Lonely Planet Writer

Cuba! Our new podcast & Havana interview

The USA doesn’t get along with everyone, but there’s only one country the US government bans its citizens from visiting: Cuba. Earlier this year, Barack Obama lightened the restrictions, prompting many Cuban Americans to return to visit family for the first time in nearly 50 years (including one Los Angeles Times reporter), and now the House Foreign Affairs Committee is even kicking around the possibility of dropping the ban for all.

The subject came up on Lonely Planet’s new fortnightly travel podcast, done with Public Radio International's The World (where Tom Hall and I put topical news through a travel filter with PRI host Clark Boyd).

Meanwhile, I thought I'd also get a street-level take on the scene from Havana. I asked a few questions of long-time Lonely Planet author Conner Gorry, who has lived in the Cuban capital for seven years.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch reporter Nik Steinberg said there’s a ‘climate of fear pervading Cuban society.’ Feel that way to you?
Climate of fear is a really interesting turn of phrase because anyone who has been here knows that Cubans will criticize and complain ad nauseam. It's practically a national sport! So when people say to me freedom of expression is squelched in Cuba, I have to laugh -- what Cubans did YOU meet? I think.

What has changed the most since I got here is the public space for voicing criticism. You even see it in the two daily newspapers, one of which Granma, is the ‘Official Organ of the Communist Party of Cuba’ (makes it sound like a kidney, eh?). There are also cultural debates, TV shows, music lyrics, art shows where people go at it with opposing views.

What do Cubans say of the ban on Americans traveling there?
Down with the embargo and bring on the Americans. Almost without exception. Even Yoani Sanchez [blogger who recently had an exchange with Barack Obama] took a public stand about lifting the travel ban. Cubans love Americans - hate the government but love the people and this is a distinction all Cubans make! Plus Americans are the best tippers!

Are there topics travelers to Cuba should avoid?
None, although I wouldn't go around claiming that US baseball is better than Cuban ball or you'll be in for a real fight! Honestly though, Cubans love talking and making friends with foreigners.

One thing I wish I had done before I first came to Cuba in 1993 and which I always recommend to travelers coming here for the first time is: before you arrive, write down everything you expect to see/experience/find in Cuba and then keep a journal during your travels to see how the expectations measure up to the reality. I bet you'll be surprised!

-Robert Reid, New York

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

LP/PRI's travel podcast on no-go borders and 'communist travel' in Europe

More information on travel to Cuba