The following post was written by Ella Shapard who is spending the first half of her Gap Year in Cuba.

  1. It’s completely closed off to people from the U.S.
    Not true at all! Even after the current administration’s new regulations against Cuba, it is still legal and remarkably easy to get there! When you purchase your plane ticket, there are 12 different categories you choose from about why you are traveling there. The most common category that tourists use is called “Support for the Cuban people.” This category gives you a lot of wiggle room since pretty much anything you would do as a tourist, such as shopping, eating at restaurants, taking tours, is financially supporting the Cuban people. Prior to boarding your flight to Havana, which is now the only city you can fly to from the U.S., you will need to get a tourist visa. Usually, you can buy these at the boarding gate, and the cost depends on what airline. The U.S. government suggests that you keep your schedule and a record of the money you spend because they can technically ask for your documentation up to 5 years after your visit, but this happens rarely, if ever.
  2. All Cubans supported Fidel Castro.
    Super duper not true! At the beginning of the Cuban Revolution in 1953, many Cubans were enthusiastic because it meant the end of the violent and oppressive Batista regime and what Fidel Castro promised to be a new and fair Cuba. However, as the revolution progressed and its values changed, many Cubans, particularly the upper-class, began to feel disillusioned as they saw their businesses and properties they owned being taken away by the government. Throughout the Cuban Revolution, almost a million Cubans fled the island as a result of Fidel Castro’s regime. Even today, there are many mixed opinions on the revolution and the Castros, so it is not accurate to claim that all Cubans support the Castros.
  3. Cuba is a dangerous place.
    Personally, I felt very safe while living in Havana, especially in comparison to some of the bigger cities I’ve been to in the U.S. It is not legal to own guns, which comforted me immensely. I felt completely safe going to the movies, walking around alone, even at night, and exploring the city. Violent crimes are rare and I did not hear of any incidents of friends getting pickpocketed, but since Havana is a big city with millions of people, you should exercise the same caution you would in other large cities. Although I did feel safe, I was subjected to a lot of catcalling and harassment. I had to learn to ignore it and continue walking because, as the Spanish teacher I had at the University of Havana described it, catcalling is “just part of the culture.” This in no way excuses it, but it means that the catcalling I received was no more than a passing comment and would not be followed up with any aggressive behavior.
  4. Cubans hate people from the U.S.
    In my experience, this could not be further from the truth! While some Cubans resent the U.S. government, and justifiably so, most of the people we met were super enthusiastic when they heard that Jake and I from the U.S. Each time we told someone where we are from, they would eagerly respond with “I have a cousin in Miami/Buffalo/Wisconsin/etc!” or “I just love the movie Fast and Furious!” Despite the tensions between our two governments, we easily made deep connections with our Cuban friends, something I believe is really important in the process of repairing relations between our countries.
  5. Cubans can’t leave the island.
    While this is not technically true, it is very difficult for the majority of Cubans to do so. In order to travel outside of Cuba, they need to obtain a passport, which costs 100 CUC (1 CUC = $1), a major expense given how low average Cuban salary is. After getting a passport, they would need to buy the plane ticket, find somewhere to stay, pay for food, and other various travel expenses. Traveling to the U.S. is even more difficult as you would have to travel to a third country such as Mexico to apply for a visa, which could easily be denied. So, although the government doesn’t outright forbid people from leaving, the process is so difficult and costly that many people never do.

Obviously, there is so much more to learn about a country as complex and exciting as Cuba, but these were some of the biggest misconceptions that were challenged in my time there!