The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled to Cuba as a student in a course focusing on sustainable agricultural systems. Why? Well, for many reasons, really: to practice my Spanish, to learn something (anything) about agriculture, to see a new country. I’ll be honest, though. There was really only one reason I had for choosing Cuba.
At that time, it was forbidden.
Travel to Cuba had effectively been banned for American citizens since the early 1960s, with few exceptions. Back in 2004, one exception applied to students, who could obtain short-term educational visas. So under the auspices of my university, I could legally visit Cuba.
Even with a backdoor way in, the general ban added an air of danger to the prospect of travel. Before I left, people gave me a lot of strange warnings. The provenance of these warnings still remains a mystery to me, as most of those who gave me advice had never actually been to Cuba. Some of it was typical travel-paranoia: carry your passport with you at all times (all Cubans want to steal American passports so they can escape); don’t ever get into a private vehicle (you might be kidnapped); avoid any public gatherings (they might turn into violent demonstrations against Castro, or the United States, depending on what way the winds are blowing that day).
All of my tentative well wishers did agree on one thing: whatever you do, don’t get sick there! Miami is only one hundred miles away, but arranging a med-evac flight would be an expensive logistical nightmare, but less of a nightmare, than say, visiting a Cuban hospital. (As I would later learn, healthcare in Cuba actually ranks extremely high in international indices, even ahead of the United States by some metrics.)
Another piece of advice came from a classmate whose grandparents fled the revolution in ’59. Though he had never been to Cuba himself, he told me that I should never talk about communism with anyone, under any circumstances. If a Cuban says that he or she actually likes Cuba, they are lying. No one could possibly like living in a communist state.
Perhaps the most bizarre piece of information I heard was from an American doctor who had actually been to Cuba on a medical “mission” trip. He told me conspiratorially, in a hushed voice, about the loudspeakers that blare propaganda and patriotic music all night long at ear-splitting volumes on the streets of Havana. Sleep deprivation, he assured me in all seriousness, is the government’s way of torturing its citizens and making them too tired to rebel. Did you know sleep deprivation is actually one of the most common forms of torture in the world?
I decided to dismiss all of this as nonsense, little more than hyperbolic urban legend borne of the forty-odd year blockade.
But part of me hoped these warnings were just a little bit true. The warnings promised danger, excitement, intrigue, a revival of Cold War era paranoia in an era of blasé internationalism. Despite its geographical proximity to the United States, Cuba was surely a world apart.
I decided that I would just have to see for myself.
But first, I would have to get there. Pursuant to the legalese of the “Cuban Assets Control Regulations,” which established the trade embargo in 1963, my visa cryptically stated that I understood that “the University’s license only authorizes travel-related transactions in connection with full-time educational activities and does not authorize transactions related to commercial or tourist-related activities while in Cuba.”
Actually, I didn’t really “understand” what the visa claimed I did. Apparently I’m allowed to spend money on “full-time educational activities” but not for “commercial” or “tourist-related” activities? Ok, so I’m allowed to “learn” insofar as I don’t spend any money while doing it, because buying things means that I am, however inadvertently, supporting the government of Fidel Castro. So, I can study but not live? But I’m staying at a hotel! Surely this qualifies as a “tourist-related” transaction! What about buying food? Is food anti-capitalist? Am I allowed to go to a museum, a restaurant (or the Havana nightclubs I’m wondering about)? Surely the officials at the State Department must know that their requirements are impossible?
With my double-speak visa in hand I left for Havana by way of Toronto. When we arrived at the Havana airport and shuffled towards customs, all of those hysterical warnings that I had written off as tall tales suddenly popped back into my mind. What am I entering into? Will I be ushered into a labyrinthine Soviet-style bureaucracy, with officials barking orders, ferreting out enemies of the state?
The people waiting at immigration didn’t seem too worried. Tanned men lit up cigarettes, puffing in public with a relaxed nonchalance I hadn’t seen in many years, and the humid air embraced us with the warmth and weight of an old friend.
When I got to the immigration counter, the officer took a look at my passport and asked me gently if I spoke Spanish. Sí, I said. Smiling, he stamped a small piece of paper, wrote the date on it, and slipped it into the passport, winking: “So you won’t have trouble getting back into your country.”