New rules make travel to Cuba easier for Americans
Posted: Sunday, June 3, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:24 am, Fri Jun 1, 2012.
By Eric Lindquist Leader-Telegram staff
Cuba has an exotic reputation as an island nation known for aromatic
cigars, classic cars, spicy Latin dances and Fidel Castro-style communism.
But despite lying just 90 miles south of Florida in the Caribbean Sea,
Cuba has been mostly off-limits to American travelers since being put
under a U.S. economic embargo 50 years ago.
That began to change last year when President Barack Obama's
administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses
intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make
it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they
go with a licensed operator.
The opportunity was too good to pass up for Wayne and Carole Halberg of
the town of Washington, who long had dreamed of exploring Cuba.
When Carole received an email from National Geographic touting its newly
approved Cuban people-to-people tours, she told her husband, "I think we
need to go and we need to go soon."
Wayne immediately agreed, and they promptly booked a trip in January led
in part by renowned Cuban authority Christopher Baker.
They're lucky they acted fast because the tour was full within two
hours, and the pent-up demand for Cuban travel among Americans helped
National Geographic fill all of its trips for the year within two days.
"It was wonderful," Carole said of their nine-day vacation that was more
a cultural experience than a tropical island getaway. "It was a rare
chance to see something really authentic."
The people-to-people licenses require U.S. visitors to spend at least
eight hours a day learning about Cuban culture and also to keep a
journal and record all spending in the communist nation. The Halbergs
had plenty to write about, as their trip included visits to farms,
homes, schools, factories, art studios, natural areas and even the
historic Bay of Pigs.
"It's so amazing because Cuba hasn't had much Western industrialization,
so it's environmentally pristine," said Wayne, who considers himself
somewhat of a Cuba buff.
Wayne also is a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and thus treasured the
opportunity to visit the legendary author's house near Havana. Visitors
weren't allowed to enter but could explore the grounds, see Hemingway's
wooden boat and look in the home's open doors and windows.
As the Halbergs traveled through the countryside on tour buses, they
were amazed to see acres of former sugar cane fields left as fallow
land. Sometimes scenes seemingly from a bygone era, such as two men and
an ox trying to plow the earth, played out before their eyes.
And on those rural roads, the 23 tourists on the National Geographic
tour were as likely to cross paths with residents on ox carts or
bicycles as those behind the wheel of a car, Wayne said, noting
economically struggling Cuba has only one car for every 1,000 people.
That's one reason for a government rule that requires anyone driving a
truck who comes across someone standing by the road to stop and let him
or her ride in the back of the vehicle.
In Havana, classic American cars from the 1950s were everywhere and a
huge attraction for visitors.
"If a car breaks down, they fix it where it breaks," Carole said.
"They're masters at it; they're geniuses when it comes to fixing cars."
The Halbergs said their Cuban hosts were friendly and used to seeing
tourists, just not many from the United States, although some Americans
for years have dodged travel restrictions by flying to Cuba from other
countries, such as Canada or Mexico.
But their openness disappeared when the subject of politics arose.
"The people are very restrained about expressing their opinions because
they don't know who's listening. They don't even say Castro's name; they
just do this," Wayne said, pretending to rub a long beard. "The bearded
These glimpses at life in a modern communist society were part of the
appeal of the trip for the Halbergs, who came away impressed by the
country's high average level of education and world-class health care
but sympathetic to citizens who receive a ration card once a month
entitling them to about 10 to 12 days worth of food and basic supplies
from government-owned stores with extremely limited choices.
"They're on their own for the rest," Carole said, adding the government
also provides every child with a birthday cake until age 14 and all
marrying couples with a bottle of rum, a case of beer and a wedding cake
for their nuptials.
The average monthly salary of a Cuban is $18, according to National
For Carole, the trip also was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps
of her grandfather, who visited Cuba a century ago and bought 20 acres
of land for $500. She still has a copy of the handwritten deed (in
Spanish) for the land, which was surrendered to the government after
Castro came to power in 1959, as well as postcards and photos he sent.
When she asked the tour guides about the land purchase, she was told it
was something many early visitors to Cuba were talked into but something
akin to the classic con of "buying swampland in Florida."
Considering Cuba's leadership is mostly elderly and changes appear
imminent, the Halbergs are glad they made the trip when they did so they
could seemingly step back in time and experience old Cuba.
They clearly are not alone, as Cuba is a hot destination for Americans
unsure how long the people-to-people licenses will remain available. The
high level of interest prompted both the Eau Claire Area Chamber of
Commerce and the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association to offer trips this
The chamber tour is sold out, as many participants viewed it as a rare
"These licenses are only good for one year, so these tour companies may
never get this opportunity again," said Bob McCoy, chamber president,
who is going on the trip this month. "Even if Cuba eventually opens up
more, it would be a different experience. No one will see it like we're
going to see it."
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or