Cuba: Now Or Never?

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2003

The two elderly sisters who rent a spare room in their Havana apartment to tourists are worried about my headache. Aspirin is scarce in Cuba, but Amalia, 74, puts a pyramid-shaped device on my head and prays over it.

Margo, 70, gets me a cup of tea and takes me on her balcony overlooking the city. When I assure her I am feeling better, she points out the sights and says to make sure not to miss the art museum, a 16th-century fortress and the changing of the guard at the 18th-century Citadel.

Other nights during my visit last winter, I stay in an old Benedictine friary-turned-inn, an upscale hotel that was once a favored haunt of U.S. movie stars, and a beachfront mansion once owned by one of America's wealthiest families.

Such opportunities are about to end for most Americans, or at least for those not of Cuban descent.

A 42-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba has severely restricted travel, but exceptions had included trips for religious, family and humanitarian reasons, and for "educational, people-to-people contact." That exception was the largest for Americans without Cuban relatives.

But in March, the Bush administration issued two sweeping changes: Cuban Americans would be able to visit Cuba more often and without a compelling humanitarian reason, but travel permission would no longer be given for educational and cultural tours.

This month, the House of Representatives countered the administration's crackdown by passing an amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba. It also passed a less sweeping amendment that would restore permits for educational and cultural visits. However, Bush has vowed a veto.

Tour operators that held permits for travel to Cuba before the new ban are quietly advertising "last chance" visits before their permits expire on or before Dec. 31. If you want to see Cuba before it becomes a forbidden country, better act fast.

Mercedes-Benz cabs line the broad circular driveway of Havana's Hotel Nacional, a symbol of Cuba's decade-long effort to attract tourists. The strategy has increased tourism visits here from 200,000 in 1990 to 1.7 million last year, according to the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.

Most came from Europe and Canada. Of the 200,000 Americans who visited last year, about 40,000 came illegally, through third countries. The United States is the only nation in the world to restrict travel to Cuba.

I step inside the grand lobby of the 439-room Hotel Nacional, opened in 1930 and restored to its full grandeur in 1992. I could be content to just sit in the lobby, in the gardens overlooking the broad, European-style boulevard that faces Havana's harbor, or in the bar plastered with pictures of former guests: movie stars, politicians, writers, artists and scientists.

But I am traveling with a friend with endless energy: Helen Chaset, a Montgomery County elementary school principal. Soon we are walking for miles along the harbor seawall, then through a poor neighborhood of beautiful but badly deteriorated Spanish colonial buildings that define much of residential Havana.We meander along some ragged streets, then turn a corner and stumble upon a square that would make the grandest plazas of Spain look modest by comparison. One end of Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal. Completed in 1787, it has been aptly described by a Latin writer as "music set in stone."

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