Research in Cuba: Navigating Logistical Barriers
Smith, Jeffrey S., Collins, Charles O., Pettit, Jenny, The Geographical Review
In 1977 James Parsons remarked that many of us are geographers because the discipline gives us the latitude to explore the world around us and get to know at least one culture or environment other than our own. Fieldwork is central to many a geographer's mission. Geographers engage in fieldwork to obtain data otherwise unavailable, yet overcoming difficulties is par for the course. Sometimes the barriers are linguistic, or foreign cultural customs must be navigated. At other times the difficulties rest in gaining access to remote and inaccessible study sites, and on occasion large political hurdles must be surmounted. Given the current geopolitical climate, imagine the difficulty conducting fieldwork in Syria, Iran, or North Korea. Some researchers would add Cuba to that list.
Numerous scholars see Cuba as fertile ground for research on topics ranging from music, to religious syncretism, and even to baseball or quaternary studies of karst. Yet those same scholars balk at actually going to Cuba. A common perception is that the U.S. government forbids Americans to set foot on Cuban soil--or, if Americans are not forbidden to travel to the island, that the thick bureaucratic red tape makes such a trip impractical. The popular alternative is to travel through a third country and hope that one is not caught. Although a travel and export ban is indeed imposed on U.S. citizens, most of the negative perceptions are highly exaggerated. The purpose of this field note is to assist scholars who wish to navigate the complexities of legally traveling to Cuba for research.
UNITED STATES-CUBA RELATIONS
In the early 196os, as Fidel Castro and his cadre of revolutionaries consolidated power in Cuba, nationalized foreign-owned businesses, and sought to export the Cuban Revolution, tensions between the United States and Cuba escalated. On 20 October 1960, following eighteen months of mutual political grandstanding and heated rhetoric, the U.S. government imposed an export ban on most nonhumani-tarian goods to Cuba. After the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated to such an extent that the administration of President John F. Kennedy imposed travel restrictions on U.S. residents and citizens. Over the subsequent three decades Congress obliged U.S. presidents to renew the travel ban every six months. In 1977, under President Jimmy Carter, the administration let the ban lapse, but President Ronald Reagan reinstated it in 1982. Fourteen years later the U.S. government further clarified the export ban and travel restrictions. Although the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 does not actually prevent U.S. citizens and residents from traveling to Cuba, it prohibits unauthorized activities that benefit the Cuban government economically or commercially.
Within the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulates all travel between the United States and countries with strained diplomatic relations, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. According to OFAC documentation published in 2012--which excludes officials of the U.S. government--the following are authorized for travel-related transactions in Cuba: Cuban Americans visiting members of their immediate family; journalists; individuals engaged in humanitarian activities or cultural exchange programs; and full-time, professional researchers. In 2006 the U.S. Department of the Treasury started aggressively prosecuting individuals and businesses that violate the export and travel ban. As recently as 2009 the penalties ranged from fines of U.S.$250,000 to ten years in prison (Bellows 2009). Regardless of the party occupying the White House, travel between the United States and Cuba travel is strictly regulated, and trips for the sole purpose of pleasure or tourism remain illegal.
The official OFAC Web site provides an up-to-date document identifying permitted types of travel to Cuba under general and specific licenses (2012a). These "Com-prehensive Guidelines" are intimidating at best. For the uninitiated, trying to decipher the cryptic text can be exceedingly frustrating. Those who have traveled to Cuba know that the process is far less complex than it first appears. Drawing on our recent travel experience--December 2010-January 2011--we discuss three main topics: securing permission and preparing for travel to Cuba; navigating Cuban and U.S. immigration and customs; and practical information for researchers. Because legislation changes frequently, it is important for travelers to be familiar with the latest OFAC guidelines.
STEP ONE: START THE PROCESS EARLY
Over the past two years securing permission to travel to Cuba and acquiring a visa has become relatively straightforward, with fewer, albeit still some, unexpected wrinkles. The bigger concern is that, as more and more people travel from the United States to Cuba, competition for seats on airplanes and desirable hotel rooms is particularly stiff. Therefore, if you are going to Cuba you should begin to secure proper documentation and reservations at least three to four months prior to your trip. If you plan to travel during the "high season"--December to April, after the hurricane season ends and when temperature and humidity levels become more tolerable--your lead time should be six months.
In 2011 the administration of President Barack Obama announced that it was loosening travel restrictions to Cuba. The 14 January declaration now permits full-time students as well as cultural and religious groups to engage in travel-related transactions in Cuba (Peralta 2011; White House 2011). Moreover, President Obama sought to improve competition among charter companies by expanding the number of airports from which the flights may depart for Havana. U.S.-based charter flights now fly from Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas and Houston, Texas; Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana, as well as Miami (Reuters 2011) Even so, competition among Cuba-bound travelers remains high, especially with a historic number of Cuban Americans traveling to the island.
STEP TWO: IDENTIFY AN AUTHORIZED TRAVEL SERVICE PROVIDER
The OFAC Web site states that U.S. citizens and residents may make travel arrangements either privately or through an OFAC-authorized Travel Service Provider (TSP) (OFAC 20122). Yet, for many reasons, the single most important step in the process of traveling to Cuba is identifying a suitable TSP. The Web site provides an up-to-date list of authorized TSPS (OFAC 2012b). Numerous OFAC-authorized TSPS exist, but choosing one that is experienced, reliable, and prompt is imperative. We found that Distant Horizons, Inc., fully met our needs. Other recommended TSPS include Marazul Charters, Inc., and Tico Travel (Bellows 2009).
The TSP will screen and verify your eligibility for travel to Cuba, make necessary travel arrangements and reservations through the Cuban government, provide receipts and confirmation numbers, and prepay your airfare and hotel expenses so that you will not have to carry large sums of cash with you. The TSP will also provide the name of a local contact in case of problems.
Because the OFAC is underfunded and understaffed, the TSPS are much more than mere travel agencies. In fact, they are charged with primary responsibility for screening all applicants seeking to travel to Cuba. Currently, the OFAC does not grant pretravel permission under a general license, as it once did; rather, the office conducts a post-trip audit to ensure that travelers complied with regulations. If the TSP does not screen applicants properly, travelers may encounter legal problems during the OFAC audit, and the TSP may lose its license as an authorized provider. Learning that the process works in reverse was a revelation for us: The TSP screens travelers before their trip, but the OFAC verifies their eligibility after they return.
STEP THREE: WRITE YOUR LETTER OF ELIGIBILITY
Crafting a letter of eligibility is the next step in securing a general license. Research scholars or those attending a professional meeting fall under General License 31 [section]515.564(a), which authorizes "certain travel-related and additional transactions that are directly incident to full-time professionals conducting professional research in Cuba. ... Research requires a full work schedule of noncommercial, academic research that has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination and is in the traveler's professional area" (OFAC 2012a, 16).
To facilitate securing a general license, the letter of eligibility should appear on appropriate letterhead and consist of three main parts: a specific declaration of eligibility as a noncommercial academic, a detailed, full-time itinerary and work schedule accounting for all professional activities during your stay; and past publications and how your proposed research will lead to public dissemination of the information you will have learned.
STEP FOUR: FLY OUT OF MIAMI (ABC CHARTERS, INC.)
Regardless of which TSP is chosen, the vast majority of passengers who depart from Miami contract with ABC Charters, Inc. It is our understanding that flying to Havana from New York and Los Angeles is very similar (Bradshaw 2011). During the high season, when Cuban Americans visit family members, demand is high, and most flights are sold to capacity. Your TSP may have difficulty securing a seat on your preferred departure and return dates. This becomes a bigger concern when you are trying to coordinate flight schedules for a group.
Once ABC Charters has reserved departure and return seats, the company will require a separate affidavit verifying your eligibility for travel to Cuba. We found that contacting ABC Charters directly was exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, the TSP will serve as the communication link to ABC Charters. These are two more reasons why an experienced TSP is preferable.
STEP FIVE: SECURE ACCOMMODATIONS
In Cuba finding a place to stay is not difficult. Even the smallest towns have at least one hotel. At the other end of the spectrum, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and other major cities, as well as and tourist destinations such as Varadero, and Pinar del Rio, have ample accommodations, including some five-star hotels. Since 1997, when the Cuban government officially began to permit private households to rent a room for a fee, finding a place to stay has been easier. Yes, capitalism is alive and well in Cuba!
Given the options available, you may be tempted to wait to find lodging until you are actually in Cuba. Be forewarned, however: At Jose Marti International Airport you will be asked to show the Cuban customs agent verification of your lodging. A hotel confirmation number will prevent delay and can save you a considerable amount of money, for travelers without reservations are assigned a room in one of the government-owned hotels, some of which can be very expensive. (1) We highly recommend that you have TSP make a hotel reservation, at least for your first night in Cuba, because it will be another piece of documentation confirming the legality of your visit to Cuba.
STEP SIX: CHECK THE WEIGHT OF YOUR BAGGAGE
OFAC guidelines limit luggage for Cuba-bound passengers to 44 pounds, including both checked and carry-on bags; the penalty for overweight luggage is u.s.$2.00 per pound. For academics conducting research in Cuba this should not pose a serious problem. Limit the amount of clothing you bring: laundering them is inexpensive. If critical field equipment is needed, obtain a special license from the OFAC granting permission for an overage.
STEP SEVEN: CONVERT U.S. DOLLARS TO ANOTHER CURRENCY
Cuba has two official currencies: the national peso and the Cuban convertible peso (cuc). Most visitors will use the convertible peso. Arbitrarily pegged to the euro, the Canadian dollar, or some other world currency, a cuc is approximately equal to u.s.$1.30. The Cuban government levies a w percent surcharge for converting U.S. dollars to cucs. As a result, we strongly recommend that you convert your U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars or to euros before you arrive in Cuba, for no surcharge exists for exchanging those currencies. We also strongly recommend that you do not use travelers checks, because cashing them is fraught with difficulties. Plus, you should remember that, because of U.S. legislation, credit/debit cards that draw on U.S. bank accounts are not valid in Cuba.
LAST STEP: CHECK THIS LIST FOR NECESSARY DOCUMENTATION
* U.S. passport must be valid for six months past the last day of your planned trip
* Cuba visa permit: provided by the Cuban government via TSP
* Flight documents from ABC Charter, Inc.: provided by TSP
* Hotel reservation, with a confirmation number: provided by TSP
* Name of a Cuban government contact: provided by TSP
* Hotel guest card: issued at your hotel by the Cuban Government--Habaguanex
* Photocopies of all documents: to be left in your hotel's safe
CLEARING IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ARRIVAL IN CUBA
The experience of passing through immigration and customs in Cuba is similar to most other countries. Your passport will be examined, your Cuban visa will be verified and one-half of it retained, and you will be photographed. Next you will proceed through security, including a metal detector and a second inspection of documents. Be aware that individual travelers may be selected for an extensive interview, during which your passport will be temporarily taken.
Next you proceed to the baggage-claim area. Unlike the situation in the United States, in Cuba only authorized personnel handle baggage. Bags may appear in a protracted and sporadic fashion. It is likely that most of your cotravelers are Cubans or Cuban Americans returning with large quantities of shrink-wrapped luggage, and this may delay the process. We encourage you not to contribute to the organized chaos; simply watch the cultural events unfold.
At this juncture, most likely a hotel-accommodations officer will approach you; simply show him or her your reservation number, and no difficulties should arise. At various times during the arrival process you will be asked the purpose of your travel to Cuba. Although the U.S. government authorized your travel on the basis of research, the Cuban government requires a research permit. Unfortunately, those applications are not available at the airport. We recommend that you declare yourself to be a "tourist." Your first trip to Cuba will most likely focus on field reconnaissance and establishing contact with a potential colleague at a Cuban institution. On subsequent visits we recommend that you possess a research permit, which commonly requires a host institution to sponsor you.
Before you leave the airport, convert some of your foreign currency to cucs to pay the taxi driver. Because Jose Marti International Airport has five terminals, be sure to ask the driver the number of the terminal at which you arrived, so you will be able to return to the correct terminal for departure.
DEPARTURE FROM CUBA
At least twenty-four hours before your scheduled departure, verify the return flight. The hotel desk clerk can perform this task and confirm your seat. On the day of your departure, arrive at the correct airport terminal three hours in advance of your flight. For early morning flights-8:00 a.m., for example--you can arrive two and one-half hours in advance without creating any problems for yourself.
The check-in process has four parts. First, reconfirm your seat and check your baggage at the flight reservation desk. Next, pay the exit tax of cuc25.00. At the currency-exchange booth, remaining cucs can be converted without a surcharge, even into U.S. dollars. Then, at the immigration and customs exit booth an official will retain the remaining stub of your Cuban visa and take your photograph. The last step is the security checkpoint.
When the announcement for departure is made, make your way directly to the boarding area, where the gate attendant will check your ticket and verify you paid your exit fee. Although you have purchased an assigned seat through your TsP/ABC Charters, in Cuba seating is very often first come, first served. Sharpen your elbows and practice su cubanidad. Once you are in a seat, enjoy the flight back to the United States.
RETURN TO THE UNITED STATES
People returning from abroad must, of course, pass through U.S. immigration and customs. When identified as academics returning from Cuba, we were directed to an area where inspection was more intensive. We were reminded that the United States has imposed a travel ban and trade embargo against Cuba, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents vigilantly inspect luggage and confiscate contraband. The OFAC Web site provides an up-to-date list of prohibited imports, among them rum, cigars, artisan products, and tourist items (2m2a). When the ICE officials learned that the purpose of our visit to Cuba was research, they expedited the inspection process.
* International telephone calls: A person in the United States can place a call to Cuba by dialing: 011-53-7-. ... However, connections can be problematic, and you may hear a recording that states, "You are not authorized to make this call." Hang up and redial; persistence seems to be the key.
* Internet: Connecting to the Internet is possible but very time consuming. Purchase an Internet user card--available at most tourist hotels--log in on an authorized computer--available in the lobby of most tourist hotels and practice your waiting skills. Because Internet connections are so slow, some travelers use their Internet minutes just for uploading and downloading prewritten correspondence.
* Pricing: Most prices for goods and services are regulated by the Cuban government. Even the price for a bottle of water should not vary greatly between locations. Watch out for less-than-honest shopkeepers who prey on wet-behind-the-ears tourists.
* U.S. interests: If you encounter serious legal or political problems, bear in mind that the United States does not have an embassy in Cuba. Instead, the U.S. government has an immense Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy, located off the Malecon, near the Hotel Nacional. As a U.S. citizen and resident visiting Cuba you will not have to wait in the long lines outside the Interests Section. Instead, you may go directly to the gate for admission as long as you bring your passport and visa/permission papers.
* Committees for the Defense of the Revolution: Members of the CDR are virtually ubiquitous. They include taxicab drivers, hotel reception clerks, bartenders, tour guides, and essentially every citizen. Be cautious in asking questions in public about politically sensitive issues or putting Cuban citizens in compromising situations.
* Havana. For a city of 2.5 million people, Havana, in our experience, is remarkably safe, quiet, and pedestrian friendly. Even though many of the street lamps do not function, the city appears secure and crime free. Women should be prepared to receive long looks and "compliments, which are part of the rich Cuban street culture.
* Views of Americans: Cubans were uniformly cordial, helpful, and welcoming to us. Most were surprised to learn that we were U.S. citizens but happy to have us in their country. Many stated that they love Americans but dislike U.S. foreign policy. Dark-skinned Americans should be prepared for Cubans to act incredulous when they declare they are not of Cuban origin.
* Gifts for Cuban academics: Many academics in Cuba do not own a home computer, but they do have access to one at work or through a friend. Therefore, a flash drive is a very appropriate gift, as are favorite pens, notebooks, and field journals.
* Post-trip audit: According to OFAC guidelines, a post-trip audit may occur at any time up to five years after you return to the United States. Be sure to keep all receipts, important documentation, and evidence of research publications and/or public dissemination of the information you garnered.
On ancient maps, terrae incognitae were filled with fanciful beasts and dragons. In contemporary times, such voids--Iran, North Korea, and even Cuba--are filled with outdated information, speculation, and propaganda. In the case of Cuba, this geographical deficit, from the U.S. perspective, is largely the product of geopolitical conflict.
Our intent in this field note has been to encourage and facilitate geographical field study in Cuba. This involves stripping away some of the misperceptions and misinformation. Indeed, it is possible for Americans to legally visit Cuba for the purpose of research. Fundamentally, it is a matter of following prescribed procedures and guidelines as outlined above. Many research opportunities await those who are willing to dirty their boots or scuff their shoes. It would be a shame to let political red tape get in the way of doing good geography.
Bellows, M. 2009. Cuba Information Manual: The Definitive Guide to Legal and Illegal Travel to Cuba. Key West, Fla.: Kettle Publishing.
Bradshaw, A. 2011. Telephone interview with J. S. Smith. 28 January.
OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control]. 2012a. Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving Cuba. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury. 10 May. [www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_tr_app.pdf].
--. 2012b. List of Authorized Providers of Air, Travel and Remittance Forwarding Services to Cuba.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury. 12 June. [www.treasury.gov/resource_center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_tsp.pdf].
Parsons, J. J. 1977. Geography as Exploration and Discovery. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 67 (1): 1-16.
Peralta, E. 2011. Obama Will Ease Cuba Travel Restrictions. The Two-Way, 14 January. National Public Radio. [www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/01/15/132941971/obama-vvill-ease-cuba-travel-resttictions].
Reuters. 2011. Cuba Approves Flights from 9 More American Cities. 1 August. [www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/01/uk-cuba-usa-flights-idUSLNE7700202ll0801] .
White House. 2011. Reaching out to the Cuban People. White House press release, 14 January. [media.miamiherald.com/smedia/2011/01/14/17/THE_WHITE_HOUSE.source.prod_affiliate.56.pdf].
(1.) One of the anonymous reviewers of our manuscript indicated that a useful Web site for bed-and-breakfast options can be found at [www.casaparticular.org] . Also, favorable accommodation rates can be obtained through Nash Travel in Canada, [www.nashtravel.com].
Research in Cuba: navigating logistical barriers *
* The authors are deeply grateful for the insight and feedback provided by the anonymous reviewers on the first draft of this essay.
* DR. SMTTH is an associate professor of geography at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66506-2904; [jssmith7.@ksu.edu]. DR. COLLINS is a professor of geography at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado 80639; [ email@example.com]. Ms. PETTIT teaches social science at Altona Middle School, Longmont, Colorado 80503 [firstname.lastname@example.org].…
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Publication information: Article title: Research in Cuba: Navigating Logistical Barriers. Contributors: Smith, Jeffrey S. - Author, Collins, Charles O. - Author, Pettit, Jenny - Author. Journal title: The Geographical Review. Volume: 102. Issue: 3 Publication date: July 2012. Page number: 382+. © 1998 American Geographical Society. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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