Getting to Cuba

How does an American travel to the forbidden island?
| By Our Man | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01
Getting to Cuba

So, you want to go to Cuba. Believe it or not, you have the blessing of the U.S. government -- as long as you don't spend any money while you're there. Confused? You're not alone.

"Something to clarify is that there is no restriction on traveling to Cuba," says Zach Mann, spokesman for U.S. Customs in Miami. "It's the expenditure of money that the restrictions are on. So we don't dissuade anyone from traveling. You're encouraged to go anywhere in the world that you want, as long as it's safe for you and your family, and if there are regulations that control spending, as is the case with Cuba, that you follow those regulations in accordance with the law."

You can go there, but you can't buy so much as a mojito unless you have a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. These licenses are usually restricted to journalists, religious, educational or cultural groups and Cuban-Americans with families still in Cuba. (Visit or for details.) For everyone else, you have to find another route.

Americans who go to Cuba with a license from the U.S. government have the added pleasure of being allowed to buy Cuban cigars and bring them back to the United States -- just not very many. The Treasury Department allows licensed U.S. travelers who go directly to and from Cuba to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban goods. In a Havana cigar shop, that's enough for a box of petit coronas, or maybe something a bit larger. (You can buy a few boxes on the street for that price, but odds are excellent that they'll be counterfeits.) The $100 rule applies only to direct travel between Cuba and the United States. If you stop in a third country, or purchase Cuban goods in a third country (say, Canada), you cannot bring any Cuban products into the United States.

The law prohibiting the importing of Cuban cigars has existed for decades, but many cigar smokers remain confused over its details; a common misperception is that it's legal to import up to 100 Cuban cigars, and that they can come from any source country. The answers are no, and no. Customs has a Cuban cigar update on its Web site restating how the U.S. embargo against Cuba affects the importation of Cuban cigars.

One of the more controversial, but legal, means of traveling to Cuba is on a "fully hosted" basis, which falls under the OFAC's general license provisions. A fully hosted trip is when a person goes to Cuba without spending any money there. An American's port charges, taxes, hotel bill and such must be paid entirely by an entity that is not subject to U.S. law, and no indirect payments are allowed, meaning that you can't send money to someone who then uses it to pay for your expenses in Cuba. Such visitors must travel to Cuba via a third country and cannot use their own funds for airline or cruise tickets if the plane or ship is controlled by a Cuban entity, such as Cubana de Aviacion. They are also prohibited from spending any of their own money while in Cuba, with one exception: they may buy and bring back to the United States an unlimited value of artwork and informational materials, such as books, magazines, music recordings, films and posters.

While fully hosted travel to Cuba is permitted, the U.S. government is taking a more skeptical view of such trips, according to John S. Kavulich II, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit group based in New York City. In the past, fully hosted travelers were assumed to be in compliance with the OFAC regulations. Today, such travelers are required by Customs to produce receipts showing that all expenses incurred in Cuba were paid by someone not subject to U.S. law, and to submit a signed letter confirming this fact upon their return to the United States.

More Americans go to Cuba than you might think. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the OFAC reported that about 82,000 individuals subject to U.S. law traveled from the United States to Cuba, legally, on charter flights originating in Miami and New York. At least 22,000 Americans went to Cuba without authorization in 1999, though some experts estimate the total was much higher. From 1994 to 1999, the number of illegal travelers rose sharply, from 19 percent to 21 percent per year; for 1999 to 2000, the increase was closer to 15 percent, according to Kavulich.

U.S. laws notwithstanding, many Americans who travel to Cuba on the sly "misplace" a lot of the cash that they had before they left for Cuba. "It's really amazing, but every time that I've gone to Cuba, the money is in my pocket one minute, and the next minute it's just gone and I haven't spent a nickel," chuckled, winked and nodded one frequent visitor whose unique definition of "spend" has not gotten him in trouble,yet.

His friend and sometimes travel companion provided more clarity: "You cannot ever say that you spent one penny." But keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you if U.S. Customs asks you to show that you did not spend money in Cuba.

Ignorance of the regulations is common among unlicensed travelers, but it won't save your cigars if an agent finds them, says Customs spokesman Mann. They will be confiscated, or the agent will order you to break them up yourself -- in his presence, of course. And don't remove the labels and claim they're Dominicans. Customs considers unbanded cigars to be Cubans unless you can produce a receipt that proves otherwise.

Aside from the fate of your Cohibas, Americans who travel to Cuba also run the risk of more serious penalties under the Trading with the Enemy Act, including hefty fines of up to $250,000 for individuals, $1 million for corporations, and prison terms of up to 10 years. Although few offenders are ever penalized so severely, this magazine knows of two instances in which Americans were fined $2,500 and $5,000 for illegally visiting Cuba.

"Percentagewise, it's miniscule, the number of people that are prosecuted in any way, meaning that there's any kind of a settlement request," says Kavulich. "It's selective enforcement. The Customs agents are looking at drugs, firearms -- that sort of thing. Cigars and people traveling to Cuba are pretty far down on their list of priorities." However, according to the OFAC, there is a five-year statute of limitations on violations of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations under the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the agency has gone after some people two or three years after their trips.

If you are asked by a U.S. Customs or Immigration agent if you have visited countries other than the one from which you are returning to the United States, you are required by law to tell them the last six countries you visited, though not necessarily in order. So, if you took a whirlwind trip of the Caribbean and visited seven countries, including Cuba, you could, in a very technical legal way, leave Cuba out of your answer. But make sure you count correctly. It's a felony to lie.

Still want to go? If you can't get a Treasury Department license, here are some of the best ways to travel the "indirect" route.

By Sea

Want to travel to Cuba in the style of Hemingway? Call Bill Kieldsen, aka the Fishbuster. Kieldsen, like many boat captains in Key West, Florida, will make the 100-mile run between the Keys and Cuba's Marina Hemingway in about five hours. "They lay out the red carpet there," he says. "They're rolling cigars right in the marina."

Trips like these are legal because boat operators call them "recreational," say several South Florida charter companies. Translation: you're not allowed to pay someone for the privilege of taking you by boat to Cuba. Legalese aside, insiders say these charters will run you about $1,000 to $1,500 per trip.

The process is fairly simple. Boat owners clear a trip to Cuba with the U.S. Coast Guard, providing a passenger list about a week in advance of a trip. "They just don't want any felons going," explains Kieldsen. Every passenger has to carry a passport. When the boat docks in Cuba, the party begins.

"The catch-22 is you're not supposed to spend any money," says Kieldsen, who has been making the trip for about five years. He says he takes three or four trips to Cuba a year.

Take a boat to Cuba, and a search by the Cubans is a rarity,Kieldsen recalls one trip in which Cuban authorities sent dogs onto the boat to sniff for drugs before letting the passengers depart. Getting scrutinized by the U.S. Coast Guard upon your return, however, is all but guaranteed. Don't go by boat if you're even thinking about bringing back cigars.

"They all get searched on the way home," says one Key West boat owner, who asked to remain anonymous. "They have a blimp here that monitors [traffic between the U.S. and] Cuba. It's called Fat Albert."

Many charter boats refuse to take the trip because of insurance problems. "We won't allow our boats to go over there. Insurance does not cover you," says Vanessa Linsley, manager of Florida Yacht Charters and Sales Inc., a Miami charter operation with an office in Key West.

"You gotta get somebody with a $200,000, $300,000 boat that doesn't have a problem if something goes awry, 'cause you got no insurance over there," says a former skipper. "See, if your boat catches fire and sinks when you're within that 12-mile limit [off the Cuban shore, the legal boundary of Cuban-controlled waters around the island], you're not covered. Of course, there are companies that will insure you and your boat, but it'll cost $5,000 and up for one round trip."

If you enjoy fishing, want to see a sunny part of Cuba, and don't mind spending several hours on choppy water, this way of getting to Cuba might be for you. But if you're looking to hit the streets of Havana for some R and R, taking a charter the 90 miles across the Straits of Florida isn't so appealing.

Cruises are a more luxurious way of going to Cuba by boat. Near the end of last year, you may have seen some ads in the Sunday travel section of your newspaper announcing such cruises. One company, Toronto-based Cuba Cruise Corp., was set to sail from Nassau, the Bahamas, but "telephone threats" reportedly led to the cruise being indefinitely postponed. Had the ship sailed in November, the company claimed that American citizens could have traveled to Cuba legally as fully hosted travelers because of the educational programs on Cuban history and culture given during the trip. (Despite the claims, the OFAC is studying the company with a skeptical eye.) During their stay in Cuba, guests would have been hosted by a Canadian nonprofit organization. Cuba Cruise advises that you can't "spend money in Cuba or purchase Cuban goods on the ship" or you will lose your "fully hosted status."

Before you start following the money trail of who's paying whom, if you're thinking of taking any kind of fully hosted trip to Cuba, check out the regulations. They are many and onerous if they get enforced.

By Air

Yes, there are direct flights between the United States and Cuba. To take one, you must first obtain a license from the Treasury Department. You also need a visa from the Cubans, which you can get at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. Bring a letter stating your purpose for traveling to Cuba, and a photocopy of your passport.

If you meet all the criteria, the easiest thing to do is contact a travel agent approved by the OFAC. Caribbean Family & Travel Services is the largest agency organizing flights between Miami and Cuba, representing about half of all flights through its charter company, C&T. The company has eight offices throughout South Florida, with its main branch in Coral Gables (305-445-8799). It also works with close to 50 other agencies in Florida organizing charters and daily flights to Havana and Camaguey.

Another authorized travel service provider is Tico Travel in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida ( As of mid-March, daily flights from Miami to Havana cost $329 round trip. (All fares are as of press time and subject to change.) Weekly flights from LAX in Los Angeles and from New York's JFK airport run about $670 round trip. Airlines running flights originating from Miami require a five-day stay.

Flying to Cuba might seem to take a little longer if you don't go directly from the United States, but the process may be easier, even if you won't be able to make your arrangements (booking, purchasing, etc.) in the United States. Keep in mind you also won't be able to use a U.S. bank-issued credit card to pay any Cuban-owned company.

Generally, if you fly from somewhere in North America, you can get your visa from a travel agent or the airline itself. Such is the case with flying from Cancún, Mexico, to Havana. The benefit of leaving from Cancún is that it's a nice place to visit in its own right and the flight takes only an hour. Mexicana Airlines operates AeroCaribe from Cancún and charges about $312 round trip. There are two trips per day.

But the biggest bonus of flying from Cancún might be that you can fly an airline other than Cubana de Aviacion, the Cuban national carrier. Flights on Cubana are about $100 less than on Mexicana, but Cubana flies aged Russian Ilyushin aircraft and has one of the worst airline safety records in the world.

Cubana also flies from Canada. The Havana-Montreal (Dorval airport) flight runs on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays for about $540 in coach and $935 for "tropical" or business class. You can fly from Toronto (Pearson airport) four times a week for about the same prices. A tourist card will cost you about $20 Canadian (about US$13). Flights take about four hours.

Tourist cards enable American visitors to Cuba to avoid having their passports stamped when they arrive at José Mart" airport in Havana. The Cubans will stamp your tourist card rather than your passport, keeping the red-flag Cuban stamp off your documents, a big plus when passing through U.S. Customs.

Other popular routes include via Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Air Jamaica flies from Montego Bay daily except Tuesdays for about $269 round trip. Flights from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, go to Havana via Panama City for about $500 round trip in coach. Flights from the Bahamas are so convoluted (Nassau to Miami to Cancún to Havana) that they're not worth the trip.

Travelers from Europe can fly to Cuba in style, leaving from most major European airports and flying on jumbo jets. British Airways flies to Havana from London Gatwick. There are Wednesday and Saturday flights, but at about $1,069 in coach, they're no bargain.

You'd do better flying Air France from Paris on Monday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday for $610 in coach. The return flights are Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Iberia will fly you daily from Madrid to Havana and back for $702 in coach, $2,493 in business class and $4,067 in first class. From Rome and Milan, you can take daily flights on Lauda Air Italia to Havana, Varadero and Cayo Largo for about $900.

Americans can also fly private planes to Cuba, but the process is more complicated than with commercial flights. Flying to Cuba in a private American airplane requires a temporary sojourn license from the U.S. Bureau of Export Administration, and clearance to land from Cuba's Institute of Civil Aviation (IACC). "Rarely is any flight denied" by the IACC, says Kavulich. (Just don't buy any gas when you get there.) He adds, however, that "it's not the norm. Most people go down on the charter flights or regularly scheduled flights from other countries."

As with the boat trip, if you're hoping to stuff your bags with Cuban cigars, the private plane ride probably isn't for you. What happens when Customs agents find the Bolivars stashed next to your boxers?

"Customs could fine the owner of the aircraft, the pilot in command and/or the flight crew members, even if they knew nothing about it," says Adam Johnson, manager for the international flight department of Jeppesen Data Plan Inc., a company that provides flight-planning services for companies such as Executive Jet. "In reality, Customs would bring the pilot and crew members in and interview them separately. But they could fine everyone on board the airplane and the owner of the aircraft." Johnson adds that such an event has never occurred with any of his company's aircraft.

We never said that getting to Cuba was going to be easy. But the difficulty in getting there is part of its appeal.


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