What started as the goodwill trip of a lifetime for Debra Turner Jones quickly turned into a bit of a harrowing experience, as she boarded the last flight out of Cuba following President Donald Trump's prohibition announcement.
Jones arrived on the island nation on May 30 with a group from a Baptist ministry in Texas to help develop a library at a seminary in Havana. As she shared with the Sulphur Sunrise Rotary Club, leaving the communist country was a little more difficult.
"Accessing the outside world is a little more difficult there," Jones said. "Internet access is difficult at best and there are times of the day when the government shuts it off. So we actually found out about the embargo through an email sent to the seminary.
"That was Friday following the announcement. You can see the anxiety on everyone's faces at that point," she said. "We were thinking, ‘Are we stuck here? Are they going to send troops to get us?' We were able to leave on Saturday (June 8). The plane, which was an American Airlines flight, was jam-packed and after a delay, we were able to take off — the last flight out. At that point, we were all able to breathe a little easier."
It was while staying with a Cuban couple at their bed and breakfast that Jones discovered more about the news that Trump instituted travel restrictions in order to cut off any influx of tourism money to Cuba's government as long as it was supporting President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.
When travel was allowed during the President Barack Obama administration, tourism became a viable source of income for the Cuban government and its citizens.
The political overtones of the decision, through, didn't affect Jones as much as the current state of the tropical island. As she — and many other visitors — describe, walking onto Cuban soil is like walking back through time some 70 years.
"You take for granted what we have here; the life that we all enjoy," Jones said. "When you walk around Havana, especially the areas that aren't specifically developed for tourists, it's like visiting the 1950s or 60s. It's almost like life stopped at that point. It's a difficult life for those people."
Jones described a country in which its citizens are resilient despite trying to survive in a limited society by government control. She relayed a story her Cuban hosts shared about entire families having to survive on rationed groceries.
"For a family of four they receive about $2 and this is what they get for that — not even a whole chicken, five pounds of beans and five pounds of rice, one cup of cooking oil and seven or eight eggs," Jones explained. "But, if someone in the household is pregnant, she is allowed one pound of ground beef per month."
Otherwise beef is illegal in Cuba, according to Jones, unless you have a voucher.
The control doesn't stop there.
"Not everyone is allowed to receive mail. Not everyone is allowed to own a phone in their home," Jones said. "Unless you are connected to the government, you don't have much."
There is an inherent contradiction to government control in Cuba. On the one hand, Jones said, there is beautiful architecture in building and home designs, however, a great deal of those historic homes and buildings are in disrepair. Jones said it's not uncommon for homes to waste away when owners pass away and there are no family members to whom they can will the property.
"A lot of those houses are subject to homeless squatters staying in them," Jones said. "They tend to build newer hotels and such in the areas where tourists from cruise ships are taken."
Jones said the locals in Cuba had begun to make strides in building a viable economy when tourism was opened to the United States. She said the younger Cuban generation took advantage of that change to begin opening various shops and stores.
While travel to Cuba will continue to be restricted for Americans, it's not impossible to visit the island nation. According to a story released in June by the Associated Press, major airlines, including American, JetBlue and Delta, continue to run a full schedule of relatively affordable flights to Havana and other Cuban cities. Most depart from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but there are daily flights from other U.S. cities.
As far as Cuba is concerned, American visitors are welcomed as tourists.
Tourist vistas are available for immediate purchase with an airline ticket or separately upon check-in for a Cuba-bound flight. The cost is about $50 per visa. Cuba remains perhaps the safest country in the Western Hemisphere for travelers, with violent crime against tourists virtually unknown. Even simple theft is unusual.
U.S. law prohibits Americans from going to Cuba, except for 11 specific purposes: family visits; government business; journalistic activity; professional research and meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances and exhibitions; supporting the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations; and importing and exporting.
Travelers must pick one of those categories from a menu displayed during their purchase of an airline ticket.
Before Trump's latest changes, many Americans came in groups whose purpose was "people-to-people" contact with ordinary Cubans. That category, with requirements that were relatively easy to fulfill through normal travel, has now been eliminated.