A few years ago I took a trip to Cuba with a friend. Like most people I didn't think you were allowed to go from the United States. The truth is it's not actually illegal to travel to Cuba if you're a U.S. Citizen, but you just aren't allowed to spend any money! That is unless you're a student, journalist or have family there. That's a tough one that I've never quite figured out-- how do you go somewhere without spending money? That would be interesting.
I happened to go legally with a visa and all. There are a couple of ways to get a visa and go to Cuba legally. One of them is Artistic and the other is Humanitarian. There may be others but these are the two I know of. There are certain groups that go over regularly for educational missions or to bring medical supplies and other items that are scarce but necessary in Cuba. Oftentimes, the leader of the group has family there and this is a way to go visit family. We met a guy while we were over there who did just that. Regularly he took people in groups of 10 - 12 people over to Cuba and they each would carry a certain amount of necessary supplies.
The other way is with an artistic visa, which is the one I had. My friend was a filmmaker and I happened to have helped him produce a small movie. I pretty much showed up and called people and wrangled actors, but I still produced work and thus I got credit as a producer. We went to the International Festival de Cine, which I came to learn is like the Cannes Film Festival of Central and South America. It was a big deal. We used this tour company which arranged tours like this to Cuba when the restrictions were more lax. After Sept '11th, things got considerably tighter and about 2004, I think the Bush Administration tightened things up and travels to Cuba dropped like a lead balloon. Things have gotten easier in recent years, as President Obama relaxed restrictions on travel to the caribbean Island. Anyway-- after filling out some paperwork, the tour company arranged everything including the visa. Come December we got on a chartered plane out of LAX, TACA Airlines, and headed for Havana. I thought that was cool. There's been all this mystery and hubub about Cuba since the Bay of Pigs and the U.S. Embargo was put in place. Here I was getting on a plane right in Los Angeles, destined for Havana!
We got there in the morning and it was wild. Cuba smells like a lot of third world countries. When you get off the plane there's a smell of petroleum-- like Diesel burning. I had the same experience getting of the plane in Cambodia. It's exciting and fun. It was also smoggy so the sky had this gray glow to it-- not a lot of environmental regulations there I guess. We went through customs quickly so I didn't notice until later that they had not stamped my passport. I was disappointed because I was hoping to cover my passport with at least two cool stamps from Cuba, which I could proudly show my friends. I found out by the end of the trip that the Cuban customs agents don't stamp U.S. Passports because they don't want American tourists to get a hard time from the U.S. State Department when they get home. I was determined to get a stamp on the way out as a badge of honor and I asked the agent to stamp it and she said, "No, no, you'll get trouble if I stamp it."
"I have a visa," I said. She smiled as if to say, "better not."
I shrugged it off, but I was kinda bummed. I discussed it with a Jean, a woman on my flight and she told me I was smart not to push the issue. She suggested that the next time I traveled anywhere outside the country, they'd look at my Passport and ask a bunch of questions about why I was in Cuba. At the time that sounded reasonable, but I still think even if a U.S. Customs agent asked and I said I went to the film festival it would be no big deal.
Be sure to stay tuned. I didn't even get to what happened in Cuba! It's so beautiful and I have so many photos which I will post in a series so check back.