The trip thus far had been a lot of fun, but not all that exotic. I guess Belize is a destination not that many have visited, but since we missed out on the diving there, it's hard to view it as a highlight of the trip. Cuba certainly qualifies as a world-class point of interest.
One thing a lot of people wonder is whether it isn't illegal to go to Cuba for American citizens. We were asked this question repeatedly, especially by Europeans. It isn't illegal for Americans to go there, as I understand it, but it is illegal for them to spend any US currency there. In our case, since we were planning on taking an expensive airplane in, Steve had done considerable homework to secure a license from the State Department to go to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. We were delivering medical supplies and other important items to a Jewish Synagogue there. We each received a nice letter from the State Department authorizing our visit, which we were very glad to have when it came time to deal with US customs on the return trip.
As an aside, we met a number of people who were in Cuba without authorization. Their basic modus operandi was to fly out of Cancun like we had, or in some cases Canada, and simply spend cash in Cuba. The Cubans are wise to this and welcome it. You must have your passport to gain entry, but they do not stamp it, providing you with a visa card instead that gets the stamp. If you spend cash, and your American credit cards won't work there anyway, there is no record of a visit ever having been made. I don't know that I would want to go there bad enough to try this subterfuge, but many have done so successfully and just never admitted they were in Cuba.
Our visit started out a little bit rocky. We waited in Cozumel to receive final clearance to take our airplane into Cuba. By the time we were delayed a second day and couldn't get a clear answer from the Cubans whether they meant to approve us, it became clear we would have to take matters into our own hands if we were to get there with enough time to actually make the visit worthwhile. It was clear there was no way of telling when the Cubans might get back to us.
After considering the options, I suggested we fly the plane to Cancun and just go into Cuba on a commercial flight. This turned out to be incredibly easy, and we were soon on our way!
Bob and Rich Eagerly Waiting to Go to Havana!
Actually, not so soon. It took about an hour and a half for Steve to talk the Aerocaribe people into granting us his Travel Agent rate for air fare. In this case, it was well worth it as we got the tickets for 1/2 price. The flight was short and professional, and we arrived in Havana at about 11 PM that night. We had secured "handlers" to deal with the Cuban authorities for us, and they really helped out. After a passport check with the stern Cuban immigrations official, we basically had it on easy street. We were whisked off to a VIP lounge while the handlers dealt with the rest. The lounge had nice leather sofas and a refrigerator full of beer and soft drinks.
Tres Amigos Wait in the Havana VIP Lounge...
All was well until and we were on our way out of the terminal when the authorities snagged Steve. Rich and I were pushed out the door with most of the baggage, but Steve was detained. It turns out they had spotted an Iridium satellite phone in his luggage and wanted to have a little chat. This is at 11 at night, Rich and I are outside with the cab driver, the handlers can't tell us anything, and we're frankly getting pretty worried. We talked to a Cuban-American woman who was there to visit relatives and she painted the worst possible picture. She hates the Castro regime and had us thinking Steve was undergoing the rubber gloves and cattle prod treatment. According to her, they had just confiscated a VCR she was bringing into the country as a Father's Day gift because Cubans are not allowed to have VCR's. The handlers were not very helpful, and when pushed simply said, "He's with the military, we don't know how long it will be, so why don't you guys just go to the hotel and get some rest?"
Not wanting to abandon our compadre in this dire situation, we stuck it out at the airport. Finally, after 3 hours, Steve emerged looking tired but triumphant. They had searched everything he had with a fine-toothed comb. They read and translated every bit of text they found including every page of his trip diary, flying records and receipts, and a copy of USA Today he was carrying. They questioned him at length about what he was doing in Cuba, why he needed everything he had, what he did for a living, who all his relatives were, what they did for a living, etc., etc. Most of this was done in broken English and Spanish, but Steve just kept smiling and answering the questions. Finally, they took the satellite phone, his Motorola walkie talkies, gave him a receipt, and turned him loose.
All material © 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.