Cuba: The secret vacation Americans don't talk about

HAVANA -- Here we are on Day 13,286 of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, another day of humidity and nostalgia in Fidel Castro's capital. Beneath the flaking pastel-hued walls of Old Havana, old men peddle the government newspaper and young men peddle black-market cigars. In the swanky Hotel Nacional, a receptionist hits a button on her computer, which shows that 24 of the 465 rooms are occupied by Americans.

Outside the Inglaterra Hotel, the taxistas congregate to polish their prized '56 Chevys and '58 Cadillacs. Inside, another receptionist hits another button: Nine of 83 rooms belong to American visitors.

In the suburbs, parents muddle through another power outage and pack their children off to school in threadbare uniforms. And in the fifth-floor breakfast room of the Plaza Hotel, a cheerful man takes a seat opposite me and introduces himself. He is a retired teacher from San Diego County, and, like dozens of others lodged in hotels and private homes around this island, he is trading with the enemy. He'd rather not see his real name in the newspaper. Call him Tom.

"I'm 62 years old," says Tom dreamily. "The other night I went out with a girl about 20. We went to a disco. We went in this '50s car and danced. It was like going back in time. It was like I was back in high school."

In the ferocious and long-standing argument over America's Cuba policy, this man may not sound like anyone's best spokesman. But he is part of a fast-expanding constituency. Even as their government has been tightening the screws in its 37-year campaign to weaken Fidel Castro, thousands of U.S. citizens, mocking the letter or the spirit of American laws, have decided to visit Cuba anyway.

Unintimidated by the threat of hefty U.S. government fines, they come by air and by sea. Some are pushing political agendas. Others are lured by cultural curiosity or a quest for business prospects. And still others are simply following gut-level appetites. Cheap rum. Fine cigars. And readily available sex, of the casual and explicitly professional kind.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based, nonpartisan business organization that draws statistics from transportation agencies and government sources, estimates that the number of illegal American visitors to Cuba has grown from about 10,000 in 1994 to about 12,000 in 1995 to about 15,000 last year. In the first two months of this year, the pace accelerated, and the organization estimated that another 3,800 Americans ventured into Cuba, the "vast majority" illegal. Other Cuba experts have put the number of illegal American visits even higher--perhaps 20,000 to 50,000 yearly.

"In the last year, it's risen pretty spectacularly. I'm amazed at the kind of people I find on the planes going down there. It's becoming very mainstream," says Medea Benjamin, executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit group Global Exchange, which encourages travel to developing nations.

"Only an act of war between the countries will prevent the numbers from increasing exponentially," says John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

And even then, it's hard to be sure. On Feb. 24, 1996, two private American planes on a propagandizing flight were shot down by the Cuban military. Four Americans were killed in the confrontation. Yet the Cuban travel boom has only gained strength since then.

"It's the only so-called communist country left. And everyone says they want to see it before it turns capitalist. So the visitors are either crazed cigar enthusiasts or they're people who want to see Cuba before it becomes Miami," says Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. "I tell them, 'To just be a tourist is illegal.' And they say, 'I don't care.' "

In fact, American law stops just short of forbidding travel to Cuba. Instead, it bars most Americans from spending any money once they're here (see accompanying box)--a subtle distinction that has made enforcement difficult and encouraged loophole-seekers and covert travelers.

Tom at the Plaza Hotel, for instance, reached Cuba by merely crossing the U.S. border to Tijuana, paying about $400 for a round-trip ticket and stepping onto a Mexican charter flight to Havana. When his visit is done, he'll catch his return flight and pass through the border crossing with the thousands of Americans who visit Tijuana every day. Unless a highly intuitive U.S. customs agent asks if the trip included any stops outside Mexico, Tom won't even have to lie about where he's been.

"I'm a violator," Norman Russell says.

It is early March, and Russell and I are standing in line at the Cubana Airlines desk at Cancun International Airport. He's 65, a military veteran, and usually divides his time between Texas and Florida. He's on his way to Cuba because "I wanna see what it's like before the bubble breaks."

When I raise the idea that Russell may be helping a repressive government by visiting now, he rolls his eyes.

"I can go to China!" he says.

*

Soon our number is called, and several dozen of us--dominated by a group of Italian men--board Cubana Flight 452, a propeller-powered Fokker 27. An hour later, forewarned of privations to come by a loud and humid cabin that would embarrass any American budget airline, we swoop past the red-tiled roofs and crumbling colonial architecture of Havana and touch down at Jose Marti International Airport.

Taxi drivers, tour guides, customs officials and tearful family reunions surround us. The customs officials, well practiced in the accommodation of anxious Americans, stamp a separate piece of paper and leave my passport unmarked.

The drive into central Havana is a half-hour adventure amid motorcycles with sidecars, Soviet-era Lada sedans, bicyclists by the thousands and billboards that show the face of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, or bear inspirational slogans: "Two hundred million children sleep in the streets around the world. Not one in Cuba."

Yet in block after block of dilapidated buildings, families live in squalid quarters. Enduring periodic losses of power and water, they hang ragged laundry, prize their rationed foodstuffs, endure vigorous censorship of information from the outside world and ponder schemes to get some dollars. This is the Cuba that exiles call "Castro's concentration camp," and it exists just a few steps from the vital street life and coastline scenery of Havana's famed Malecon promenade.

And strange juxtapositions just begin there. Despite all his fulminations against capitalism over the years, his island's post-Soviet poverty has inspired Castro to allow thousands of Cubans to go into business for themselves. And so in La Bodeguita del Medio, the most famed of Ernest Hemingway's many alleged old watering holes in Havana, a quick-sketch artist draws tourist caricatures for a few dollars each. A few yards away, by the Plaza de Armas, another man will chauffeur you all day in a shiny black 1956 Cadillac for $25--or, he offers hopefully, sell you the car for just $12,000. And all over town, perhaps hundreds of Cubans now informally set bedrooms aside to house tourists at $10 to $25 nightly. Meanwhile, a 1995 law permits home-based restaurants (known as paladares), so long as they serve no more than 12 customers at a time. In 1993, Castro made it legal for Cuban citizens to use American currency.

In the offices of Havanatur, one of Cuba's largest government-controlled tour agencies, the quest for dollars goes well. Overall international tourism, led by Canadians and Europeans, has quadrupled in seven years and now stands at about 1.1 million per year--four times as many foreigners as Cuba drew in its headiest days as a playground for high-living Americans in the 1950s. With foreign investments coming in from throughout Europe and Canada, the number of hotel rooms on the island has grown from 13,000 in 1990 to 26,000.

Havanatur is happy to serve Americans, too. The agency has pages up on the Internet and English-language literature pitching ecology tours, cigar tours, Hemingway tours, '50s nostalgia tours and so on. North American specialist Joel Sanz Hernandez estimates that the organization booked 22,000 Cuba trips for Americans in 1996, up from 17,000 in 1995. The goal for 1997 is 30,000.

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The island's top selling points are largely the same features that brought Americans south in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. In the capital, there is the historic architecture of Old Havana, which UNESCO has listed as a World Heritage site, and the city's legendary night life, which reaches its most striking and high-priced expression at the Tropicana club.

Famed for its floor shows since 1939, the Tropicana charges about $50 per guest--a staggering sum here that virtually assures all-foreign audiences--and on a typical night presents dozens of dancing men and women, who wear headgear inspired by chandeliers, and very little else.

The other classic Cuban attraction is Varadero Beach. A two-hour drive east of Havana, its fine white sands and seductive blue waters filled the same role as an international getaway in the 1950s that the Mexican resort of Cancun does today.

The old Hotel Internacional, epicenter of American beachfront fun in 1956, looks like an aging starlet now, but it still fills up with Canadian and Italian package tourists paying about $70 a night. Each afternoon on the patio, a shirtless young Cuban dance teacher leads them through the steps of the salsa.

Elsewhere along Varadero, a Club Med is going up, and the Spain-based Grupo Sol Melia is managing three luxury hotels, where rooms routinely fetch $150 a night and up. Next to one of those hotels stands the mansion once maintained as an island getaway by the Du Pont family. Now the elegant building is run as Las Americas, a tourist restaurant and bar. As the sun sets one evening, I sit there with a Cuban guide named Jorge, imbibing Cuba Libres at $2.50 each while an adept jazz combo has its way with "The Girl from Ipanema."

Made happy and lazy by cool drink and waning sun, I step up to ask for the old Dave Brubeck tune "Take Five," one of the most widely known jazz songs ever recorded. But I'm forgetting where I am. The players in this band, still largely sequestered from American culture, have never heard of it.

The land where Cuba's best cigars comes from has no beach and only a handful of hotels, but day trips there are increasingly popular. I stay two nights at a $45-a-night hilltop hotel just outside in Vin~ales, a small town in the Pin~ar del Rio region, and can almost feel my pulse slowing. It's hot. Along the main drag, old folks sit in rockers on the porches, appraising the passing pedestrians. At one storefront, farmers crowd around a scale, weighing their crops. Outside town, the tobacco leaves hang drying in gray triangular barns, and in the distance, strange rocky hills rise abruptly from the green valley floor. The locals call them mogotes, and they look like something from a tranquil Chinese watercolor landscape.

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What happens to illegal tourists to Cuba? Over the three years ending Sept. 30, 1996, U.S. Treasury officials say they initiated 159 civil cases alleging forbidden trade with Cuba (individual tourists as well as larger commercial enterprises, such as cigar-smuggling operations) and collected $192,198 in fines.

In many cases, a Treasury spokesman says, the individual illegal travelers to Cuba are "starry-eyed newlyweds" who quickly profess regret when found out. In those cases, the spokesman says, the government might seek a $1,000 fine and require the travelers to sign a pledge not to do it again.

"Are people traveling illegally? Yeah. We know that. We confess that we don't know [how many], and there's no way of knowing," says the Treasury spokesman. "When we know about it, we work hard to A) prevent it, or B) punish it."

Not all travelers go as quietly as those newlyweds. From 1993 to 1995, Global Exchange executive director Benjamin says, her organization sponsored seven openly illegal trips to Cuba, involving several hundred travelers. When it couldn't provoke a government court action, Benjamin says, her group filed its own suit in federal court and lost when a judge ruled that the executive arm of government has the right to restrict citizens' travel in the interest of national security. But the organization has paid no fines and suffered no punishment, says Benjamin.

Is U.S. policy damaged when hundreds of travelers openly defy it, and thousands more are defying it quietly, without penalty?

"The unknown but small number of American citizens who violate U.S. law by traveling to Cuba no more undermines U.S. Cuba policy than the unknown but small number of American citizens who use heroin undermines U.S. drug policy," says a State Department spokesman. "Both are illegal, and most people would argue that both are just plain wrong."

Meanwhile, Americans can consult the travel section of a well-stocked bookstore and find "Fodor's Cuba: The Complete Guide to Havana and the Old City, Santiago, the Beaches and the Lively Nightlife," published in February 1996. Near it will be the "Cuba Travel Survival Kit," published in the U.S. in January 1997 by Lonely Planet. And this June, those volumes will be joined by a "Cuba Handbook," published by Moon Publications.

Or you can contact the New York offices of Cigar Aficionado magazine and discover that employees regularly field calls from readers seeking advice on a way into Cuba.

Check out a brochure from Wings of the World, a Toronto-based tour operation that keeps offices in Buffalo, N.Y., and markets mostly to U.S. citizens. Earlier this month, the company rented a booth at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show to tout its Cuba trips. "Every month," the company's spring brochure proclaims, "we have several adventures to Cuba for our American travelers." Cuba destination manager Richard Thakin says the company will bring about 3,000 Americans to Cuba this year, up 15% from last year. (Because they pay in advance and are fully "hosted" while in Cuba, he says, their trips are legal.)

Call a Tijuana travel agency, and your itinerary may soon be in hand. Agencies such as Taino Tours now sell round-trip nonstop tickets on Tijuana-Havana charter flights for $531 to $634. Taino reservations agent Daniel Herrera estimates that 80% of his sales are to Americans. (In addition, Mexicana Airlines offers regular Tijuana-Havana connections, which cannot be booked from the U.S.)

Or fly to Cancun. There, the travel agency Divermex books Cuban holidays that begin with a three-day, two-night Havana trip for $200. At the international airport's Cubana Airlines desk, a ticket agent estimates that one in 10 passengers on Cancun-Havana flights carries American passports.

Thinking of these various American routes into Cuba, I take a waterfront stroll one afternoon at Havana's Marina Hemingway. As I go, I count the American flags on visiting vessels. Once I get to 12, I retreat to Papa's Bar, where three American men sit sipping beers.

"Here's a question," says Peter George Weilerbacher, 53, of Ramrod Key, Fla. "If we live in a democracy and we're a free people, what's our government doing telling us we can't do this and we can't do that?"

It's a rhetorical question, because he and his buddies are in the same boat. They arrived 14 days ago in a 27-foot vessel and have traveled from one end of the 750-mile-long island to the other. They say their visit is legal because they arrived fully provisioned and they're being hosted by the marina management.

"Cuba is good, but ever since Fidel let 'em have dollars, it's not cheap anymore," says a white-bearded Daytona Beach man who goes by Jaime. Before he came, adds Jaime, he did "no soul-searching whatsoever." A nod of agreement from Weilerbacher.

The third member of their crew is Ronnie Metcalfe, a 58-year-old Key West man with the creased face of a career sailor. Next to him sits a silent Cuban woman, 21, sipping a Coke. It's unclear how much English she speaks.

"I've been here three times," says Metcalfe. "I met this girl, and she's beautiful, and attractive, and I'm in love with her whole family. They treat me like a king."

I didn't find any travelers on my trip who were ready to stand and defend Castro's record. But some sympathetic observers do point out that since taking over from the previous repressive dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Castro has raised literacy rates to a level matching the U.S. and reduced infant mortality levels, now nearly on a par with the U.S. In the view of many, Castro won a major public-relations victory in November, when Pope John Paul II agreed to visit Cuba in January 1998.

These points aren't much appreciated among the 1.5 million Cuban-Americans whose families fled to this country amid Castro's revolution. For Cuban-American leaders, the embargo is the best tool this nation has against a desperate and wily enemy who has, among many injustices, seized private assets worth billions of dollars, executed enemies and proscribed personal liberties of 11 million residents. The State Department calls Castro a sponsor of terrorism, and the Amnesty International human rights group reports more than 600 political prisoners on the island.

On certain facts, however, Cuba's enemies and friends can agree: Throughout the tumult of the revolution, Cuba has continued to produce the world's best cigars, along with some of its best rum and most appealing music. Add to this combination a population with a reputation for open sexuality, and you have a recipe for boycott trouble--especially when that target is 90 miles from American shores.

*

One evening in Havana, my driver takes me to a paladar in the quiet, leafy, dark Playa neighborhood. The driver nods to a bearded man at the garden gate, and I am led to a residential courtyard also known as La Cocina de Lilliam. Amid the drooping ferns, white wrought-iron furniture and a statue of Venus, I take a seat and a menu. I am the only diner. Classical music plays on an old hi-fi, and during a lull I notice the hum of a gas-powered generator. The neighborhood's power is out. For blocks around, all is dark and silent but for the yapping dogs, and here I sit amid these rustic amenities, waiting for my $6.50 lamb special.

When the mother-daughter service team brings it out, the meat is tough and the meal is adequate at best, but given the island's chronic outages and shortages, it seems a sort of triumph.

By the time my flan dessert comes, the neighborhood power has been restored and the bearded man has led back a jovial party of eight from Saskatchewan, Canada. Multiple bottles of wine are ordered. Our hosts grin broadly, their enterprise now functioning at nine-twelveths of its legal capacity.

The beaches, the architecture, the cigars and the rum have their drawing power, to be sure, but moments like this are another reason some Americans visit Cuba: to meet and encourage people who have endured much, and will probably endure much more, with resilience and grace.

But the marriage of economic desperation and booming international tourism has brought unwholesomeness too.

Every night in Central Park, between Havana's Plaza and Inglaterra hotels, prostitutes prowl for clients, hissing or hollering for attention in imperfect English. Most of the hookers and hustlers look too young to drink in the U.S, and though they are theoretically banned from hotel lobbies, they find their way in and soon are seen in the bars, casually laying hands on the thighs of Englishmen, Italians and Americans they've just met. Cubans call the young women jineteras, or jockeys.

One evening in the Havana Plaza Hotel's lobby, I watch a scene worthy of an old B movie: As a tourist in his 30s waits for an elevator, a raven-haired woman in a burgundy dress casts a probing glance and brushes past him, whispering, "Amor? Amor?"

Beyond straightforward prostitution, the current climate has lent a commercial edge to many social contacts between Cubans and foreigners. To put it more bluntly, there are an awful lot of affluent 50-year-old foreigners successfully courting 20-year-old Cubanas. I didn't go looking for this, but of the dozen Americans I found and interviewed in Cuba (almost all men), about half told me they were pursuing romantic relationships with Cubans.

*

On my last full day in Havana, I make the pilgrimage to the most genuine of the old Hemingway haunts: His house in the town of San Francisco de Paula, bought in 1940, left behind in 1960, now converted into a museum. It's not hard to see how the writer could have come to Cuba, bought this land and stayed for decades. Thumbing through the guest book, between the names of visiting diplomats and European tourists, I find the signatures of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who visited in February 1996 and drew an eagle) and actor Matt Dillon.

Peering in the windows of the old house, I make the acquaintance of Thomas F. Helms Jr., New York-based president of the National Tobacco Co., and Alberto Van Der Mije, another New Yorker. Helms is here to join in a 30th anniversary party for the celebrated Cohiba cigar brand and is a guest of the Cubans. As a Cuban-American, Van Der Mije is entitled to one visit a year.

Van Der Mije says he's given up guessing how long the American embargo will last, but he has noticed the many Americans finding their way in.

Also peeking in the Hemingway windows is a third American, fifty-ish. Call him Herbert. He is a repeat visitor but not the kind the U.S. government smiles upon. Why does he come? Well, the culture and landscape are extraordinary, he says. And he's met this wonderful young woman in Jaguey . . .

Seven days after my entrance into Cuba, I fly out to Cancun, then back to Los Angeles, where customs officials await. I reach for my business card to explain my itinerary, but there's no need. The lines are long, as usual, and no one from U.S. Customs or any other agency asks if I've been anywhere but Mexico. Chalk up another American journey to Cuba: informative, entertaining and off the books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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