Our Return to Cuba

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Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford

What a difference sixteen years can make! When the National Black Chamber of Commerce first visited Cuba, in 2000, it was a very awkward process. First we had to fill out a lengthy application and submit it to our Treasury Department. After three months, they would send a bunch of questions and that would take another three months before the process was completed. There were few hotels where you could stay. Our travel agent would subcontract his services to a Cuban government approved agency. You could tell that both the United States and the Cuba governments were at all times watching us for separate reasons. The only planes you could travel with were charters. That will be the last time we go through that.

Beginning December 7, 2016 (announced after we set our trip) U.S. airlines can now book flights to nine Cuban cities, including Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba and, yes, Havana, the capital and vibrant city. Reliable and reasonable airlines such as American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines will all offer flights to Cuba. Soon you will be able to fly direct to Cuba from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis – St. Paul.

This is going to revolutionize a plane trip to Cuba. Right now, you must go through Miami and the outbound process is controlled by Cuban officials. It is indeed Third World. It takes 3 – 4 hours to get on board the plane and take off. Returning is much faster but still at least 2 hours. They rip you off with “overweight baggage.” When you challenge the fee, you will get the cost down by at least 50%. Stand your ground! It is a non-receipt hustle right in a major U.S. airport.

Getting around Havana is easy. There are cabs (classics or modern taxis). If you are going as a group, tour buses can be arranged. The tour buses are expensive. The individual cabs have no meters. You can go to one destination for, let’s say, $8 but returning back to the same place may cost $5 from a different cab.

The medical delivery system in Cuba is one of the best in the world. They have cured sickle cell anemia and recently have found a cure for lung cancer. The service is free for Cuban citizens. Everyone looks quite healthy as compared to United States citizens. I predict that soon they will offer medical services to U.S. citizens at very affordable rates like Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The life spans of Blacks are significantly longer in Cuba compared to the United States.

Now here is the very significant big change. Cuba is open for business! When we went there in 2000 there was no way we could trade with the Cubans on a commercial basis. That is all gone now and we can partner, joint venture and contract with Cuba businesses. One of the biggest acts of entrepreneurship in Cuba is temporary housing. People are now allowed to convert their homes or property into hostels (licensed by the Cuban government). In fact you can shop for temporary housing on Airbnb.com. The price difference is immense. We rented an “official residence” (bedroom, private bath and joint living room and kitchen) for $39 per night. It was excellent and homey as compared to a busy hotel that could cost anywhere from $600 – $1,500 per night. Many of us broke up in small groups and participated in this savings as well as hung out around our temporary “neighborhood.” Most set ups like this offer free home cooked breakfasts for the guests. Walking down the street is safe and big fun speaking to the residents.

The government closely watches the landlord as they personally come and tax them for the guest rentals once a week. Over all it is a good source of fresh income for the home owners and a new steady tax base for the government. At the end of the trip we hugged and said farewell to our new friends. Havana hotels were like any city in America – check in and check out on the required dates.

Temperatures were a little warmer than Miami. Landscapes were typically Caribbean and the streets were kept tidy. There were no signs of slums and dangerous neighborhoods. The Cuban people are happy replete with pleasant smiles.

We visited a very large Cuba Trade Exhibition. It was magnificent. It was their fourth annual event with acres and acres of pavilions. There were more than 4,500 exhibits with corporations from around the world. Capitalism was certainly alive! We look forward to attending next year. All we must do is buy a plane ticket (typical fair to the Caribbean, carry our visa and book an “official residence” through Airbnb.com or other online site and off we go to Cuba! It is simple now. Go online, who needs a travel agent. You must, however, fall into 1 of 12 categories of traveler as per U.S. State Department.

Our crew of 43 had no dietary illness and no major complaints. We are setting up a facebook.com page for our new committee of NBCC travelers. Colombia and Costa Rica are appearing through our “sites” with a repeat to Cuba being a certainty. There is one caveat. Money exchange is 1:1 but a 13.8% fee is assessed. No American credit cards are allowed by our government – no matter what anyone says to you.

Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: halford@nationalbcc.org

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