I have always felt a strong impulse to visit the island of Cuba. I don’t know if it’s because of its unique history, its proximity to the United States, or the fact that as Americans, it was unlawful for us to travel there. I was told my Jamaican grandfather moved to Cuba for two years in order to become fluent in Spanish because he wanted to migrate to the U.S. and pass as a Cuban to avoid the stigma branding other black immigrants during that time. Maybe that was part of the attraction, but whatever the lure was, I cried with joy when I arrived.
As of this writing (2017), Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans face travel restrictions. For a U.S. citizen to be granted permission to visit this Caribbean island, the trip must fall under one of twelve government approved categories. My travel approval fell under the “people–to–people” category which can include museum visits, rum research (don’t go overboard with this one since Bacardi was founded in Cuba), or investigate Salsa dancing. The current U.S. government approved categories for travel to Cuba are:
- Professional research and meetings;
- Participation in public performances, workshops, or athletic competitions;
- Work on humanitarian projects;
- Educational activities;
- Family visits;
- Official U.S. government business;
- Journalistic activity;
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- Religious activities;
- Support for the Cuban people;
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
- Certain authorized export transactions.
So, basically you cannot just go to Cuba for vacation or pure tourism purposes.
The Republic of Cuba is located approximately 485 miles from the state of Florida in the United States. It was stumbled upon by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yes, I said stumbled upon because I have a hard time saying that a land was “discovered” when people were already living there. Prior to Spanish colonization, Cuba was already inhabited by three distinct tribes: the Ciboney, Guanajatabey, and Taino peoples.
Due to the United States and Soviet Union trade embargo against Cuba, it seems like a land stuck in time. Most of the cars are from the 1950s and residents were first given access to the internet in September 1996. Maybe this is part of the allure. It feels like you are stepping back in time to a different era. However, I believe the real magnetism of this island lies in its people. I found Cubans to be warm, friendly, and welcoming during my time there.
Occasionally, you will encounter some folks who will walk right up to you and kindly beg for money, but it is never in a pushy way. To fully comprehend this antiquated environment, you must first understand some of the island’s history and how the government rules the land. Cuba’s initial ten-year fight for independence started in 1868 and contentiously ended in 1878 after three separate wars and a severe economic depression. Longing for complete autonomy, they endured several more revolutionary wars – including the five-year long Cuban Revolution of 1953 – all culminating with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then as a final blow, the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989 and it had a catastrophic effect on Cuba. Not only did Soviet subsidies end, but the already devastated country also lost 80% of its imports and exports. Cuba was a land heavily dependent on fossil fuels to operate, so their transport, industrial, and agricultural systems were incapacitated. Food and medical imports stopped, standard of living declined, severe famine ravaged the entire country, and the economy rapidly fell into a depression known as the Special Period (1989-1993).
In order to survive, Cuba began using its sugarcane fields to grow fruits and vegetables, and out of sheer necessity adopted a mostly vegan diet. United States law allowed food and medical humanitarian aid by private groups. Around 1998, the new Cuban president pushed government to focus more intensely on positive cooperation with Venezuela. Because of increased travel and tourism in the late 1990s, popular culture developed and shone a fascinated light on this beautiful land. American rappers regularly visited Cuba, tourist brought their CDs, and audible North American radio stations provided great music. From this, an informal hip-hop network was created which grew to an underground scene of rap enthusiast that eventually caught the attention of foreign scholars and journalists. Ideology about this wondrous, Caribbean country had changed for the better. Cuba, in all its glory, was back on the map!
- The Republic of Cuba is subdivided into fifteen provinces and one special municipality. Cuba is the largest Caribbean island and the 2nd most populous.
- It was inhabited by Amerindian tribes prior to Spanish colonization.
- Cuba is the only country in the world to receive the World Wide Fund for Nature’s definition of sustainable development.
- There is relatively no homelessness in Cuba because they’re allowed to build their own homes. Reportedly, 85% of Cubans own their own homes. Homeowners do not pay property taxes or mortgage interest and mortgage payments don’t exceed 10% of the household’s combined income.
- Cuba has a food distribution system. Every household has a supplies booklet (known as libreta) that allows them to buy food and other staples each month at a nominal cost.
- In addition to its rationing system, Cuba’s average wage in 2013 was approximately 466 Cuban pesos ($19 US) per month.
- Before Castro’s revolution in 1959, Cuba was said to be one of the most advanced and successful Latin American countries. Historians proclaim that Havana, Cuba’s capital, was then what Las Vegas has become.
- In the last ten years, Cuba has tripled its market share in Caribbean tourism. As of 2011, it was third behind the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.