For decades, Cuba has been an off-limits travel destination for virtually all American citizens. However, President Barack Obama’s recent easing of certain regulations has made it less onerous for some Americans to visit this exotic island locale, barely 200 kilometers from downtown Miami.
Update on Wednesday July, 1 at 11:30 a.m.: After decades of Cold War hostilities, President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will open embassies in each other's capitals later this month. Representatives of Cuban President Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have a struck a deal that will re-establish diplomatic relations – the latest step in an effort launched by Obama a year ago to do so – but the Republican majority in Congress has expressed unwillingness to participate in legislation that would codify that process.
"This is a historic step for our efforts normalize relations with the Cuban Government and people and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas," Obama said during his announcement of the deal Wednesday. "Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba, despite good intentions, increasingly had the opposite effect. ... The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don't have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn't working, we can and will change."
Read more at the Wall Street Journal here.
Local artist Gary Sweeney told us about the trip he had taken to attend the 11th Havana Biennial in 2012. Actually, he had been telling everyone interested in art in San Antonio about it and had vowed to go back, encouraging anyone who could to follow his lead.
So, when Kellen McIntyre of Bihl Haus Arts happened to mention that the 12th Havana Biennial was scheduled for May 22 – June 22, 2015, the hook was set. McIntyre and her husband Eric Lane (Fotoseptiembre 2014 “Peoples’ Choice Award” winner for his Havana roof-top cityscapes exhibited at the Southwest Workers’ Union) also had visited during the previous Havana Biennial, and were considering a return trip. This was in December 2014, shortly before Obama announced the easing of Cuba travel for Americans. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
Bihl Haus Arts organized a cultural exchange tour and there were a total of nine in the group. The Cuba portion of the trip lasted 10 days, with an excursion planned for Cienfuegos to visit artist studios midway in our stay. We went in with little knowledge of what we would find. What we discovered was a country in transition, from looking back to the Revolution to looking forward … and wondering what will happen next.
Havana is an amazing city, in many ways caught in a bizarre 1959 time warp, yet in other ways progressing into the future. For those who have the wherewithal, finding a way to get there and experience this unique time capsule is well worth the effort and expense, before it changes forever, whether it will be for better or for worse.
CAN I GO LEGALLY?
Perhaps. The Obama administration, via the State Department, has lifted many of the onerous restrictions that made travel to Cuba difficult or forbidden for most Americans. However, you can't just travel there on vacation. Hanging out on the beach is still forbidden. You must have one of 12 tangible reasons to go, such as a cultural exchange group or journalism. There is supposed to be an itinerary filed for your group and there must be interaction with Cubans, whether it is business meetings or artist studio visits.
A gray area does exist if you are willing to take the risk. Fly into Mexico (Cancún or Mexico City), then take a Cubana Airlines flight to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The Mexico-to-Cuba portion can be handled by any number of Canada-based travel agencies that are online. One may also fly chartered from Miami.
Given our location, Mexico was the obvious and most affordable port-of-entry. Do yourself a favor and plan for extended travel time to and from the island. You do not want to find yourself rushing to make a connection. There is always a line at Cubana Airlines and the wait is usually lengthy. Be patient and have plenty of cash. We were told the airport duty from Cancún to Havana was $25, but we each were charged $60 cash. Things are fluid, and a demanding attitude will get you nowhere.
When you arrive in (and depart from) Havana, you may want to ask the Immigration officer to not stamp your U.S. passport. Traditionally, they have not stamped U.S. passports, but they are starting to do so as conditions change, as was the case for a couple of our group members. It’s unlikely that you will get a hassle from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers if they see your Cuba passport stamps when you return, but that remains an unknown variable.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
Traveling to Cuba is not nearly as cheap as one might imagine. While some things are inexpensive (food and Cuban rum come to mind), other things are not. For example, we stayed at the venerable Hotel Nacional in a basic room, which cost $200 per night, breakfast buffet included. Be prepared to tip – it is sincerely appreciated.
There are two kinds of currency in Cuba: CUC and CUP. CUC is a convertible currency – as of June, 87 cents will get you 1 CUC, not a particularly favorable rate. American currency gets charged a 10% fee that other currencies, such as Canadian dollars or Euros, do not. Some Americans even prefer to change their dollars for a more favorable currency, although anyone familiar with currency exchange knows that they will get you coming and going.
CUP is more commonly referred to as pesos nacionales, which is the local currency the government uses to pay its people. The current exchange rate is anywhere between 24 to 40 CUP to the dollar. Most tourists actually never deal in CUP; the currency of choice even among the Cuban people is CUC. This is because there are items that can only be purchased with CUC – like chocolate. In fact, take chocolates with you. The sweet maid who provided our room service was ecstatic when she received a tip that included CUC and chocolate. It’s the little things, and it always does well to remember that.
Just like any other grand hotel, amenities at the Hotel Nacional aren’t cheap. The typical digital room safe that we are accustomed to using for free elsewhere is $2.50 per night. A liter of drinking water is $5. This is an item that you must purchase – the water at Hotel Nacional is non-potable. A cocktail runs about $8.
Ironically, the same bottle of water from a kiosk up the street is only $1.25. The old travel axiom certainly applies here. Be smart and get out on the street, where everything is less expensive.
Take at least $750 in cash per person per week. Perhaps even twice as much depending on your spending habits. You really don’t want to get caught short. You won't be able to use U.S. bank credit or debit cards at a corner ATM or in shops, such as an art gallery. Travelers’ checks are not a convenience, either. Cuba remains predominantly a cash-based economy; embrace it as such.
EVERYONE DRIVES OLD AMERICAN CARS, RIGHT?
Sad to say, this is a fiction. Although there are plenty of '50s Chevys, Fords, and whatever else you see plying the streets, the vast majority of cars are a motley assortment. Soviet-era Ladas (a Fiat 128 clone) dominate the scene, followed by Moskvitches, and then … everything else. One should not be surprised to see an Audi A4. Government officials get chauffeured around in Mercedes E350s. But for the most part, contemporary cars tend to be a mix of European, Korean and Chinese econoboxes.
In fact, it is possible to rent a car and drive around the country. We met one couple who did exactly that. However, given the way that Cuban people drive and the lack of U.S. consular support if something were to happen, it is generally wiser to take a taxi, train or bus. It provides the opportunity to move among the Cuban people, which is where you want to be.
With regards to those old cars? Most of them are used as taxis nowadays. The newer taxis are owned by the government and rented to cabbies. The older cars are privately owned. Some, especially the convertibles, are tourist taxis. Others are taxis cooperativas, offering affordable rates (one CUP; literally pennies) to Cuban workers traveling to and from their jobs. The cooperativas are always loaded with passengers, at least six to a car.
As a tourist, expect to pay $15-25 to ride in a classic. Feel free to negotiate if that’s your thing. Remember, the farther you get from the front door of your hotel (in our case perhaps the most historically significant hotel in Cuba), the better your negotiated rate will be.
Finally, if you want to bring one of those old cars home, you can’t. The Cuban government has outlawed their export, declaring them a national treasure. And quite frankly, they are little more than a hodgepodge of parts from other scrapped vehicles of other makes pieced together by enterprising mechanics. Most have terminal rust and bondo bodies. The engines are generally Hyundai or Kia diesels. Yes, they run, but they are also rusty old death traps. Enjoy the ride, but forget about taking one on the freeway!
IS IT SAFE ON THE STREETS?
Yes, very much so. As we were walking down one of the grittier alleys of Old Havana, a local asked us (as we often got asked), “Where are you from?”
“Estados Unidos,” we replied.
“Welcome to Cuba,” he said, “You are safe here. In Havana, we have two million people – and one million police!” We all had a good belly laugh. He had a point. It seems like there is a cop on every corner in the city. Not only that, but there are block captains, who are generally Communist Party members, keeping tabs on all the people in their area. It is also the 21st century, so there are security cameras everywhere. Prison sentences for petty crimes are stiff.
There are no illegal drugs, either. Don’t even think about asking anyone. If you are offered, say no and walk away. Page was approached, and quite assertively, by two gentlemen offering to sell him "drugs" if he would accompany them to their apartment. Right on the private property leading into our hotel! Their brazen attitude led us and others in the know to believe that they were either looking to do him harm, or they were undercover detectives looking for an estupido Americano to make a misstep. You don’t want to spend time in a Cuban jail or prison. Stick to the rum – which is plentiful, cheap and very good – and enjoy. Rum can be purchased practically anywhere – $6.50 for Havana Club Añejo Especial. Good stuff. Especially with chocolate.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Hotel rooms are in short supply in Cuba. Although the government is working with foreign partners to build or rehabilitate hotels, there simply isn’t enough supply to meet demand. Also, at any given time as much as 30% of the rooms are not available due to maintenance issues. The infrastructure of Havana has been crumbling for a long time. The situation has been exacerbated by the change in travel restrictions for Americans. Not only that, but the government is making preparations for cruise ships to dock in Havana harbor.
Most hotel rooms have been reserved by tour companies though the rest of 2016. As such, it’s best to work through a travel agency.
However, if you are adventurous, there is an alternative. “Casas Populares” are rooms available in private homes. You can wander through Havana and see the government-issued signs for them. They are generally safe and clean – and cheap. Generally, they cost around 20 CUC per night … often including dinner with your Cuban hosts. Airbnb.com has also begun to make inroads into the market.
We didn’t see many Americans, but San Antonio was very well represented. A group from our city had arrived about five days earlier than our group, including Southwest School of Art President, Paula Owen; Artist Gary Sweeney, the Pied Piper of Havana; Artist Antonia Richardson of the art space Mercury Project; and UTSA Professor of Photography Luisa Wheeler. It was wonderful to see these familiar faces from home and know that we were all sharing an important moment in history.
WHAT ARE THE PEOPLE LIKE?
Cuban people are as curious about us as we are about them. In fact, they know more about our culture than we do about theirs, thanks to the sneakernet opportunities that abound. They are extraordinarily friendly – a little Spanish on your part goes a long way; don’t assume everyone speaks English. They don’t.
We were fortunate to have a bit of español between us, and this is a plus if you are thinking of going on your own, or deviating from planned group tour activities. Kellen is fluent, which is an enviable attribute in addition to her expertise in Latin American art. In fact, we have been inspired to enroll in Spanish lessons because of this experience.
On the third day of our tour, we were already starting to get cabin fever. Aside from group events – touring the amazing Habana Bienial exhibits at the historic 17th-century Fortaleza (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and touring the extensive exhibits at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana – we hadn’t even walked down the street from our hotel. So we decided to set out on foot into the city and discover whatever we might.
About a block from the hotel, we met two women who escorted us several blocks to the Callejon de Hamel, an alley that is converted to an “outsider” art exhibit by the artist Salvador, who lives and maintains a studio on the street. He is the patriarch. There are paintings and sculpture everywhere, along with a Santeria altar or two. Every Sunday afternoon, there is a Rhumba percussion competition held there.
We shared cocktails with our newfound acquaintances, and handed out a couple of CUCs to the alley kids so they could buy candy. But we had to draw the line when we were offered cigars for purchase.
Don’t be annoyed when folks try to sell you cigars. Most street cigars are counterfeit – they will either burn fast or not draw properly.
“Casa Cooperativa. One day only. Half price cigars,” is the common refrain. Just be polite and firm, say no, and let the conversation continue. These are desperately poor people trying to make a few bucks. Who can blame them? There are those who are annoyed by these interactions. No matter how low profile you are trying to be, you are an American – and Americans are perceived to be wealthy. We certainly are by comparison with the crushing poverty that is the daily reality for most Cubans. We can afford to travel a bit, we have a decent home, we have nice cameras that most Cubans can only dream of, although we classify them as “nothing fancy.” Keep your perspective, and your compassion, intact.
Our second encounter on the street (on the same day) was even more fascinating. And this fellow didn’t try to sell us cigars. We were outside a photographer’s studio on the Malecón (the seawall boulevard along the ocean) when we struck up a conversation with Hector. We started conversing in Spanish, as he thought we were Europeans. When he found out we lived in the states, he became excited.
“I need to practice my English and I have the afternoon free. Let me show you how the people in Havana really live,” he said, “and don’t worry, I won’t try to sell you anything.”
As it turns out, Hector is the real deal. He works for the Ministry of Culture as a musician (he is a percussionist) and an all-around fixit guy. Next thing we knew, we were getting a Cook’s tour of Old Havana, including going into an apartment building to show us how the people really live; a snapshot of extreme poverty, but not as bad as much of the poverty seen throughout Latin America. And keep in mind, when everyone is poor, perceived happiness and the things that make life good are less about “cosas” and more about people. Having said this, the people of Cuba do yearn for more, particularly the youth.
The innovations that The Revolution got right are education, healthcare and security. The rest, as things have developed over the past 56 years, has been rough. Still, this regime is a significant upgrade over what the Cuban people had endured historically.
By the time we parted ways with Hector, we had cut a broad and enlightening swath through La Habana Vieja, shared a couple of brews (Cristal or Bucanero) with live entertainment, crossed the harbor to view the Bienial exhibit in Casa Blanca by ferry (a somewhat sketchy craft, circa 1954), and took a city bus (75 centavos) back to the hotel. We parted friends and hope to keep in contact with him for the future.
WHAT ABOUT CIGARS?
Cigars are available at the hotels and state-run shops. And yes, they are divine, but they ain’t cheap. Cigars like a Cohiba cost 10 CUC and up. Of course, any dedicated cigar aficionado will recognize this as a bargain.
The U.S. government now allows travelers to import up to $100 in Cuban cigars and rum per person. At 6 CUC per bottle, rum is a bargain; cigars are not. Not only that, but if you are traveling through Mexico, only 25 cigars per person are allowed, and bottles of rum are heavy. Plan accordingly.
WHAT ARE THE RESTAURANTS LIKE?
Depending on where you go, it can be amazing. Kellen related that the last time they were in Havana, they ate so much badly-prepared lobster (that’s what tourists want, right?) that she still can’t eat lobster. However, in recent years the Cuban government has taken a common-sense approach and loosened up regulations about what farmers can sell to private individuals above their government quota.
The regulations on the private restaurants (casas particulares) have also been lightened. As a result, there are some amazing places to eat beautifully prepared food at very reasonable prices. Be sure to check out Ideas (on Linea, a few blocks from Hotel Nacional) and Cibo Café across from the Habana Libre (formerly Hilton) hotel.
Be warned, however, there are some restaurants close to the hotels that charge double what others do -- for mediocre fare. The Cubans are relearning the concept of capitalism…and tourist traps. It is perfectly fine to read the menu and check the prices before walking in. It is common for individuals to approach you on the street in order to lead you back to a café – usually their second or third job. Some are great, others are meh. Just like home.
Some establishments – especially in Old Havana – remain state-run, and while acceptable, they have their limitations. One example is Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Old Havana, which was recently renovated. The food is okay, but in order to get service, you shouldn’t be afraid to raise your hand or walk up to the bar.
One place to check out is El Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y Tabaco, a microbrewery(!) located in an old warehouse on a jetty in Havana harbor. It’s not easy to find, because the Cubans don’t really understand signage or advertising. Aside from propaganda murals (“¡Socialismo o muerte!”), advertising is virtually nonexistent. This is truly a visual treat coming from a culture that is absolutely bombarded on every level.
In any case, this newly-minted microbrewery is outfitted with state-of-the-art brewing equipment from Austria. It is the third that this group has created in Cuba. Pints are only $2.50 each. Food is also available. However, it is a state-run establishment, so don’t be afraid to raise your hand to get service.
WHAT ABOUT THE ART?
We were in Havana to attend the Duodecimal (12th) Bienial de Habana, an event that despite its name happens once every three years. To say that we were gobsmacked would be an understatement.
Although international artists are represented at this biennial, it is Cuban artists who dominate the event, and rightfully so. There is a high level of sophistication and they are obviously well-educated in their craft -- the work reflects this. There is a large degree of surrealism in their work, possibly a reflection of their existence – the Revolution, the Blockade and the future were predominant themes in the work.
As Eric Lane, one of our tour leaders, told us, “Three years ago, when we visited last, it seemed like the art was backward-looking. A lot of Che and Fidel. Now, it seems to be more forward-looking into an uncertain future.” There was much political discourse in the art represented, and that is refreshing.
The easing of restrictions by the Obama administration has indeed given the people hope, and the art reflects this, along with the uncertainty about their future. They have not forgotten the Revolution, but are also seeking to find a balance. Prosperity is their desire, but without the servitude in which they found themselves prior to the Revolution.
Unlike in the states, in Cuba, artists occupy one of the top tiers of society. Some even have large compounds filled with their works. They are revered by their people. And of course, they bring in much-desired foreign revenue through the sale of their art. As we learned from Hector, a student’s strengths are identified usually around the fifth grade. That may be in the arts, sports, technology and sciences, or literature, and the strength is fed and honed. This fact was clearly evident in the skill of the work.
However, art is not without its conflict with the government. The temporary detention of the Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera occurred literally hours before our departure to Havana. Gerardo Mosquera, an independent curator and writer based in Havana and Madrid, was in attendance and witnessed the scene and was invited to write about it for the Walker Art Center Magazine. He also happens to be one of the co-founders of the Havana Bienial.
In short, he says, “This was a classic piece of ‘revolutionary theater’ staged by the Cuban government for the benefit of visiting art world tourists. It was also part of the ongoing strategy of intimidation and repudiation of the artist by Cuban officials as her (previous) case awaits judicial action.”
This quote is from a lengthy article and is good reading for anyone interested in the freedom of speech issues that continue to plague many countries, including Cuba.
IS THERE DIGITAL ACCESS?
Although you may see some smartphones about, as an American, you won’t have a cell signal. There is access to computers and the Internet, but it is slow and costly. Our suggestion is to embrace the lack of technology. There are still pay phones in Havana if you need to make a call in a pinch. It is a refreshing change of pace. No extra charge.
WILL I BE WATCHED BY THE AUTHORITIES?
Probably. However, for us, there was no overt sign of this. We wandered all over Havana, definitely outside the typical tourist areas. We were taking photos – 1,800 to be exact – and we were never stopped or questioned by officials. There were private individuals who preferred not to have their photograph taken, but otherwise we were free to go about our business.
We did observe Cubans being stopped on the streets of Havana and asked to show their papers. The purpose of this is to keep people moving from rural areas to the streets of Havana without permission, an act that is strictly forbidden.
HOW CAN I LEARN MORE?
This Tuesday, June 30, at 5:30pm, Southwest School of Art is hosting a panel discussion. Four panelists who have just returned from the Duodecimal Bienial de la Habana will be presenting a few slides each. Panelists include SSA President Paula Owen, artist Gary Sweeney, UTSA professor Luisa Wheeler, and The Rivard Report's own Tami Kegley. (Spoiler alert: Tami will be doing a presentation about our experiences on the streets of Havana.)
If you would like to attend, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Featured/top image: The skyline of Old Havana from the observation deck of the Bacardi Building. Photo by Page Graham.