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Under the 'trading with the enemy act,' it's not actually illegal to travel to Cuba as a tourist, but the US government makes it difficult to do so. You can go, you just can't spend money there. If you go without a US business or academic license, and you get caught by US Customs with evidence of spending, there is the threat of a 250,000 dollar fine and a 10-year jail sentence. About 20,000 Americans a year go anyway to Cuba by way of Mexico and the Bahamas. But as Savvy Traveler's Karen Lowe found, for some, the sense of the forbidden adventure is the allure.

Why Cuba?

By Karen Lowe, 6/15/2001

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Paranoia is a kind of mental aphrodisiac - something that heightens the experience, gives it a kind of edge. I mean if you really screw up, you could potentially have the wrath of not one but two governments coming down on you-one communist, one capitalist. And some - WANT to tempt fate. Consider four college guys in an Old Havana restaurant who, predictably, didn't want their names used while vacationing with the enemy.

GuysInParanoia: "That would probably intensify everything to have a constant level of paranoia going on through the whole voyage, which started on the way here because, see he has mohawk and he has a nose-ring. We decided it would be really fun to scare ourselves, and threaten ourselves and believe we wouldn't be able to get in just because we had such marginal displays on the upper portions of our body."
In reality, thousands of even more flamboyant Europeans come here, so Cuban officials didn't even raise an eyebrow at these guys. But this is only day two of their trip and they figure there is still plenty of time to get into trouble.
ParanoidGuy2: "I suppose the number one paranoia would be the police state situation. Presumably you could imagine the situation in which one's rights could completely dissolve. So we're very much on a limb. And paranoia would then be dropping off that limb just because the police are able to do as much to because legal rights would be suspended since you're here illegally in the first place. Definitely, that's the adventure I suppose. If it adds to the adventure, that might be the adventure itself as some level. And the adventure, at the core, could be precisely that."
In reality, Americans flush with dollars in cash-poor Cuba are pretty much teflon coated, and won't get hassled by the authorities. But Curtis, an art dealer from Boston on his sixth trip here, says Cubans definitely are not immune from the state. And to get desperately needed dollars, many Cubans take chances that could land them in jail.
Curtis: "Many times I have a taxi driver and he's illegal taxi driver and I've been pulled over 30 or 40 times in an illegal taxi. But police have not even asked for my name. You feel like Superman because they see my white face...ah, he's tourista, no billet, no carnet, no passport. But my Cuban friends all get out of the car shaking."
The fear factor is very real for Cubans. Before coming to Havana, a Cuban friend said he would give me some contacts, but I couldn't bring in their names or numbers on paper. I would have to memorize it. He told me, as a reporter, I would be followed everywhere. That I would never be able to spot the tail. That the person would change from day to day. I felt like I was carrying some kind of contagion. That just by talking to people, I could enormously complicate their lives. Eventually, I became infected, too. I worried my tapes would be seized, so I kept with me or stuffed them in my shoes at night. Even the chambermaid was suspect. Would she copy my notes? So, I kept them with me, too. Cubans told me to assume that all technology - the phone and my e-mail - was monitored. I worried that I would never get Cubans to talk to me.

But over drinks at a noisy bar, two young men - friends of my acquaintance in the US - railed on an on about communism. In fact, you couldn't stop them from talking - until the loud music stopped. And then the conversation immediately switched to the weather. A man with a mustache walked by our table and they all nodded at eachother. Who was that? I asked. They said he was a local police officer. A few days later, I was speaking to a dissident economist in Spanish. She was watched closely because of her contacts with the press. Shortly after we began to talk the music from the apartment next door was turned up so loud it was hard for us to converse. She calmly closed the window as if it had just begun to rain. The loud music, she explained, was typically the way the state tried to stop her from talking.

But while we were steeped in paranoia, many visitors aren't looking over their shoulders. For them, the revolution still conjures the romantic figures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra.

Kathy, a slim, stylishly-dressed blonde from Philadelphia, loves the intrigue of the forbidden isle. She is tapping her foot to the music at the rooftop bar of Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to live and write.

Kathy: "Well, I guess I've always had a fascination with Cuba. I think when I was five years old I saw Fidel on television when he was a big hero and I had a crush. I guess there was a short time when Fidel was a big hero in the United States. And of, course that ended when he became a communist. It was always in the back of my mind. Something happened when I was very young, that it's like, 'oh, wow, I've got to go to Cuba." And I don't really know what it was."
These decaying Soviet-era buildings bearing revolutionary slogans or murals of Che Guevarra and Fidel Castro would seem an odd attraction. But they are. Believing communism will go the way of the dinosaurs, many come to see one of the few remaining communist regimes. Sort of like a political theme park. You can walk the crumbling streets of communist Cuba by day, and stay in luxury hotels at night.

April, a photo journalist from New Jersey, wanted the authenticity of the place - to get here before Starbucks and McDonald's took root.

April: "I think people think that inevitably Americans will be able to visit Cuba somewhere down the line and then Cuba will become a more touristy destination. And part of the feeling of coming here now is that, maybe, it's not quite that way yet."
If April's trip to Havana worried her, her return to the United States sounded like it would be pure fear.
April: "When the Cuban Customs agent actually stamped my passport - and I had been told they really don't do that to American tourists because they realize that we can get hassled for that on the way home - I was just, you know, totally frightened. Of course, it's in the back of my mind that I could get off the plane after having a wonderful trip here and get yelled at or whatever by people in my own country."
Flying into Los Angeles, one traveler who had been to Cuba reread a portion in a guide book about the possible sanctions for Americans traveling illegally to Cuba. He jettisoned anything that might have linked him to Cuba. Out went pictures, receipts, mementos. I thought he had overreacted until I presented my passport to the US Customs agent. He looked at it and said, 'Ah ha, so you're Karen Lowe! We've been waiting for you.' I felt an electric jolt of fear. Wait, I thought, I went legally. The customs agent smiled and waived me through, looking to pounce on the next paranoid traveler returning from Cuba.

I'm Karen Lowe for the Savvy Traveler.

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