Last month we reported that U.S. citizens can once again put Cuba on their bucket list. A number of license renewals have finally been issued to cultural tour operators by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), after an unexplained delay.
This week I caught up with Michael Vanderbeek of the Port Everglades Department, who told me that the port has been speaking to cruise lines for a number of months, with a view to operating day trips from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (about a five-hour journey), so sure are they that the travel ban to this wonderful island will be lifted. Vanderbeek and I spoke about this yesterday, ahead of the election, and judging by last night’s result, they could well be right. Cuba could soon be closer than you think to the U.S.
I’m lucky — as a Brit, I can travel to Cuba whenever I want, and I fulfilled that dream back in 2006. The island had always been on my bucket list, but I’m not sure exactly why: Perhaps it was the romantic image combined with its uniqueness in a largely homogenized world.
I spent two weeks there: a few days in Havana, then to the far west to a tiny village called Maria La Gorda, and then on to Trinidad via Varadero. My trip was in turns maddening, exhilarating, saddening, fascinating, surprising and moving.
Maddening because nothing seemed to work, and you had to change your money into a tourist currency, shop in tourist stores and fill up with tourist-priced petrol; exhilarating when I talked politics and Fidel with locals (who, back then at least, were still “officially” not allowed to talk to tourists); saddening to see the poverty, the appalling food and the crumbling architecture; fascinating to get a glimpse into a culture that has been trapped in time for the best part of 50 years; surprising when I’d stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant or a sight; and moving when I gave away soap or pens, or gave someone a lift.
I spent much of my time there trying to reconcile a country that has some of the finest doctors in the world and the best education with one that, back then, banned free movement of its citizens (this restriction will lift in January) and where food stamps still exist, food is rationed and the gift of a bar of soap can move people to tears. It’s that all-too-common dilemma for a Western citizen who yearns to find a place in the world that isn’t full of Starbucks and McDonald’s and mobile phones, but at the same time sees a country whose people are yearning for just those things.
What I did pick up in my two weeks there was that things take a long time to change in Cuba. Stuff in the West that we take for granted is hampered by a glacier-slow bureaucratic process, wrapped up in years of inefficiency.
But things do change, and that is happening right now. The danger is if it happens too fast.
Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. playground. Should all the barriers come down in one go, it may become that again.
My advice: Go there now, before the changes alter the country forever.
— written by Adam Coulter