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Various Questions About Cuba, Especially American Travel to

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I inquired via this discussion thread some time ago what the deal is with Americans traveling to Cuba. I was told that I should do more research and return to the LP discussion thread with more specific questions. Well, I did some research and am more confused now than before!

One understanding I have is that as long as I take certain precautions (i.e. don’t get my American passport stamped, travel via Nassau or Cancun), I should be fine. Another understanding that I have is that since the Patriot Act passed, the idea of Americans going to Cuba is more dangerous (in terms of breaking the law) and stupid than ever before. So, I am seeking clarity. As an American, should I be fine with simply exercising the standard precautions, or is it really a dangerous and/or stupid idea for me to go to Cuba right now? In other words, how likely is it that the US government will find out I went (if I go through Cancun or Nassau) and if it finds out, then what kind of penalties do I face?

There are other questions I have as well. What’s the deal with American-Cuban trade? I went to cuba.com and this website states that the two countries are indeed trading. Is this true? If this is true, then what about the embargo? Is the trade simply designed to help the needy (America sending goods to needy Cubans)? Also, what is the deal with Americans legally traveling to Cuba? What is classified with legal American travel to Cuba?

Here is another question: If an American travels to Cuba illegally, then how does he or she pay for things while in Cuba? It is not like an American can go to an ATM and withdraw national currency. While in Cuba, can Americans pay with dollars or must Americans exchange dollars with Euros and pay in that currency (or Cuban currency)? In short, what do Americans use to pay for things in Cuba?

I have another question. Before I ask, however, let me post a quote from Yahoo! Travel:

Tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America are doing less waiting: They continue to arrive in greater numbers every year (foreign visitors exceeded 2 million in 2004), and new hotels are going up every day to house this influx of visitors. Yet in a sense, even these visitors are in a state of limbo: Although they can lounge on lovely beaches or take a look at Hemingway's haunts around Havana, most are sheltered from interacting with everyday Cuban people. Despite relinquishing some control in the last decade, the Cuban government has since tightened up again and still does its best to separate its visitors from its citizens (new restrictions on interactions went into effect in March 2005),

So, here are my questions: How does the Cuban government attempt to separate tourists from citizens? If I go there, am I not allowed to mingle with the locals? Am I not allowed to walk around freely and do some sightseeing (I think I am allowed, just making sure)? There are a couple more topics I would like to mention before I wrap this up. What is the standard of living like for your average Cuban? Does he live any better or worse than, let’s say, the average Mexican citizen? For Latin American standards, are Cubans living better, similar or worse than countries like Mexico, Brazil and etc?

Lastly, I would like to ask you guys about sightseeing destinations in Cuba. I am quite interested in the Cuban culture and the country’s nature, but what do you think of Cuba from a sightseeing and architectural perspective? Based on some research I did, I found that Havana, Santiago and Trinidad are quite popular destinations. I then went online and looked up some photos of these 3 destinations.

Without trying to offend anyone, after I viewed the many images, I thought to myself that these places are rather slum-appearing (a.k.a. ghetto). Actually, Havana looked somewhat interesting. However, the images of Santiago and Trinidad were another story. I realize that there is a possibility that the photos were all bad. So, long story short, do any Cuban cities/towns have a strong draw based on sightseeing and architecture (like European towns/cities or San Juan Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro Brazil, Buenos Aires Argentina, etc.) or do you think Cuba is predominately interesting because of its cigars, people, beautiful culture, communist system and/or nature?

Please try to answer my questions directly:

Questions:

1. As an American, should I be fine with simply exercising the standard precautions, or is it really a dangerous and/or stupid idea for me to go to Cuba right now? In other words, how likely is it that the US government will find out I went (if I go through Cancun or Nassau) and if it finds out, then what kind of penalties do I face?

2. What’s the deal with American-Cuban trade? I went to cuba.com and this website states that the two countries are indeed trading. Is this true? If so, then what about the embargo? Is the trade simply designed to help the needy (America sending goods to needy Cubans)?

3. What is the deal with Americans legally traveling to Cuba? What is classified with legal American travel to Cuba?

4. If an American travels to Cuba illegally, then how does he or she pay for things while in Cuba? It is not like an American can go to an ATM and withdraw national currency. While in Cuba, can Americans pay with dollars or must Americans exchange dollars with Euros and pay in that currency (or Cuban currency)? In short, what do Americans use to pay for things in Cuba?

5. How does the Cuban government attempt to separate tourists from citizens? If I go there, am I not allowed to mingle with the locals? Am I not allowed to walk around freely and do some sightseeing (I think I am allowed, just making sure)?

6. What is the standard of living like for your average Cuban? Does he live any better or worse than, let’s say, the average Mexican citizen? For Latin American standards, are Cubans living better, similar or worse than countries like Mexico, Brazil and etc?

7. Do any Cuban cities/towns have a strong draw based on sightseeing and architecture (like European towns/cities or San Juan Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro Brazil, Buenos Aires Argentina, etc.) or do you think Cuba is predominately interesting because of its cigars, people, beautiful culture, communist system and/or nature?

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