The Lost City of Havana: America’s first look at Cuba in over 50 years

By Emily Betz

August 31, 2016 marked a momentous day in United States history: it was the first time in over 50 years that a U.S. flight flew directly into Cuba.

After just a short 51 minute flight from Fort Lauderdale, Jetblue flight 387 landed in Santa Clara. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, along with many Cuban-Americans visiting home for the first time in many years, disembarked to crowds of people holding both Cuban and American flags.

Cuba has always held an appeal to the people of the United States. In the 1950’s it was as the party spot filled with bars, strip clubs and casinos. Now it holds a mysterious allure, a country frozen in time since October 19, 1960. It’s taken almost two years of work for relations between the two countries to be restored, but now anyone can take a direct flight to the long lost country. Well—as long as it falls under the 12 reasons for allowed travel listed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets control.

I flew out of John F. Kennedy Airport to Mexico City on Aug. 1, and after an eight hour layover, flew to Havana, Cuba. With relations on their way to being restored, I wanted to be among the few Americans to experience the country before it became changed by the influx of American tourists that are sure to come with the increased accessibility of travel.

Tourism is not included among the 12 sanctioned reasons for travel to Cuba. I traveled on the basis of journalism.

Though there are fewer hoops to jump through to get there now with direct flights, there are still many complications Americans face upon arrival. As of now, the Cuban government does not accept American debit or credit cards, which means Americans have to travel with all the cash they need for the entirety of their trip. They also can expect to pay a 10 percent fee when exchanging American currency into CUC’s or convertible pesos. As for cell phone service, you won’t find any for your U.S. phone and if you want a wifi card you can expect to wait for hours online, and $5 only gets you an hour of service in the few designated wifi spots. Car rentals need to be booked months in advance as quantities are limited, and transportation is unreliable at best as I found out stranded on the side of Route 1 for hours when our taxi stopped to cool down its engine and pick up more tourists. But all of this is to be expected, and will hopefully improve over time as the country adjusts to the increase in tourism, which from the United States alone rose 77% this last year.

In his first presidential speech on Cuban soil, President Barack Obama said “Cuba, you should take ideas, steal ideas from wherever you see something working. There are some economic models that just don’t work and that’s not an ideological opinion on my part. That’s just the objective reality.”

Over the years, the United States has tried many forceful tactics to help Cubans overturn the Castro regime. However, restoring relations and attempting to seduce Cubans to want to fight for their own freedom and entrepreneurship is a first. Obama looks to be hoping to use the United States as something of a big brother leading Cubans away from the Castro regime on their own accord.

In my travels I had the opportunity to talk to many locals and ask how they felt about the changes in their government, and about the opening of flights sure to bring American tourists. Though many were careful not to say too much, due to laws preventing speaking badly about the government, those who spoke expressed excitement and hope about the changes to come. One of the hosts I stayed with at a Casa Particulares proudly exclaimed that we were his “first Americans. First of many I hope.”

This is the first time in decades Cubans have been allowed to own their own business, or even hold currency, giving them more control over a previously government-decided income. Most of the cab drivers I met were previously employed as everything from doctors to teachers, but quit their professions to work in the tourism industry—where I was told they make as much as five times what the government pays doctors. And though the government still does take heavy cuts out of Cubans’ profit, tourism is allowing them opportunities they didn’t have before.

Cuba is in for some big changes as they adjust to the increased tourism, changing government legislation, and an ended embargo. And I would encourage anyone up for a challenge to go see it first hand. Because although experiencing the real Cuba isn’t all pina coladas and pristine beaches, witnessing the country now feels like watching a child takes its first steps.

And it truly is everything that has been whispered about over the years, taking a walk down the malecon or a drive in a 1940’s Chevy convertible, dancing salsa in Casa de Musica—oh and drinking mojitos, of course.

But I wonder how much of it will survive the changes Cubans are so excited about, as the country begins to thaw and push forward towards a more government independent future. As the European couple I met in Trinidad said, “Let’s hope the Americans don’t ruin it.”1

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