Stranded In Cuba

We were ready to leave Cuba. We had toasted our last mojitos, danced our last salsa steps and bid farewell to our home-stay hosts with promises to return.

But Cuba had other plans for us – or rather, Cubana Airlines did.

We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport two hours before departure. One counter was open, with a line at least one hundred deep. Yup, we were ready to leave Cuba.

Thirty minutes passed, and the line didn’t budge. We decided to buy postcards. An hour later, the line had moved forward a few feet. I went for a beer. Two and a half hours later, tensions were high and patience was thin. My boyfriend and I had spent the last twenty minutes trying to head off the Italian girls behind us, who were obviously trying to cut in line. This wasn’t the time nor the place for generosity. It was every man for himself.

We finally reached the counter. I handed off my passport, glaring at the counter agent who was preoccupied in conversation with a co-worker. Five minutes later, she hadn’t given my passport a glance. Finally, she looked over my information, checked my name off a list and handed the passport back to me. “Go outside, the bus will take you to the hotel.”

“Hotel?” I sputtered, torn between the urge to burst into tears and strangle her.

“Yes, the flight has been canceled. You will leave tomorrow,” she said, reaching out her arm for the Italian passports behind us. Nonchalant. Dismissive. I, on the other hand, was about to lose it.

%Gallery-172016%After ten days in Cuba, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier in our vacation, we had encountered some of the frustrations of life here. Internet? That’ll be $6 an hour, and only in hotels. But this hotel’s 24-hour cyber café is closed, the next hotel has computers but no password tarjetas and the next hotel has password tarjetas but no computers. So you volley between three different hotels until finally you reach a PC from the 1990s that, after an excruciatingly long wait, allows you access to the HTML version of Gmail.

Lo siento,” says everyone I encounter along the way. “Es domingo.” I’m sorry, it’s Sunday.

But today isn’t Sunday. It’s Monday, and we have a flight that is supposed to transport us to Mexico. Instead, we are herded onto an air-conditioned bus and shuttled to the Hotel Panorama, a 317-room monstrosity in the affluent Havana suburb of Miramar. It’s an odd place, this Panorama, and as we check in and check out our room, we wonder who would actually pay to stay here. The air is stale, the decorations charmless and the paper on the free soap sticks to the bathroom sink – a sure sign it’s been sitting there for a while.

But today, the hotel is bustling as dozens of harpooned travelers occupy the lobby and common areas. The receptionists are accustomed to dealing with frustrated travelers; it seems that Cubana Airlines has a reputation for delaying and sometimes outright canceling its flights, without rhyme or reason. No one is sure if the delay is due to maintenance or weather. We could depart this evening, or we could depart Thursday. When I ask the receptionist if we can leave the hotel, she smiles apologetically and says that we probably shouldn’t, lest the airline deign to make an official announcement. “We have a swimming pool,” she offers.

And so we head to the swimming pool, and we lie on the pool chairs, stuck in limbo between work mode and vacation mode, anxiety and relaxation, the real world and Cuba. There’s nothing to do but wait, swim and avail ourselves of the plentiful, if mediocre, free buffet. All out of local currency, we opt not to take advantage of the extra night out. We’re in bed by 9 p.m.

The next day, we head to the lobby at 10:30 a.m, the time our bus driver told us we’d be shuttled back to the airport. But that’s not happening. Reception tells us to check back at noon, then 1, then 3. Powerless at the hands of Cuban bureaucracy, the travelers begin camping out in the lobby out of protest, or perhaps just boredom. Friendships are made; alliances are formed. One German guy breaks out his guitar, and an international chorus joins him in Bob Marley songs. I’m too frustrated to join in the camaraderie, so I glare while typing cynical observations on my laptop.

In time, we make it back to the airport, past security, onto the airplane and into the sky. When we finally touch down in Cancun, the plane erupts in cheers. For a while there, we weren’t sure we’d ever make it out.

Cuba is a fascinating country with a rich culture, beautiful scenery and hospitable people. But it is also a country plagued with bureaucracy and inefficiency. My frustration with Cubana Airlines is nothing compared to the frustrations that face many Cubans as they go about their day-to-day business. The 36 hours we spent stranded was a pain. But perhaps it was one of the most authentic looks at the reality of life in Cuba, beyond the mojitos and salsa music.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Travel To Cuba Easier, For Cubans

Travel to and from Cuba took a progressive turn this week as restrictions dating back a half-century were lifted for Cubans, allowing them to leave the island without going through a time-consuming process. It’s good news for Cubans longing to travel freely in and out of their country and a step in the right direction for Americans, dreaming of a visit to Cuba.

Starting in January, Cubans will no longer need an exit visa permitting departure and a letter of invitation from someone in the destination country. Those restrictions were imposed in 1961 after the Cuban Revolution that occurred between 1953 and 1959, placing Fidel Castro in power. Now, most Cubans will only need their passports, national identity cards and a visa (if needed) from the country they will visit.It’s a move viewed as a next step to allowing free travel to and from Cuba for Americans eager to visit the island. Right now, travel is restricted via the U.S. government’s 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. Under that act, the restriction is not on travel but on the spending of money in Cuba.

That act effectively equates to a travel ban because under normal circumstances a visitor would spend on accommodations, food and other necessities.

“Like earlier decisions legalizing the personal sales of homes and cars, this is another step in the direction of loosening restrictions and opening up Cuban society,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington group opposed to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, in a Reuters report.

Back in April 2011, Gadling reported on new guidelines that allowed journalists plus religious and educational groups to travel to Cuba just about whenever they wanted to. Those rules also allowed Americans to send up to $2,000 annually to Cuba, limited to $500 per quarter (up from $300). Progress is being made.

Still, to get to Cuba, Americans must look to an exception to the rule on spending money in Cuba, allowed by licenses issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department.

Want to go to Cuba?

Cuba Travel Services, Cubalinda and a few other travel agencies specialize in travel to and from Cuba, operate direct flights between the United States and Cuba and can assist licensed travelers with all their travel accommodations.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

Video Of The Day: Cuban Trapeze Artists, To The Sounds Of The Temper Trap

With the Olympics in full swing, it’s easy to focus on the athletes’ accomplishments – the scores, the times, the medal counts – instead of celebrating the journey that brought them to London in the first place. Though not specific to the Olympic Games, this music video from Australian rock band The Temper Trap chronicles a journey that is probably familiar to many Olympians, particularly those in parts of the world where athletic training is less of a big business than it is in the United States.

The video, recorded in Havana for the band’s latest single, “Trembling Hands,” follows a young Cuban trapeze artist as she prepares for an upcoming performance, capturing all of the struggles, the frustrations and the raw emotion that comes with pursuing a passion. The video relies on the talents of real aerobatic athletes and exposes a part of Cuban culture that isn’t often visible to the public, with the faded streets of Havana as a backdrop.

[via EcoSalon]

US Tourist Ordered To Pay $6500 For Cuba Trip From 14 Years Ago

Think your past won’t come back to haunt you? A U.S. tourist has agreed to pay a $6,500 fine for taking an unauthorized trip to Cuba 14 years ago.

According to Reuters, Zachary Sanders, 38, had been living and teaching English in Mexico in 1998 when he decided to take a trip to Cuba. Sanders was 23 at the time, and had wanted to learn about how a socialist country worked in practice.

“I had no illusions,” said Sanders in an interview. “… I’m not like some diehard supporter of the (Cuban) government or anything like that.”

The United States has restricted U.S. travel to Cuba for a long time as part of a 50-year-old trade embargo aimed at penalizing Cuba’s communist government. When Sanders traveled, he did not obtain the mandatory U.S. Treasury license to visit Cuba. A custom’s official became suspicious when he noticed Sanders had come back into the country via the Bahamas, without declaring he had been in Cuba. The official also took a box of Cuban cigars from his luggage.

%Gallery-161509%The Dispute

Two years later, the U.S. Treasury asked Sanders to document his expenditures from Cuba; however, Sanders lost the receipts and missed the deadline to return the required form. After another two years, the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) reviewed his case during a Bush administration crackdown on Cuba travel. Sanders was fined $1,000.

Both sides appealed; however, in 2009, the Treasury Department raised the fine to $9,000 in an attempt to discourage people from ignoring OFAC forms. Sander’s lawyer, Shane Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, responded that Sanders had a constitutional right not to provide evidence that would incriminate him.

Sanders ended up suing OFAC, the Treasury Department and the Justice Department in federal court in 2009, appealing the fine as impulsive and autocratic. After losing, Sanders turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, where the case was settled on July 24 with the traveler agreeing to pay a fine of $6,500.

Can U.S. Citizens Travel To Cuba?

For U.S. citizens looking to travel to Cuba in 2012, it has become much easier. Certain restrictions on travel have been lifted by the Obama administration, and the Treasury Department has issued a new set of guidelines, making travel easier for religious and educational groups, people-to-people exchanges and journalists. Moreover, companies like Friendly Planet Travel and National Geographic Expeditions are licensed to bring travelers over to Cuba via a guided tour.

Take a virtual tour of the country’s capital, Havana, by checking out the gallery above.

[Above image via Elemaki; Gallery images via Big Stock]

Rescue By Cruise Ship Not A Happy Event

We might think that being rescued by a cruise ship, after floating in the ocean for days or weeks, would be a good thing. Cuban refugees, commonly found on or close to routes traveled by cruise ships, are brought aboard to be cared for. Cheering passengers feel good about it all but for the refugees, a hot meal on a cruise ship is about the last thing in the world they want.

It’s called the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil on their own to take a fast track to permanent residency. But if they get picked up by a helpful cruise ship, they most likely go back to Cuba.

“The cruise line usually takes them on the ship, calls the U.S. Coast Guard who sails out to the scene, and the Coast Guard processes the refugees and sails them back to Cuba where they end up in Castro’s jails,” says maritime attorney James Walker on his CruiseLawNews website.

Friday night, some floating refugees apparently knew all about the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy, refusing to be rescued by Royal Caribbean’s giant Oasis of the Seas. On board was our friend @NomadicMatt who tweeted, “Our cruise ship just stopped to help rescue Cuban refugees in raft that was stranded at sea.”But it did not take long for refugees to take on food and water then continue on their way, trying to leave before the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.

“There is a lot of yelling on the raft and at times they look like they are trying to get away as they know the coast guard was called,” tweeted @NomadicMatt.

Odds are, the Coast Guard found the refugees, picked them up and will send them back to Cuba. But in the cover of night, they might have eluded authorities and made it to shore on their own.

“Let’s hope the winds and currents and the grace of God bring the refugees ashore tonight and they plant their feet on U.S. soil and can begin free lives here in America,” concluded Walker.

[Flickr photo by TarikB]