When I learned that an artist and writers delegation would be traveling to Havana’s International Book Fair in Havana, Cuba in 2011 my first thought was there’s no way I’d get approved for something like that. Although this is a legal U.S. government approved trip from the United States to Cuba, I have heard it is almost impossible to get approved for these delegations. You pretty much have to be a fulltime professor, member of the clergy, college student, established filmmaker or politician. There’s no way they’d allow little old me, an independent author with just two novels and a handful of magazine/newspaper publications, to visit evil communist Cuba. Even though I am half-Cuban, and my great-grandparents were from the island, my lineage is too far removed to be considered a true family member of any distant relatives I might be able to locate in Cuba. I’ve heard it is very easy to get there illegally, and there are organizations you can join that directly challenge the travel ban, but with a family to feed, I can’t risk a $250,000 fine and 10 years in the pen.
This means I either try for the International Book Fair or I wait until the travel ban is lifted and join hoards of American tourists in a mass exodus to paradise. Waiting until the Castro brothers are dead and joining a mob of tourists doesn’t sound too appealing. Even though the House Agricultural Committee recently voted 25-20 to lift the travel ban, it will be a long time before a plane full of American tourists lands in Havana.
I figured I’d give the Book Festival a legitimate shot. The trip is being organized by Anya Achtenberg of the Minnesota Cuba Committee. The first thing I had to do was put together a writer’s resume. My wife Lupi, a cartoonist, began putting together her own artist’s resume. A list of publications, shows we’ve participated in, awards we’ve won, committees or organizations where we’re members. I wrote a novel about Cuban cigar makers for crying out loud – that has to count for something! Then we each wrote a cover letter describing our purpose for going to Cuba, what we planned to do while we were there, and who would benefit from our experiences.
We basically have to meet one of the following 3 requirements:
- Full-time professionals, whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research: 1) is of a noncommercial, academic nature; 2) comprises a full work schedule in Cuba; and 3) has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.
- Free-Lance Journalism – Persons with a suitable record of publication who are traveling to Cuba to do research for a free-lance article. Licenses authorizing transactions for multiple trips over an extended period of time are available for applicants demonstrating a significant record of free-lance journalism.
- Professional Research and Professional Meetings – Persons traveling to Cuba to do professional research or to attend a professional meeting that does not meet the requirements of the relevant general license (described above).
We fired these off and have been told that we have a 99.9% chance of getting approved. I’ll take those odds but am still nervous. Even if we’re approved by Uncle Sam, there is still no guarantee that we’ll be able to handle the finances and logistics involved with such a trip. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Cuba, a communist country that most Americans are banned from visiting. A chance to visit the island while Fidel and Raul Castro are still in power. A chance to see the land of my ancestors, to experience the Cuban culture, to meet the Cuban people, to learn their language and customs. To see how they live. To see, firsthand, why the United States government thinks it’s a bad idea for Americans to visit Cuba.
What kind of souvenirs will we bring back? Apparently the Feds will seizes our cigars and rum but there is no limit on books, CDs, photographs, artwork and other “informational materials.” See the details from Feds.com:
What Can Be Brought Back
If U.S. travelers return from Cuba with goods of Cuban origin, such goods, with the exception of informational materials, may be seized at Customs’ discretion [Section 515.204 of the Regulations]. Cuban cigars and rum are routinely confiscated at U.S. ports of entry. Purchasing Cuban cigars and rum in a “duty-free” shop at the Havana Airport does not exempt them from seizure by U.S. Customs. There are no limits on the import or export of informational materials [Section 515.206 of the Regulations]. Information and informational materials such as books, films, artworks, posters, photographs, tapes and CDs are statutorily exempt from regulation under the embargo and may be transported freely; however, blank tapes and CDs are not considered informational materials and may be seized. To be considered informational material, artworks must be classified under Chapter subheading 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (for example, original paintings, drawings, pastels, engravings, prints, and sculptures are all exempt.)
We’re keeping our fingers crossed for what will certainly be the trip of a lifetime!