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Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Cuba

Cuba: Republic of Cuba
Capital: Havana
Population: 11,224,321
Currency: Cuban peso (CUP)
Languages: Spanish
Religions: nominally 85% Roman Catholic prior to CASTRO assuming power; Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and Santeria are also represented
Borders: US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay 29 km

Cuba is a totalitarian, police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers. Americans visiting Cuba should be aware that any encounter with a Cuban could be subject to surreptitious scrutiny by the Castro regime's secret police, the General Directorate for State Security (DGSE). Also, any interactions with average Cubans, regardless how well-intentioned the American is, can subject that Cuban to harassment and/or detention, amongst other forms of repressive actions, by state security elements. The regime is strongly anti-American yet desperate for U.S. dollars to prop itself up. The United States does not have direct diplomatic relations with Cuba, but provides consular and other services through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The U.S. Interests Section operates under the legal protection of the Swiss government but is not co-located with the Swiss Embassy.

In the opening months of 2003, there were numerous attempts to hijack aircraft and ocean-going vessels by Cubans seeking to depart from Cuba. In several cases, these attempts involved the use of weapons by the hijackers. Cuban authorities failed in their efforts to prevent two air hijackings, largely because of weak security procedures at satellite airports. U.S. citizens, although not necessarily targets, may be caught up in any violence during an attempted hijacking. Accordingly, U.S. citizens may wish to avoid travel by public transportation within Cuba.

The United States Government has publicly and repeatedly announced that any person who hijacks (or attempts to hijack) an aircraft or vessel (common carrier or other) will face the maximum penalties pursuant to U.S. law, regardless of that person's nationality. In Cuba, hijackers will be sentenced to lengthy prison terms at a minimum, and may be subject to the death penalty; on April 11, 2003, the Government of Cuba executed three suspected hijackers, nine days after taking them into custody.

The waters around Cuba can be dangerous to navigate. Since 1993 there have been at least eight shipwrecks involving U.S. citizens. U.S. boaters who have encountered problems requiring repairs in Cuba have found repair services to be expensive and frequently not up to U.S. standards. Note that it is not permitted by law for U.S. persons to use such repair services in non-emergency situations. Any U.S. person who makes use of Cuban repair facilities should be prepared to provide documentary evidence demonstrating the emergency nature of that activity. The government of Cuba often holds boats as collateral to assure payment for salvage and repair services. Transferring funds from the U.S. to pay for boat repairs in Cuba is complicated by restrictions codified in U.S. law relating to commercial transactions with the Government of Cuba. A Treasury license is required for such payments.

Although crime against U.S. and other foreign travelers in Cuba has generally been limited to pickpocketing, purse snatching, or the taking of unattended items, the U.S. Interests Section has received increased reports of violent assaults against American citizens in connection with robberies. In cases of violent crime, Americans should not resist if confronted, as perpetrators are usually armed with a knife or machete and often work with partners. In one incident in late 2003, an American citizen apparently was beaten to death in a street attack.

Pickpocketings and purse snatchings usually occur in crowded areas such as markets, beaches, and other gathering points, including Old Town Havana. Travelers should use caution in all such areas and are advised not to leave belongings unattended, nor to carry purses and bags loosely over one shoulder. Visitors should avoid wearing flashy jewelry or displaying large amounts of cash.

Extremely limited expressions of open market activity are permitted by the regime, but the Cuban Government's tolerance of this non-state economic activity is diminishing. Travelers should be aware that in an effort to survive the government of Cuba 's war of attrition, home restaurants, known as "paladares," sometimes maintain two different menus, one for customers that have been recruited by "finders" and another menu for the rest. Some paladares may have no menu, allowing adjustment of prices upward at the end of a meal. The number of paladares has been decimated from an estimated high in 1996 of 1562 to 200 in 2002, due to high taxes ($800 per month, irrespective of profits), crushing fines, and narrow, if not negative profit margins.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Persons violating Cuban laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Cuba are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and heavy fines. Those accused of drug-related and other crimes face long legal proceedings and delayed due process.

Cuba's Law of Protection of National Independence and the Cuban Economy, contains a series of measures aimed at discouraging contact between foreign nationals and Cuban citizens. These measures are aimed particularly at the press and media representatives, but may be used against any foreign national coming into contact with a Cuban. The law provides for jail terms of up to 30 years in aggravated cases. U.S. citizens traveling in Cuba are subject to this law, and they may unwittingly cause the arrest and imprisonment of any Cuban with whom they come into contact.

Medical care does not meet U.S. standards. While medical professionals are generally competent, many health facilities face shortages of medical supplies and bed space. Many medications are unavailable so travelers to Cuba should bring with them any prescribed medicine in its original container and in amounts commensurate with personal use. A copy of the prescription and a letter from the prescribing physician explaining the need for prescription drugs facilitates their entry into the country.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Cuba is provided for general reference only, and may not be completely accurate in a particular location or circumstance:

Safety of Public Transportation: Fair
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair

Driving is on the right-hand side of the road; speed limits are normally posted and generally respected. In the past two years the number and variety of motor vehicles on Cuban roads has increased significantly. The higher traffic volume has been accompanied by a marked increase in the rate of accidents, and reports suggest that accidents involving motor vehicles are now the leading cause of accidental death in Cuba. Passengers in automobiles are not required to wear seatbelts and motorcyclists are not required to wear helmets, as these are not generally available on the local market. Many accidents involve motorists striking pedestrians or bicyclists. Drivers found to bear responsibility in accidents resulting in serious injury or death are subject to prison terms of up to 10 years, and Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers of rental cars who are involved in accidents from leaving the country until all claims associated with an accident are settled.

Taxis are available in busy commercial and tourist areas; radio-dispatched taxis are generally clean and reliable. Travelers should be aware that licensed taxis available near hotel areas are often driven by DGSE agents, or the drivers report to the DGSE, as a part of the regime's efforts to follow the activities of foreign visitors. However, travelers should not accept rides in unlicensed taxis as they may be used by thieves to rob passengers. Buses designated for tourist travel, both between and within cities, generally meet international standards for both cleanliness and safety. Public buses used by Cubans, known as "guaguas," are crowded, unreliable and havens for pickpockets. These public buses will usually not offer rides to foreign visitors.

Although the main arteries of Havana are generally well-maintained, secondary streets often are not. Many roads and city streets are unlit, making night driving dangerous, especially as some cars and most bicycles lack running lights or reflectors. Street signage tends to be insufficient and confusing. Most Cuban cars are old, in poor condition and lack turn signals and other standard safety equipment. Drivers should exercise extreme care.

The principal Cuban east-west highway is in good condition but lacks lights and extends only 2/3s of the way from Havana to the eastern tip of the island. The extension of that highway on to the east is in poor condition in many areas, with washed out sections and deep potholing. Night driving should be strictly avoided outside urban areas. Secondary rural roads are narrow, and some are in such bad condition as to be impassable by cars. Due to the rarity of cars on rural roads, pedestrians, bicycles, and farm equipment operators wander onto the roads without any regard to possible automobile traffic. Unfenced livestock constitute another serious road hazard.

Rental car agencies provide roadside assistance to their clients as a condition of the rental contract. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers of rental cars who are involved in accidents from leaving the country, even if they are injured and require medical evacuation, until all claims associated with an accident are settled. Travelers should not permit unauthorized persons to drive the rental vehicle. Automobile renters are provided telephone numbers to call in Havana or in other places where they might be motoring; agencies respond as needed with tow trucks and/or mechanics. A similar service is available to foreigners resident in Cuba who insure cars with the National Insurance Company.

Although licensed travelers can travel between the United States and Cuba aboard charter flights, there is no direct commercial service linking the two countries. In early 2003 there were a series of hijackings from smaller Cuban airports that raised serious questions about their level of security. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873 or visit the FAA Internet home page at

Because of serious concerns about the operation of the Cuban flag carrier, Cubana de Aviacion, as well as other Cuban carriers on-island, particularly regarding its safety and security standards, maintenance regime and history of fatal accidents, including the hijacking concerns noted above, U.S. Interests Section staff and official visitors to Cuba are instructed to avoid flying aboard either the domestic or the international flights of any Cuban airline, including Caba�a de Aviation. Americans considering travel on any Cuban airline may wish to defer their travel or pursue private means of transportation.

The Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 256-4801.

Photographing military or police installations or personnel, or harbor, rail, and airport facilities is forbidden.

Please also refer to the separate Travel Warning for Colombia and to the Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

April 22, 2004

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