A Cuban Adventure

Cuba is a land of fascination and mystery for travelers: An island country in a self-imposed state of suspended animation for nearly 60 years and difficult for Americans to visit, it nevertheless remains an enticing destination. If travel to Cuba is on your bucket list, you’re in luck. ASJA is organizing a cultural exchange trip there in 2020 and we’d like you to join us.

Writers, artists, and musicians fell in love with Cuba’s unique style and rich Latin heritage during the early years of the 20th Century. Ernest Hemingway moved there in the 1930s and set up shop at Finca Vigia, where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Add a thriving economy based on sugar exports—one of the strongest in the region by mid-century—and a frenetic nightlife in pre-revolutionary Havana and it’s no surprise that Cuba attracted entertainers, sports stars, gamblers, flocks of tourists, and a few gangsters.

Things changed in 1959 when a revolutionary army led by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement overthrew the government and took control of Cuba. Tourism remained important to the local economy, but the United States was no longer a player in the game. For more than a half-century, travel restrictions imposed after the Cuban Missile Crisis made it virtually impossible for Americans and their dollars to travel legally to Cuba.

Cuba’s travel landscape has gone through major changes in the last few years. President Obama began systematically removing obstacles and allowing visitors from the United States to travel to the island in 2010; then earlier this year, President Trump reinstated the travel ban. The Trump ban revived most—but not all—of the old restrictions. Popular tourist cruises are out, but safe harbors for trips like the one ASJA is offering remain.

Trying to work through any maze of federal regulations these days often has the feel of navigating a minefield while wearing a blindfold. ASJA is not in the travel business and for help with compliance on this trip, we’re working with an old Cuba hand, Chares Bittner. Charles teaches sociology at St. John’s University in New York City, where he focuses on cultural and political institutions and is the owner of the Intercultural Travel Group.

More important for our purposes, though, Charles has organized more than 30 successful trips to Cuba in the last few years for writers, academics, diplomats, musicians, and physicians. He’s handling logistics and will accompany travelers on this trip, with in-country assistance from Rocio Diaz, a graduate of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Havana and one of the country’s most experienced guides.

Scheduled for March 21-28, 2020, ASJA’s Cuban adventure begins in Havana at the historic Hotel Capri, one of the first hotels built by American mafia bosses lured to pre-revolutionary Cuba by promises of tax incentives, government loans, and casino licenses. Owned by Florida mobster Santo Trafficante, the hotel/casino was operated by racketeers Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charles Turin (“Charley the Blade”), and Santino Masselli (“Sonny the Butcher”).

From Havana, the trip moves to Cienfuegos, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and billed as one of Cuba’s most beautiful cities. The next stop is Trinidad, one of the country’s oldest Spanish Colonial towns. With nearby Valle de los Ingenios (“Valley of the Sugar Mills”), Trinidad has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.

The planned itinerary includes:

  • Guided tours of Old Havana (with stops at the Plaza de Armas, the Plaza de San Francisco, the Plaza Vieja, and the Plaza de la Catedral), Cienfuegos, and Trinidad;
  • Meetings with prominent writers, journalists, poets, historians, political scientists, economists, and sociologists, including Latin American Literature professor Susana Haug, urban planner Miguel Coyula, award-winning artists Carlos and Amaya Mata, journalists and political commentators Dalila Castro Fontanella and Christina Escobar, members of the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba, and Afro-Cuban and LGBTQ+ activists;
  • Private performances by activist and musician Frank Delgado, up-and-coming trumpet player Yassek Manzano, world-renowned dance troupe Habana Compás Dance, and classical musicians with Orquesta del Lyceum de la Habana.

Cost for the trip, including all lodging, meals, activities, and ground transportation in Cuba, is $4,285/person for individual travelers, single occupancy, and $3,885/person for double occupancy. Travelers are responsible for round trip airfare to and from Havana, airline baggage fees, a Cuban travel card, and tips for the tour guide and driver. A United States-issued passport, valid for at least six months after the departure date, also is required.

Detailed information about the trip, including policies and relevant dates for registration and payment, will be coming from ASJA over the next several weeks. Charles Bittner also can answer questions and field requests for additional information about the itinerary and registration. Charles can be contacted at charlesbittner@verizon.net or 617.833.1435.

A portion of the proceeds from the trip will help support ASJA and its programs.

Interested in joining ASJA? It’s never too late!