By John R. Bawden, The Seattle Times, Special to The Times
Headlines about the Trump administration’s new travel restrictions to Cuba, notably the banning of cruise ships, will surely deter some Americans from visiting the communist country, and yet, it has never been easier, and I would say important for Americans to visit the island.
Go to Airbnb and search Havana, Matanzas and Cienfuegos, just to name a few cities. You will be greeted by tidy, striking apartments with ocean views or homes in the middle of charming residential districts. Scroll through the “Airbnb experiences” — activities hosted by locals. What you see is far more interesting than lounging at a hotel’s pool, mojito in hand. Booking through Airbnb is acceptable to the U.S. government because the money directly benefits ordinary Cubans as opposed to the Cuban state. Similarly, privately-owned family restaurants, called paladares, are abundant and meet the same criteria.
Tourism is the most important sector of the Cuban economy, having long since surpassed sugar. Nearly 5 million people visited the island in 2018 — a doubling of tourists in the last five years — and the loosening of travel restrictions under President Barack Obama, remains, in many respects, unchanged. Obama legalized Airbnb’s presence and commercial flights to the island. Seeing the potential, Cuba’s government has made big investments in hotels and resorts.
Unfortunately, the White House hopes to frustrate such plans. On June 5, the Trump administration banned cruise ships from entering Cuban harbors. Americans are also forbidden to stay at most luxury hotels. However, Delta, American, Southwest, United and JetBlue still fly to Cuban cities, and it is perfectly lawful for U.S. citizens to visit the island according to 11 different categories, including “Support for the Cuban People.” Booking a private home can be paired with English speaking hosts who offer accommodations and activities such as cooking classes, horseback riding and nature walks. Getting around is easy, too. Taxis, most of them vintage American cars or Soviet era Ladas, are privately owned, ubiquitous and affordable.
During my July visit to Havana, I booked tours that focused on the Cuban economy. A guide named Antonio showed us his family’s rationing booklet and took us into a neighborhood bodega where Cubans buy necessities such as rice, beans and coffee. Another guide described how Cubans survive in a country of chronic scarcity. After touring markets in the city center, we visited his grandmother’s home for snacks, conversation — and what else? — rum. Our group included three young Californians whose plans included salsa dancing and a day trip to a coffee growing region outside of the capital.
There are other, perhaps more persuasive, reasons to go to Cuba. One, you will be helping to build the country’s private sector and by extension strengthening its civil society. Two, you will see a different side of Cuba, not the tired images of cigar-smoking men and dead revolutionary leaders. Expect to see religious icons on the walls of people’s homes, not Fidel Castro. Three, staying away from big hotels means experiencing residential life. To say that Cuba’s neighborhoods are fascinating is an understatement. Children play, neighbors chat, vendors hawk goods, and all of it unfolds before a balcony or window perch. On this note, I should mention that Cuban cities are among the safest in the Western Hemisphere.
Contemporary Cuba will surprise you. Pentecostal Christians below my apartment gathered to sing hymns and pray. Young men wear NBA jerseys or New York Yankees baseball caps. The sheer number of people wearing American flag T-shirts, hats and shorts was a particularly striking sight given the Cuban Communist Party’s disapproval of such apparel. Images like these defy expectations of a militant, ideological country stuck in some Cold War past. Ordinary Cubans clearly like American people despite our government’s longstanding differences.
Cuentapropistas (self-employed persons) represent about a quarter of the nation’s labor force, but these workers are changing the country. As for the Trump-era travel restrictions, I’m convinced they won’t change the country’s political leadership — it has been tried, it doesn’t work — but internet connectivity and private lodging is driving a process of social and political change.
Traveling to Cuba has never been more convenient or feasible. Let Cubans guide you around the island. You will learn from them, and they will learn from you. Don’t wait for a cruise ship.
-John R. Bawden is an associate professor of history at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where he teaches courses on Latin America, world history and historical methods. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of California-Riverside.