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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

Couple visited Cuba before U.S. banned trips

Posted April 03, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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By Ike Crumpler staff writer | [url=http://www.TCpalm.com]http://www.TCpalm.com[/url]

Bound for the forbidden island, Priscilla and Chuck Sawicki boarded a plane. By the looks of things upon landing in Cuba, the Palm City residents might as well have traveled by time machine.

“Havana was like being in a time warp,” says Priscilla Sawicki. “It’s like being in the 1950s. Trinidad was the 1850s. That was like Amish country in Pennsylvania.”

The Sawickis accompanied 17 Americans to Cuba on a cultural exchange program in December, just days before the U.S. government shut down such trips for violations of the four-decade trade embargo. For the Sawickis, the trip delivered the exchange it promised, prompting increased awareness, understanding — and concern — about what the Cuban people endure.

“You don’t have people knowing what the facts are,” says Chuck Sawicki. “The people who know what the facts are, they left.”

Last call to Cuba

Chuck Sawicki, senior vice president of Smith Barney in Stuart, booked with General Tours, which organized the trip through Cross-Cultural Solutions, a non-profit group that arranges volunteer tours in, among other places, China, Russia and, formerly, Cuba.

“As one of the participants put it, ‘I felt like I was living in Cuba for a week,’” says Andrew Motiwalla, senior vice president of Cross-Cultural Solutions. “Real cultural immersion. We felt that for the most part, (cultural exchange) organizations were following the letter of the law. There were probably some bad eggs in there.”

Indeed, says Molly Millerwise, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Treasury, which issues travel licenses to the island.
“The trips often devolved into tourism,” she says, “which we cannot license because of the travel restriction to Cuba.”

The Treasury Department isn’t the only government entity restricting travel to Cuba. The Florida House of Representatives recently approved a bill that would tax charter companies ó whether based in the state or not ó for arranging trips to states considered terror sponsors, a classification the U.S. State Department bestows on Cuba.

With the hourglass on the program running out Jan. 1, 2004, Chuck Sawicki secured a trip from Dec. 20 to 27.

Flying out of Miami International Airport on a Falcon Air charter plane, the Sawickis arrived at Havana at 6 p.m. and checked into the Melia Cohiba. The Spanish company Sol Melia, in a 50-50 partnership with the Cuban government operates the five-star hotel, which ran less than $150 a night. (The exclusively state-run hotels lack the lush amenities of their tourist-favored counterparts, owned primarily by European and Canadian companies.) Boasting 401 rooms and 61 suites, the Cohiba posed a stark contrast to the Havana’s once regal buildings. Neglect under government ownership rendered the edifices crumbling and in disrepair.

Looking for Christmas

While Fidel Castro has relaxed rules against religion, it’s relegated solely to churches. As a result, the Sawickis saw no signs of Christmas and businesses remained open on the 25th. The holiday season centered on Jan. 1; not New Year’s Day, but rather, Triumph of the Revolution Day, now in its 45th year. Nevertheless, Chuck Sawicki tried evoking a little Christmas spirit from streetside musicians, who stake out corners and curbs throughout Havana.

“I’d give them $5 and say, ‘Do me a favor. Play ‘Feliz Navidad,”” he says. “They wouldn’t do it.”

That wasn’t the only suppressed expression he witnessed.

“Everybody who has a good job is afraid of losing it if they say something critical of the government,” he says. “It’s that fear of Big Brother looking at you. You might be caught, then you’ll lose your job.”

That fear exists for good reason, Priscilla Sawicki explains. Other than select artists and musicians who get to travel abroad and perform, Cubans earn $10 to $20 a month, and the government collects 10 percent of that for housing. (Despite the embargo, American money is the main currency.) A realtor with Re/max of Stuart, Priscilla Sawicki found the land rights even more surprising. Property ownership is outlawed, so adults live with their parents until marriage, in which case they move in with the bride’s parents.

Homes aren’t the only thing Cubans don’t own. Few have cars. In rural regions, horsepower means just that; pulling carts and carriages, the creatures clop along cobblestone roads. In Havana, those with cars drive models built in the ‘50s. (Castro took power in 1959.) With gas fetching more than $3.50 a gallon, most owners converted their cars to diesel, leaving the city engulfed in black fumes.

“Our guide said, ‘Castro assured us the pollution wouldn’t hurt us,’” Priscilla Sawicki recounts.

Opposing views

Poor pay keeps the ambitious hustling for jobs. The tour guide, Leysel Alvarez, a 27-year-old devoted to the revolution, was a former English teacher. His openness with the Sawickis allowed for some good-natured barbs.

“(Alvarez) said, ‘Your husband is messing with my mind. He said I’m a capitalist,’” Priscilla Sawicki recalls.

On another occasion, the Sawickis and Alvarez compared the countries’ free speech codes.

“One billboard had Bush with a mustache to look like Hitler,” Priscilla Sawicki says. “(Alvarez) said, ‘Oh, you couldn’t show that in the U.S.’ And we said, ‘Oh yes, you could.’ And he couldn’t believe it.”

Most billboards bore images of revolutionaries Che Guevara and Jose Marti. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, no statues or portraits of Castro adorned the landscape.

Refraining from broaching thorny issues, the Sawickis enjoyed mostly agreeable conversations with their hosts, while drinking mojitos, made with rum, sugar and mint, and dining on rice, beans and chicken.

“Castro has made a distinguishment between the American government and the American people,” says Priscilla Sawicki. “He said, ‘No one can blame them for the system they live in.’”

A few systems of Cuban life that Alvarez and others trumpeted were education and health care. All schooling, including college, is free to citizens. Yet upon visiting an elementary school, where the day lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Sawickis witnessed an “indoctrination” center where students acted out dialogues between Castro and Guevara.

“There’s a high literacy rate,” says Priscilla Sawicki, “but when they get out, there’s no jobs.”

The health care left the Sawickis equally unenthusiastic.

“It was rusty, dirty and we prayed for good health,” Priscilla Sawicki says about her tour of a clinic.

Getting ó or not ó to Cuba

U.S. citizens prepared to travel to Cuba illegally might keep their intentions hush-hush, but their travel route is no secret.

“They could either go through the Bahamas or Jamaica,” says Terri Ortiz, an agent at Premiere Travel in Stuart.

Until this year, the government granted cultural-exchange tours access to Cuba despite the travel restrictions of the four-decades-old embargo. No longer, the Bush administration recently announced.

“They’re getting much more tighter about the regulations,” says Andrew Motiwall, senior vice president of Cross-Cultural Solutions, which offered the island on their list of exotic destinations. “My understanding is going through third counties is very, very risky and we don’t recommend that.”

Unless, you have a license, says Molly Millerwise, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Treasury.

“The only legal way to travel to Cuba is if you’re approved from a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control,” she says.

Getting a license means proving you’re a certain type of traveler. Relatives of Cuban residents may visit once annually. Professionals may attend company meetings or conferences on the island, as long as it’s not to promote tourism or commercial endeavors in Cuba. Amateur and semi-pro athletes selected by U.S. sports federations for competitions open to the Cuban public may go. Journalists, researchers and elected officials bound there for a specifically stated ó and approved ó reason, may get access.

Going illegally carries some hefty fines and possible jail time. Tourists busted on a first offense will likely get slapped with a $7,500 penalty, says Millerwise. Additional violations result in $10,000 fines. The maximum civil penalty for individuals is $65,000. (For organizations, it’s $1 million.) The maximum criminal penalty is 10 years in prison.

Tracking the number of American who makes the illegal journey largely remains a mystery because the passageway conceals the scent.

“We don’t have exact numbers,” Millerwise says. “When someone goes through a third county, it’s tough to follow.”

Member Comments

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On April 03, 2004, Lynne wrote:

I have called the Stuart News where this was published (and where I live) but have not received an answer yet.

1.  I’ve stayed at the Cohiba and for more that $150 per night.

2. Had a miuch better view.

3.  THEY DO HAVE CHRISTMAS!! Trees, lights and songs.  Go to the Churches!  We did.  We were there 11 Jan until 21 January.

4.  People are given houses in relation to their job status.  Houses are owned and passed down through generations.  Our friend ( and godchildren’ parents ) have built a LEGAL home on a small piece of property in her parents yard.  Very nice two story with all modern conveniences.

5. to our knowledge, with all the people we know in Cuba, the government takes no money for housing.  An electric bill - with rolling blackouts for 13 people in one home with airconditioners was $5.62 for the month I was there.  The ‘meter man’ comes by with the bill and you pay it right then and there.

6.  My husband spent 3 days in Clinica Garcia for a bleeding ulcer.  He had excellent care.  It was immaculate, air conditioned and had most of semi modern equipment including ultra sounds.

We’ve traveled there almost a dozen times, know many many people, and help all we can.  Our Godchildren are beautiful little girls who need the basics of life that are not available all the time. Such as toothpaste, vitamins, asprins, SOAP!! including laundry detergent, shoes, clothing, medicines, and the many books we bring down. 

Please feel free to write any time…

Lynne