Traveling to Cuba can be one of those life transforming experiences. Here we present some practical information to help make that a reality. If you are not subject to US law, skip this next section.
For US Citizens or Residents – US Law
To go down legally, even if you are not a US citizen but a resident, however temporary, you need a Treasury license, which you obtain from OFAC, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. If you are Cuban-American or married to one, you can go down once a year under a “general license” for humanitarian reasons (grave illness in the family, etc) and you only need to notify them via a form, but you do not need to get a license from them before leaving. If you are a “U.S. and foreign government official traveling on official business, including a representative of international organizations of which the U.S. is a member; or a journalist regularly employed by a news reporting organization,” you also qualify for this “general license.” Otherwise you need to get a license from OFAC to avoid being at risk for large fines. Check out http://travel.state.gov/cuba.html
There is a surprising number of categories which qualify for a treasury license: full time students, musicians, dancers, anyone going down for professional reasons, journalists, and so on. Treasury tends to encourage group travel and frowns on individual researchers, which makes you wonder who is the collectivist here….
In all the years of the travel restrictions, very few people have been prosecuted. The Office of
Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department recently said there have been only 16 criminal prosecutions for nine violations since 1983. Nine of the cases have been in the past three years.
Many folks have gone down openly without a license. The penalties on record are stiff: $750,000 fine and up to 10 years in the pen, but until failry recently fines have been minimal.
There has been a recent disturbing trend in ’97 and continuing into ’98: high fines for persons unfortunate enough to be caught without a license, typically when they go through customs with Cuban products they are bringing back, but sometimes through more mysterious means. Fines, which in ’97 averaged around $1,000, are now going up to $6,000 and $7,000 and in one case to $30,000! Traveler, beware! The situation has gotten to the point where people are getting together to create a legal defense organization to defend the right to travel.
Note that Cuban Americans and Americans who are married to Cubans have a general humanitarian license to go down once a year in case of a grave problem such as a serious illness in the family. This license, unlike other licenses, is not one the recipient actually needs to apply for and have physically in hand, though they are responsible for notifying Treasury of their departure through a Treasury form.
Others who apply for a license they need to receive in their hands are subject to resource scarcities within Treasury, the body that grants licenses. Be warned that licenses may not come or may come too late for travel if you don’t give yourself plenty of lead time and put in for a date ahead of the one you need. Also note a recent disturbing trend of denying more of these licenses than has been the case in the past, possibly due to pressure from the Miami Cubans, who are incensed when Americans travel to Cuba.
We do not recommend going through the Bahamas. US Customs there have been known to confiscate religious objects. When you travel via Cancun, you pass customs in the US. Via Canada, you pass US customs in Canada, but they are more civilized. Do not bring cigars back, they are very illegal… and if you’ve been bad and have asked the Cubans and the Mexicans not to stamp your passport (bribing the Mexicans $20), then be sure to tell the truth if the customs agent asks you where you’ve been. It is a worse sin (a felony) to lie to a federal officer than to go to Cuba without a licence.
Excess baggage: the regulations on this vary from airline to airline. Generally, anything over 44 pounds (20 kg) is considered excess. Cubana is among the strictest, and will even refuse to take on excess bags or charge $7 a pound. Mexicana is among the most generous, charging only $1 a pound.
Cuban Law, Cuban Visas, & Security
Tourist visas for anyone, American or not, as long as you were not born in Cuba, are easy to obtain and come as a part of your travel package when you buy your ticket. Visas for journalists and researchers declared as such are a separate matter and require an application to the Cuban Consulate in your country (Washington, DC for the US). Cuban Americans born in Cuba also need to get special permission as they are viewed with somewhat more suspicion.
Be sure to understand some essentials of Cuban law. You will need to have a hotel room arranged in Cuba before you get there, or at least have one to declare to Imigracion when you arrive. You can stay at a friend’s house or a licensed private boarding house, but we suggest you do that only if they have cleared the way for it. Cuban citizens can be fined $1,000 (a fortune in Cuba) for having a foreigner as an overnight guest if they themselves don’t 1) get permission from Imigracion or 2) pay $100/month or more for a license. This fine can be doubled if not paid in 30 days, after which they go to jail at the rate of $1/day. Cubans can get permission to have a foreign friend stay at their house, but this requires that they go and declare you with Imigracion and you will need to go and show your passport.
Note for Americans: in order to stay at a friend’s house in Cuba, you may officially need, in addition to your visa, a special A2 permit which can only be obtained in advance from the Cuban Consulate in Washington, DC, though it remains unclear if this is really true, or if it is, how widely the law is understood even by authorities in Cuba. This visa is de facto only available to those traveling with a valid Treasury license since anyone contacting the Cuban Consulate will be logged in by the US. Cuban officials explain that this is because they are in a virtual state of war with the US and need to maintain their vigilance. If as an American, you do not obtain this permit and stay in a private Cuban house, you may be exposing that person to fines. This law is not always strictly enforced, especially in Havana, but the risk of penalties are there. Update (3/99): more officials in Cuba seem to be saying that, even as an American, you can get permission to stay in a private home down there, though that varies, as some will say that it only applies to blood relatives, except in the case of a licensed boarding house.
Once in Cuba, be aware that some Cubans are eager to hustle you and that this can be severely punished – prostitution can get the woman 5 years in jail and, under the new laws, 20 years for the pimp. There is a crackdown under way and all kinds of informal street vending are being punished by fines and jail time. Ordinary Cubans walking the streets with foreigners are automatically subject to a check on ID papers to the point where many Cubans refuse to walk with foreigners as they could be fined if their papers are not in order. For the current state of the streets, check out the Chismes sections.
In general, Cuban police lean over backwards not to molest tourists since they are dependent on tourism for income.
Personal security on the island is in general quite good. Until recently, crime was little known. That is changing with the continued economic hard times and we have seen a rise in crime which reached dangerous levels in certain areas such as Old Havana (Habana Vieja) and parts of Santiago, where purse snatchings and muggings have been common. Because of this, there is now extra vigilance by the police who have taken to asking for IDs a lot more frequently and crime has gone down. Such ID checks are common in tourist and high visibility areas such as the Malecon along the Havana shore. It is less common in non-tourist areas. There are recent changes in the penal code which drastically increase prison sentences, though prisoners are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences unlike say in the US where parole is increasingly not part of the picture. Already a Cuban can get a jail sentence of up to 70 years for fighting with or attacking a tourist. Even so, best to consult local Cubans on what are the safe areas and what aren’t. However, with the recent crackdown, folks report that foreigners feel they can walk the streets again…
The level of crime even in the worst places is probably not even comparable to US levels, though hard numbers are hard to come by. Many Cubans are in fact supportive of the current crackdown as there is a tremendous personal fear triggered by a few murders. They have nothing to compare this to, and are unaware that their murder rate is far, far less than what can be experienced in any major US city.
Credit cards, including Visa/MasterCard, and travelers’ checks are recognized in Cuba so long as they are not from a US bank. This is not Cuban law, but American! The US dollar is recognized everywhere and travellers need not change into pesos.
Travelers coming from the USA will typically have to pay hotel bill in $US cash, since no US based travelersâ€™ checks or credit cards can be accepted. However, if you travel through a third country, you can buy travelers’ checks there before getting into Cuba, such as Thomas Cook checks, and they will be recognized in Cuba.