Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: American jaunts to Cuba are nothing new

People wait in line to check luggage at the ABC Charters American Airlines flight to Havana, Cuba at Miami International Airport on Dec. 19, 2014.
People wait in line to check luggage at the ABC Charters American Airlines flight to Havana, Cuba at Miami International Airport on Dec. 19, 2014. Getty Images

Before the latest relaxation of the United States’ Cuba-travel policy, American travel to Cuba had become such a trendy topic that National Geographic categorized a stay in Havana as a “best family trip.”

To illustrate the choice, the respected magazine and travel institution featured on its website an excerpt from the book 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life by Keith Bellows, who narrates the experiences of an American father exposing his two children tothe Cuban perspective on living in a socialist society.”

It’s a window on what can be expected as more Americans travel to the island: engagement only with state-sanctioned people and institutions, overly generous acceptance of the lack of rights (something Americans wouldn’t tolerate at home but often admire elsewhere) and oodles of gullibility.

“The kids learned about [revolutionary leader] Che Guevara from his often present image around town,” the father says. “We actually had a ‘Che-spotting’ game.”

I wonder at what point he tells the children about the summary executions Guevara presided over. Maybe when they spot the bullet holes at the grisly execution wall in the 4 1/2-star-rated tourist attraction, La Cabaña, the Spanish fortress turned prison?

History is hard to hide, and so is reality; that’s the beauty of travel and engagement versus the nothingness of isolation. American travel to Cuba, however, is not likely to bring the cure to what ails the nation. At this historic juncture it might be worth noting that, except politically, Cuba hasn’t been as isolated from Americans as many think.

For years, some of the colorful tour catalogs periodically arriving at my Miami house and via email from travel websites, have included Cuba as a destination — one that, judging by the oversized reactions to the new Obama administration guidelines — many thought forbidden.

For years, I’ve seen on social media photo albums of jaunts to Cuba — cigar-savoring Americans, for example, dining in a Havana restaurant so chic I had to double-check the location. And that mandatory photo of Americans posing with old Cuban cars is already a boring cliché.

Now, in the aftermath of a presidential seal of approval on increased social and economic engagement with Cuba, and under travel guidelines speedily enacted Friday that make the short trek easier, there’s — surprise! — outrage from Miami-Dade’s congressional representatives, and jubilation from people who believe they can finally travel there.

Where has everyone been?

Obviously, not plugged into reality — or, in the case of political leaders, playing the political moment for all it’s worth with calls for perfunctory condemnation of what has existed since the Clinton administration first enacted the “People-to-People” engagement policies.

Truth is that under the categories of travel allowed — family and religious visits, humanitarian work, scholarly research and anything that qualified as “educational experiences,” which is all travel — it wasn’t all that hard for a travel provider to obtain a Treasury Department license. And it wasn’t all that hard for travelers to connect with a licensed provider, if they really wanted to go to Cuba.

Sample the repeat offering from my National Geographic Expeditions catalog:

“Cuba: Discovering Its People and Culture” promises a nine-day tour that begins in Havana’s Revolution Square, includes historic Cienfuegos and Bay of Pigs, and ends with a visit to a kitsch artist in the eastern fishing village of Jaimanitas before returning to the capital for a question-and-answer session with an American and a Cuban journalist, a farewell dinner, and the flight home.

The only difference from other destinations is the end-note that “a special People-to-People” license from the Treasury Department was required and the warning that departures hinged on whether those could be obtained and renewed.

What’s changed now?

That license is no longer required.

But travel to Cuba for Americans, under President Obama’s historic diplomatic thaw, remains regulated.

Rules have been relaxed — licenses for 12 categories of travel are no longer necessary and there are unprecedented commercial allowances — but it’s not a free-for-all.

Americans are still required to travel to the island in supervised group travel — something I fail to understand, since that supports travel to official sites rather than independent contact with ordinary Cubans. Only now virtually any organization or company can arrange travel to Cuba — and Americans can use their debit and credit cards to pay for expenses on the island without a dollar-limit.

If you’re a world traveler, the changes are meaningful. Anything that makes travel anywhere easier — and stimulates competition among vendors — is a plus. With more options, the one thing that might change is the hefty price tag of a trip to Cuba, much higher than for other Caribbean islands.

That short and unsophisticated National Geographic tour that promises “meaningful interactions with Cubans” doesn’t mention their state connections, costs $5,995, same as “Holland in springtime” — and airfare is not included. A longer and richer trip to faraway Peru costs $1,000 less. No doubt there will be more travel providers jumping in to provide better and cheaper tours.

But the real problem Americans will encounter traveling to Cuba is the Cuban government, which, for example, dictates arbitrary currency exchanges that devalue the dollar.

That kind of “socialist living” experience might just be priceless. Better than a dumb Che T-shirt.

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