Interview by Everett Potter
The possibility of American travel to Cuba is once again in the news, so who better to turn to than Christopher P. Baker. An English travel writer and photographer who resides in the United States, Baker has established himself as a regional travel expert on Cuba. The author of more than 20 books, including two-time national award-winning literary travelog, Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba, he has also penned guidebooks to Cuba, California, Panama, and various Caribbean islands. He has also written for hundreds of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times. He is a National Geographic Resident Expert and has escorted tours as far afield as Cuba, Great Britain, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. In 2008, Baker received the Lowell Thomas Award for “Travel Journalist of the Year.” He was born and raised in Yorkshire, England but his heart is in Havana. I recently asked him to clarify the current situation about Americans and travel to Cuba.
Everett Potter: Christopher, what is about to change – or what has recently changed – in American law that will allow more Americans to visit Cuba?
Christopher Baker: President Obama has reinstated the “people-to-people exchange” provision, which went into effect on January 28, 20011, throwing the door wide open – as it was under the Clinton administration – to a wide range of tour organizations who will now be able to offer cultural tours across the spectrum. Thus, I’ve been contacted by several tour companies who are currently applying for licenses to operate Cuba tours. My first ever visit to Havana, for example, was in 1993 as a participant in a “person to person exchange” trip to the Havana Jazz Festival. American and Cuban jazz buffs getting together. How cool is that! And within the past few weeks I’ve been asked to escort tours to Cuba on behalf of the prestigious Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and National Geographic Expeditions, among other entities that have applied for licenses to offer such tours.
EP: Any idea how many Americans currently visit Cuba?
CB: The numbers have risen dramatically within the past year since Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban-Americans with family in Cuba – previously, they had been limited by George W. Shrub to one visit per year. We’re now approaching about half a million a year, apparently, with the vast majority comprised of Cuban-Americans. “Illegal” travel through third countries? It’s difficult to say with certainty, as Cuba doesn’t release that statistic. But it appears to be in the order of about 20,000 a year. The numbers for travel via third countries fell significantly during the Bush years, but are undoubtedly rising again since the Obama administration has lightened up.
EP: The long-standing blockade of Cuba by the US has penalized American citizens not for actually going there but for spending money, correct?
CB: That’s correct. Most U.S. citizens harbor the false impression that it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba. It’s not, it’s merely illegal to spend money there. The Supreme Court long ago affirmed that U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to unrestricted travel. Thus the U.S. government utilizes the Trading with the Enemy Act (first drafted in 1917 to restrict trade with countries hostile to the United States) to prevent its citizens from exercising their constitutional right to unrestricted travel. To visit Cuba legally you must either spend no money there, or qualify for a license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in order to buy goods or services. Except as specifically licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), payments of any kind in connection with travel to Cuba are prohibited, including prepaid tours to companies in third countries. Thus, although it is theoretically possible for a person to travel to Cuba, spend no money, and thereby be legal, in actuality you break the law as soon as you tip a bellboy or pay for a taxi from Havana airport. The regulations apply to: U.S. citizens and permanent residents wherever they are located, as well as all people and organizations physically in the United States, including airline passengers in transit.
EP: But there have been loopholes in the past?
CB: Things run hot or cold depending on each administration, and the regulations change frequently.
Thus, for example, in 1996 I shipped my BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba on a private boat that sailed from Key West: my three-month journey through Cuba resulted in publication of Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba (National Geographic) and my Moon Cuba guidebook. Back then, U.S. sailors could berth in Havana’s Hemingway Marina without fear of repercussion because the Cuban’s were known to waive docking fees for U.S. sailors, who could argue that they had carried all their supplies with them. A decade ago, many vessels at Marina Hemingway were flying the Stars and Stripes. That loophole was sealed by George W. Bush. Now, Uncle Sam requires that U.S. boaters get pre-authorization from the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office; an export license from the Commerce Department; and a specific license from OFAC, including for all persons subject to U.S. law who travel aboard the vessel.
EP: How would the US government know if I went to Cuba and spent dollars there?
CB: That’s the 62 million dollar question. OFAC operates under the auspices of the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and part of its job is to ferret out and fine little ol’ grannies who went to see Cuba for old times sake before they die. Many thousands of U.S. citizens travel to Cuba every year, snubbing their nose at Uncle Sam without consequence. It’s easy to do: Just hop across the border to Mexico or Canada and hop a plane to Havana to savor the frisson of the forbidden. Cuba plays its part by abstaining from stamping passports. The very small fraction that are identified by Uncle Sam as having done so can expect to possibly receive a letter of “Notification of Intent to Levy a Fine,” usually stated as being $7,500. How does the U.S. government know? Well, for a start, any Cuba-bound aircraft en route to Cuba and passing through U.S. air-space, such as Air Canada, must share its passenger manifest with Uncle Sam. I mentioned that things run hot and cold. The Obama administration seems to have straightened out the governments twisted priorities on this score and seems not to be actively pursuing little ol’ grannies anymore. Most likely, U.S. travelers who are identified as having been to Cuba when they return to the USA (such as by wearing their newly purchased Che Guevara T-shirt) can expect to have to forfeit such “illegally traded” items. End of story.
EP: Are there instances where the US has pursued offenders?
CB: Very few people ever have trouble coming back. Nonetheless, if Uncle Sam decides to go after perceived offenders, the latter will first receive a questionnaire and, if OFAC believes the law has been broken, a “pre-penalty notice” listing the amount of the proposed fine. If issued a penalty notice, you have 30 days to appeal. If the case is not settled out of court, the case ostensibly goes before an administrative law judge, who can uphold or dismiss the penalty. But no judges are in place to adjudicate! Thus, anyone receiving a pre-penalty notice can effectively kill the action dead by requesting a hearing. Only two people have ever been prosecuted: In January 2005 a judge slapped the first-ever such fine–for US$5,250–on a Michigan couple who had traveled in 2001 on a religious mission (the second penalty was for US$780) after George W. Bush briefly appointed a judge to adjudicate such cases.
EP: As of today, who among Americans can legally travel to Cuba? Bona-fide journalists have long been allowed, but who else?
CB: Here’s the great news. As of January 28, 2011, pretty much every U.S. citizen is legally able to travel to Cuba through the “person-to-person” provision put in place by the Obama administration. But let me back up.
The following categories of travelers are permitted to spend money for Cuban travel without the need to obtain special permission from OFAC, nor are they required to inform OFAC in advance of their visit to Cuba: official Government Travelers traveling on official business; journalists and supporting personnel regularly employed in that capacity by a news reporting organization and traveling for journalistic activities; full-time professionals whose travel is directly related to “noncommercial, academic research” in their professional field and whose research “has a likelihood of public dissemination”; and people visiting family who live in Cuba.
In addition, the following categories of travelers can apply in writing to OFAC for a written “specific license”: freelance journalists; students and educators; individuals traveling to Cuba to accompany licensed humanitarian donations or for religious activity; athletes and performing artists traveling to participate in events; plus persons traveling to engage in exportation, importation, or transmission of informational materials.
EP: Do you have an educated guess as to how many Americans will enter once the barriers are down, assuming they do come all the way down for the average tourist?
CB: A recent study by Reuters predicted a flood of 1 million visitors from the United States during the 12 months after travel restrictions are lifted. Within five years, that number is expected to grow threefold. Cruise lines are salivating at the prospect of berthing in Havana. And tour operators are gearing up for a possible rush. At the most recent U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit, held in Cancun in March 2010, and which I attended, executives from several major tour operators were present, such as Tauck Tours and Colette Vacations. The pent-up interest and demand is huge.
The more interesting question, to my mind, is how is Cuba going to handle it?
“We could receive the American tourists without any problem with existing capacity,” Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz, answered when I asked him how Cuba would be able to accommodate one million U.S. visitors that are anticipated to visit the island in the first twelve months after the travel restrictions are lifted.
I’m now sure how! I pointed out the current imbalance. The country’s modest fleet of rental cars is already often booked solid. Hotels are full. Cuba’s current crop of 50,000 hotel rooms is barely sufficient to meet current demand of 2.5 million tourists that arrived from Canada and Europe in 2010. And the 10,000 new rooms that Cuba is planning to build for the next three years represents a mere 20 percent increase. Yet a 40 percent increase in one year would theoretically be needed to accommodate those one million first-year post-restriction U.S. visitors.
“We will divert tourism away from the high season so that Americans visit year round,” Marrero replied.
Still, a major expansion of José Martí International Airport’s Terminal 2, which currently handles U.S. charter flights, is well advanced as Cuba adjusts to handling the huge increase in Cuban-American traffic. And Varadero airport is being expanded to handle fifty percent more passengers. Nonetheless, my most recent visit suggests that the country is way behind schedule in meeting its current expansion goals. The lack of sufficient hotel capacity suggests that some form of restrictions will most likely be put in place, such as a visa requirement for U.S. travelers,
until it can expand its capacity.
Plus, as John Hanratty, Chief Marketing Officer for U.S. tour operator Travel Impressions, noted at the U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit: “There is going to be so much demand that its going to be hard getting seats on aircraft.”
EP: How is the infrastructure today – the hotels, for example? What would you compare them to, in terms of quality, outside of Cuba?
CB: Cuba already has several world-class all-inclusive resorts, with more opening every year; Sandals and SuperClubs have been present for years in Varadero, Cuba’s main beach-resort town. So too have well-established European brands such as Sol Meliá, which manages two dozen Cuban resorts, representing a fifth of the island’s hotel rooms. It also has some wonderful boutique hotels, notably in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the capital city’s remarkable colonial core. Meanwhile, the Cuban government has been penning new agreements with foreign partners aimed at broadening the country’s deluxe appeal. In May 2010, for example, Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced that the government would approve plans to allow foreigners to develop golf courses, marinas and related real estate projects. At least a dozen residential golf resort complexes are in the works along Cuba’s north shore.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Cuba is years away from catching up to its Caribbean neighbors when it comes to offering value-priced, mass-market luxe. Desultory service, lackluster food and poor management are ubiquitous complaints at even the most luxurious of Cuba’s hotels. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, as the principles of communism and customer service mix like oil and water. And foreign hoteliers aren’t allowed to fully and freely manage their own properties either; government appointed Cuban co-managers pull the strings. For these reasons, Cuba’s repeat business is far below that of competing Caribbean destinations capable of delivering a tourism experience to international standards.
EP: I’ve long heard that the major cruise lines are ready to anchor their ships as floating hotels, just offshore, to handle the anticipated demand. True?
CB: Certainly an entirely new destination will open to cruise ship companies once U.S. relaxes existing restrictions. Executives from most (if not all) major U.S. cruise companies have already had talks in Havana, although none has publicly acknowledged this or talked of specific plans to begin cruises to Cuba. There is no sign, or possibility, that U.S. cruise companies will be able to initiate cruises to Cuba any time soon, however.
Still, yes, it’s been bandied about that U.S. cruise ships might serve as floating hotels. I don’t buy it. Cruisers want a cruise experience. Cruise companies exist to cruise. And the Cuban government is hardly likely to approve or want dozens of cruises ships permanently, or semi-permanently berthed, in Havana harbor.
As I said previously, I envision that Cuba will be forced to restrict the flow until it can get more hotel rooms and other infrastructure (notably transport) in place. It will be measured. Gradual. And the expansion of docking facilities to accommodate cruise ships will be part of that process.
EP: For Americans who are eager to visit Cuba, what will they find in terms of the culture and the people?
CB: A Cuban lady once scolded me: “Why does your government not like us?” she asked. “They are too hard on us!” Then she kissed my cheek and thrust a bag of ripe tomatoes into my hand. It’s like that all over the island. Cubans you’ve met only moments before embrace you, call you “amigo” and invite you into their homes. They pass around rum and beer. Friends and neighbors arrive. Hands are extended; strangers hug you warmly. It’s hard to believe that the United States government’s rigid Trading With the Enemy Act is applied to these genuinely warmhearted people. How often have I laughed — almost cried — as I’ve danced with this enemy of ours?
Before the revolution, the Havana was a place of intrigue and tawdry charm. Even now, half a century later, the whiff of romance and conspiracy is still in the air; it’s remarkable how much of Cuba’s surreal demimonde lingers on.
Forget the politics. Imagine talcum-fine beaches rivaling the best of Mexico’s Riviera Maya or the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana. The turquoise waters shelter virginal coral reefs — and sunken Spanish galleons — of unrivaled allure. Ox-drawn plows still work palm-shaded fields where the world’s finest tobacco grows. Colonial cities aching with pathos whisk visitors back through the centuries, and creaking cacharros — Studebakers, Kaisers and Edsels — add to their Alice in Wonderland peculiarity.
EP: Cuba seems to inspire romantic notions in so many people who’ve never set foot on the island.
CB: Of the many fond memories I have from the 30 or so trips I’ve made to Cuba, there’s one that really typifies the country’s otherworldly, romance novel charms. I’d gone to Havana’s Tropicana nightclub after the show to pick up my girlfriend, Mercedes, who worked there as a figurante, or dancer. To my astonishment, she appeared dressed entirely in white, with a turban on her head. Copper and bronze amulets glinted on her arms, and she wore many necklaces made with colorful beads. Mercedes had just been initiated as a follower of the Santería religion. She took my hand, and we hailed an illegal taxi. Winding our way through the dimly lit streets of the city, a policeman leaped into the path of our jalopy and frantically waved down our driver. A man lay bleeding in the street. The policeman wanted to bundle him into the car and commandeer it for a trip to the hospital. “Ay, mi madre!” Mercedes exclaimed. She leaned forward and spoke through the driver’s window. The policeman looked aghast, then waved us on and ran off to look for another car. “What did you tell him?” I asked, astounded. “I am not myself,” she replied. “I am St. Teresa, patron saint of the dead. If he had put that man in the car, I might have killed him.”
EP: What’s your next project in Cuba?
CB: I just escorted a photographic tour of Cuba on behalf of Santa Fe Workshops in April and I hope that it will be the first of several similar tours for this highly regarded organization. I anticipate that I’ll be back in Cuba as early as year’s end to escort tours on behalf of National Geographic Expeditions (for whom I’m currently a Resident Expert for their programs on Costa Rica and Panama) and other entities that currently await approval of their applications to offer “people-to-people” exchange programs.
Plus, I try to get to Cuba every year to stay fresh for my Moon Cuba and other guidebooks, and to see the friends I consider “family” and who are so important in making my time there so fulfilling.
Click here for more on Christopher P. Baker and Cuba.