chair and a real old TV and tape player. He makes good money, he makes tips but it just didn’t look that way. I’ve never seen people so frustrated.”

Even more surprising to some Americans who make the trip is just how much company they have, from Europeans and especially Canadians, many of whom see Cuba as little more than a cheap way to get out of the cold. “We have a harsh winter up here,” said Virgil Palermo, sales director for the Toronto office of Sol y Son Vacations, a Canadian tour operator specializing in Cuba. “The beach is the main thing. It’s a sun destination.”

Perhaps that says it all. Americans see Cuba as forbidden fruit, one of the world’s few remaining Communist countries, a place of mystery and danger, going back to the days of the Cuban missile crisis. To Canadians, it is just another Cancn.

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