Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
It has been a long time coming but it has come at last. Our first interest in traveling to Cuba was in 1999. I was in Kingston, Jamaica working with our chapter there, Jamaican Chamber of Commerce. While we were walking down the street, we ran into the Cuban Ambassador for Jamaica. I was impressed. The brother was dressed like a typical professional brother from Chicago, Los Angeles or somewhere in the states. We were three minutes into the introductory conversation before he exclaimed, “When are you going to Cuba”? I retorted, “We are not allowed to go to Cuba.” He said, “That is a myth! You can go if you get a license from your government. Contact our consulate in Washington, DC and they will show you the process.” That began our official relationship with Cuba.
This was under the Clinton Administration. We had sanctions with Cuba which meant you cannot do normal business or travel with the nation. There was a strict process to follow with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). OAFC was onerous but they did show us the path we had to take. We received the license within four months. It took a lot of back and forth but we remained persistent. Another requirement was to hire a certified (OFAC approved certified) travel agent. After approval it took about two months to rally our members who were interested. 36 members of the National Black Chamber of Commerce were prepared to travel to this mysterious nation. A nation of people who were predominantly the same ethnicity as us.
The trip was fantastic! African Americans were greeted with love by the Cubans. $10 lobster dinners; $3 bottles of Havana Club Rum, $10 cover charge at the famous Tropicana night club; best cigars in the world and fine accommodations to give lifetime memories. Six months later, we went back again. Word of our travel got around and our board members were thinking we could charter a 747 wide body on the next trip now that the word was out. But all of a sudden the “door” slammed shut.
The Bush Administration had taken over and the process was quite different. We inquired about obtaining another license for travel and were told, “Forget about it!” There was a new “sheriff” at OFAC and travel to Cuba virtually ceased unless you were a member of Congress or someone well connected along that level. That was heartbreaking to us. For 12 years we were blocked from returning to our brothers and sisters 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Fortunately, the Obama Administration has a different view of things. Slowly, travel to Cuba began opening up again. So now, we have come to find out that traveling to Cuba is as easy as it has ever been. There are certain reasons for a group to travel to Cuba. Business groups are in that category. There are certain airplanes that are allowed to take such groups on a daily basis. Soon there will be American commercial flights going on a daily basis. The demand is making available hotels limited. However, a cottage industry in the nation is Airbnb. You can rent rooms from licensed Cuban citizens. Homes along the beaches and nice neighborhoods. The entire tailored package is quite reasonably priced. Some villas provide seven bedrooms with a bathroom for each, modern kitchen and a coastline view. With 7-14 people the cost is quite reasonable.
The NBCC has determined that a resurgence of Cuba travel has arrived. We are forming an easy format that is consistent with the current rules. Our first visit will occur in late October and we are so excited! The beautiful people, fantastic art, Afro Cuban music (which originated directly from the Congo via slavery), beautiful people (physical fitness is required), perfect weather and anything the Caribbean has but at reasonable costs, tropical cuisine, historical sights and the tropical aura. It is going to be so nice to reconnect with our people!
The drought is over! Our office is studying up on the process and will begin promoting consulting excursions for our members. On our first trip we will participate with the Cuba Chamber of Commerce in a business Trade Fair with over 4,500 participating exhibits at the FERIA Trade Show – see what we have been missing!
Yes, my brothers and sisters it is time to reconnect.
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected]