NEW ORLEANS — The island nation of Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, is a world away from most Americans because of some six decades of a United States embargo.
Travel is possible there, however, as we saw when Eyewitness News visited recently with a group of New Orleans musicians and students affiliated with the Trombone Shorty Foundation.
For most Americans visiting Cuba for the first time, it's like entering a time warp. When we traveled to Havana with the group of New Orleans musicians who were also experiencing this place for the first time, we all had a lot of preconceived notions and plenty of questions about what to expect.
No one summed it up better than Tarriona Ball, better known as Tank of the Grammy-nominated New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas.
“I’ll be honest with you, all I heard was that they still use a lot of old cars and they have old buildings,” she said. “They do, but the cars are beautiful, it’s amazing to see. The buildings are beautiful and old and I know a lot of it just looks like different parts of the world that I’ve been in and it also looks like nowhere in the world that I’ve been in.”
The first thing you notice, especially in Old Havana, is how much it reminds you of New Orleans’ French Quarter. There is a reason: New Orleans and Havana have had a long history together, as trading partners until the embargo was enacted in the 1960s. There’s also similar architecture and a heavy influence of Spanish and African culture. What’s more, music is the lifeblood of both cities.
“I think that's one of the most remarkable things for first-time visitors from the United States is seeing how warmly they’re received by Cubans,” said Collin Laverty with the group Cuba Educational Travel. “They love Americans, American culture, they look up to the U.S., not just in terms of the economy but in all aspects of life, obviously with their criticisms or their concerns about some things, but in general they love Americans and welcome them with open arms.”
Laverty, who is an authority on visiting Cuba, says coming here is not all that hard, but it can be complicated. American tourist travel to Cuba has not been allowed for decades, but he says there are ways to get around that.
“It's quite confusing. Tourism is prohibited. The only way to come here to Cuba is under one of 12 categories. That covers journalists, musicians, there’s a really broad one, called ‘support for the Cuban people,’ so as long as an American has a program where they are visiting religious establishments, community projects, interacting with private Cuban entrepreneurs, that’s considered supporting the Cuban people so it’s quite broad and quite easy to come here, actually,” Laverty said.
When President Obama eased relations with Cuba during the end of his second term, American visitors came in droves. That number dropped off when President Trump reversed the Obama policy and that, Laverty says, made things more complicated.
“With all the restrictions on the U.S. side, it drives the price up. It drives up confusion, concern about what’s legal and all of those things makes it harder and I think the losers are Americans who would love to be here,” Laverty said. “We have some great musicians from New Orleans that have so much in common historically and culturally with Cuban musicians and more of that should be happening. Certainly the Cubans that benefit greatly from visits from the U.S. are really losing out.”
But even with the restrictions, there is still a big draw to come here.
“People appreciate that Cuba is unique,” he said. “Whether you agree with the government, the economic system, political system or not, it certainly is, we’re 90 miles from the U.S. but in terms of being as far from the U.S. in terms of… we’re a million miles away,” he said.
AirBNB launched here in 2015 and that has made finding a place to stay in Cuba more accessible. According to U.S. rules, Americans are forbidden to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants that are controlled by the military, and that's a lot of places. But with the Cuban government opening up more opportunity for Cubans to own their own businesses, there are plenty of options.
Cuba is a poor country. Most Cubans work for the equivalent of less than $20 per month. But because Cuba allows people more opportunities for entrepreneurship, people do find ways to make extra money.
Many of the drivers of the old classic cars that are so prevalent do well. Our driver inherited his car, a 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88, from his father. Our guide Oscar, for instance, is a nuclear physicist, but only made $14 a month when he worked at a state-run hospital. This gig pays a lot more.
So if you're wondering which government makes travel here more of a hindrance, Cuba's or the U.S., it's kind of both.
“Anyone who lives here will tell you there’s a really tough bureaucracy that makes things hard to do, and because of the relationship with the United States, there’s a lot of sensitivity, so there’s challenges on both sides,” Laverty said.
“But I’d say for U.S. organizations, individuals that are interested in doing cultural programs, religious programs, the biggest challenge continues to be on the U. S. side, where banks are scared to death to do any transaction, even if it’s legal. All the red tape, the Treasury Department, the potential of a fine if you do violate the embargo, but I don’t want to scare people, it’s confusing but there’s a ton happening and it’s not that challenging when you do a little bit of homework.”
And that is important because you can't use credit cards here, it's cash only. Phone service is spotty and Cuba has the worst internet in all of the Americas. But it is an amazing place and there's a saying by repeat visitors: Nobody comes to Cuba just once.