Fabiola Santiago

Usher, Smokey Robinson in Cuba for some cultural diplomacy, but U.S. consumer beware

American artist Smokey Robinson poses for a picture with students of the Miguel Fernandez Roig primary school in Havana on Tuesday.
American artist Smokey Robinson poses for a picture with students of the Miguel Fernandez Roig primary school in Havana on Tuesday. AP

In the new era of rapprochement, the U.S. government has lifted almost every restriction for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba — and that’s a good thing. We are free people.

But buyers beware: The Cuban government is still the same repressive host. Cuba’s arbitrary rules, and the no-refund policies of both Cuba and U.S.-based travel providers, make booking a trip to Cuba a gamble.

In the latest move to retain its tight control on the island — and still collect dollars from a new wave of American travelers — the Cuban government is wholesaling visas.

The visas, however, don’t guarantee entry.

Some Americans experience no problems. But some visa-holders are arriving in Havana and, after spending hundreds of dollars on airfare and a visa, are being sent right back to Miami.

Usher, Smokey Robinson and Dave Matthews — stars of a 33-member cultural delegation — are in Cuba for a little cultural diplomacy. But here’s what happened to Arturo Villar, the Miami publisher of Hispanic Market Works and a pro-engagement U.S. citizen born in Spain to a Cuban mother. His story is echoed by several other U.S. citizens of different backgrounds, and particularly pro-engagement Cuban Americans who’ve attempted to travel to Cuba recently.

Inspired by the opening, Villar decided to attend a family reunion in the small town of Caibarién and visit friends in Havana, and bought a ticket from Gulfstream Air Charter.

“They insisted I buy an $85 visa along with the $349 round trip fare,” Villar told me. “I was happy thinking that it meant no trouble at the Jose Martí Airport. But of course I was wrong.”

He was taken aside and questioned by two Cuban agents regarding a story he had freelanced to the Wall Street Journal 23 years ago about the dollarization of Cuba. Villar, now 82, had been on a family visit then, when he found out that Fidel Castro was getting ready to make that significant move. His story was a scoop, well-regarded in the U.S. but taboo in Cuba.

As he discovered on Friday when he was put on a plane back to Miami five hours after landing, the Cuban government holds a grudge.

“It’s insulting and a backward move,” Villar said. “This opening is all a fairy tale. They do whatever they want without consequence. It’s terrible.”

Just as bad was the reaction of the U.S. company that sold him the visa and airfare: No refund, no explanation.

“I was told they are not liable for the actions of Cuban immigration,” Villar said. “They said the visa was mandatory. And then explained they get loads of them from Cuban immigration and sell them to their passengers. No questions asked. I asked if this was ethical or legal. And they gave me a Cuban smile that said, no me jodas. Don’t bug me. Is that a ripoff or what?”

It’s a ripoff — and the listed owner of Gulfstream, Ernesto González, didn’t return my call and message seeking comment.

The issue of Cuba wholesaling visas, then denying entry, will become relevant as well to Carnival Corporation’s scheduled cruises to Cuba on the Fathom cultural-travel cruise line. Following a Cuba law that forbids Cuban Americans from arriving on the island by sea, Fathom refused bookings to this one class of American citizens. On Monday, Carnival announced that the company was changing the discriminatory practice and accepting bookings from U.S. citizens born in Cuba in anticipation of the Cuban government changing the law. Prices range from $1,800 for an inside cabin to $7,350 for a suite; port fees are $283 per passenger.

By air or by sea, better ask questions about what’s refundable or not, in case there’s an unexpected denial, as was the case for Villar and others. With Cuba one never knows what stain, old or new, lies in the secret files of their special brand of old-fashioned Soviet communism and repression.

No American president has been able to change the arbitrary and vengeful nature of the Cuban regime. It may be too soon to call it, but President Barack Obama might not fare any differently. At least that’s what it looks like judging by the retrenchment of the Cuban government following the presidential visit.

Engagement-giddy Americans are doing business — at any cost — in the era of rapprochement.

But buyers beware.