Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Cuba Now?

Because we can.

"Is it legal now?'' is the question most people ask when I tell them that Tom and I are planning a trip to Cuba. The short answer is "yes,'' with lots of strings attached.

The nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade and financial embargo against Cuba is still in effect, meaning Americans can't just (legally) book a flight and go on a whim. But effective last January, the U.S. government loosened restrictions to allow citizens to take educational or cultural tours with travel providers licensed under a new "people to people'' provision that allows for legal travel.

Many tour companies are jumping on the bandwagon, some offering trips with interesting themes. Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel, for instance, has a trip coming up on Jewish Cuba.

We'll be traveling with San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a nonprofit human rights organization operating under a slightly different type of a license that allows for trips focused on professional research.

Its  "Reality Tours'' focus on socially responsible, educational themes aimed at building understanding through travel. We're not generally a fan of group travel, but  for now, this is the way most Americans will experience Cuba, and Global Exchange is a veteran organization with a track record of providing tours that go beyond the usual sightseeing. 

The theme of our trip is "Arts, Culture and Architecture,'' but as you might guess, we'll delve into much more, including music, food and everyday life. Hopefully, we'll come back in a position to share a good Mojito recipe as well as insight and photos into a country just 90 miles from Miami, so seemingly foreign to many of us, yet very familiar to Canadians, Europeans and others who travel there freely.

One of the advantages of going on a professional research trip (Global Exchange offers a variety, including trips focused on sustainable agricultural, jazz and health) is that we can stay on for a while on our own after the tour ends. We'll use that time to go by bus to Vinales, a mountain village about three hours away from Havana that's been preserved as a Unesco site, then back to Havana. In both places, we'll stay in casa particulares - people's homes. 

As you might have read, Raul Castro has been loosening economic restrictions,  while preserving the Communist system that's been in place since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. 

The average Cuban earns a wage the equivalent of about $20 per month in Cuban pesos (CUPs) in return for a place to live, health care, education and basic foods, but for most anything else - fashionable clothes, a washing machine, construction materials to repair homes, good coffee, a drink or meal at a nice restaurant - they need hard currency - basically dollars or euros converted to what's known as the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

How do you get CUCs? Relatives in the U.S. and other countries send millions of dollars each year to their families and friends. Those that don't receive remittances strive to earn CUCs any way possible. One way is to rent out rooms to tourists. People can rent up to two bedrooms in their homes to guests for an average $20 -$25 per night, operate small restaurants in their dining rooms and backyard or sidewalk businesses.

The government recently granted Cubans limited permission to buy and sell used cars and homes (previously the only way you could move was to trade your house for another), but that too, of course, will require access to hard currency. Understanding this two-tiered economy is difficult. Cubans are paid in pesos, but have to buy many of the things they may need or want in CUCs.

Why Cuba now?

Because it's changing fast. Once Fidel dies, it's hard to say what will happen next. 

Will Havana be the next Shanghai or Moscow with speculative high-rises and shopping malls financed by outside investors? That's a question author Peter Moruzzi poses in a book called "Havana before Castro'' that traces the city's architectural history, from Spanish colonial times through the first half of the 20th century. 

More importantly, what will happen to the people as the gap between the haves and have nots grows wider? 

All questions to ponder over the coming weeks as we explore Cuba.

First stop: Havana