Watching Havana in Habana Part 4 by Nathaniel Kostar


29 de Marzo


I’m waiting at Cancun airport to check my bags and retrieve my ticket for Havana. I arrived by bus from Playa de Carmen nearly 3 hours early, overanxious I guess, and though I have plenty of time to spare, the ticket line for Air Cuba is the longest in the airport.

Before I find my place in line an airport worker asks me if I have a visa. I do not. He promptly sells me one for $25 and directs me towards the appropriate line.

AngelCubaFrom what I can see there are two lines, one with tourists and the usual luggage—me. And the other for people bringing all sorts of bubble-wrapped goodies to Cuba. I have taken many trips by air but never before witnessed a line brimming with so much stuff, mostly electronics—DVD players, laptops, CD players, flat screen TVs, motherboards for Windows, a massive 1990 style boom box… One family even has outdoor lawn furniture (bubble-wrapped of course), and a young girl rests in one of the chairs as she waits for the line to inch forward

All of this stuff is going to Cuba? On one flight? Some families have 4 or 5 flat screens alone! Is Cuba overrun by flat-screen TV’s and electronics?


The glossy tiled floor of the customs waiting room in Havana is noticeably dim.

I watch my feet as I wait, and occasionally glance up at the line. Feet, faces. Feet, line. A casual rhythm. All of the agents working in the booths are young women in their early 30’s, and the particular line I am in appears to be headed towards the only group with two women working together. One of the women, a faceless brunette, is in charge. She has a sharply arched brow and asks everyone a series of questions as she shows her pretty soft-face co-worker how to do the job.


The last thing I want is this overzealous Cuban customs employee giving me problems, or worst of all, stamping my passport.

There is no law banning U.S. citizens from entering Cuba. There is a law, however, that bans United States citizens (without Cuban relations) from spending money or receiving gifts in Cuba.

This legal absurdity arrived after a law that would have put an absolute ban on travel to the island was declared unconstitutional in 1963.  Freedom of movement is one of the rights guaranteed to all American citizens. 

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

But in part of an effort to strangle the communism out of Cuba, in 1960 the US government used the slippery sophisms of law to inhibit that “universal” right.

In my opinion, telling US citizens they can go to Cuba, they just aren’t allowed to spend money or receive gifts while they’re there, is a bit like a father who tells his teenage son:

Sure, you can go to the strip club. But if you look at any tits, I’ll fine you and lock you in your room for a month.

What happens after such a ridiculously qualified warning? The kid doesn’t go. You can’t go to a strip club and not see tits! Unless you’re blind or blacked out. And if you’re blacked out, you still saw tits, you just won’t remember. And you can’t go to Cuba without spending money or receiving gifts! Unless you’re on a fast or possess the talent to nourish yourself via Caribbean sun.

Problem solved. Mission accomplished. Constitution upheld.

So now I cannot legally go to a country that welcomes me because my country will fine me and maybe even put me in jail if I get caught. 

Criminal penalties for violating the embargo range up to ten years in prison, $1 million in corporate fines, and $250,000 in individual fines; civil penalties up to $55,000 per violation.

There is the argument that I shouldn’t support a communist country with a history of human rights violations. But there are many countries with horrific human rights violations, places where women can be stoned to death for committing adultery, and yet I can still travel to them legally. Also, check the tags on your clothes. Perhaps you are more conscious of your consumer power than I am, but it is likely they come from places like China, Vietnam, Jordan, Bangledesh; places where working conditions are notoriously brutal. But how many of us take the time to check? To research? How many pass up a good deal during a tough financial time?

Here is one more thing to consider.

I live in the state of Louisiana and am in no way ashamed. I am in love with the city of New Orleans. What it does for my mind/soul/art on a daily basis is nothing short of magic.  But my state has more people in prison per capita than anywhere else in the world. Yes, THE WORLD.

More than Iraq? Afghanistan? South Africa? Somalia?

NO PLACE has more prisoners per capita than the state of Louisiana. And no country has more prisoners per capita than the United States.

So perhaps people in Louisiana (and the U.S.) are natural criminals—something in the water? the gator jerky? the swamps? the ketchup?—or perhaps there are some human rights violations going on.

In Louisiana the prisons are for profit. That means right now someone is making more money because three more 18 year olds just got locked up in his prison for smoking marijuana in the park. How do you think our beloved jailor feels about reducing crime? About relaxing or modifying the laws for non-violent offenses? About reforming rehabilitation facilities and sending addicts to treatment instead of jail? About getting guns off the streets? I’ll tell you how he feels. A reduction in crime would lower his salary. The elimination of crime (that’ll be the day!) would put him out of business. I think it’s likely that he doesn’t give a shit. The more crime, the better. Just so long as they catch ‘em.

A neighbor and friend of mine, an African-American New Orleans-raised guy, recently told me without the faintest scent of hyperbole:

            “Prisons are the new plantations.”

Well I don’t know about that, but the connection can certainly be drawn. Money and blood—blood-money?—are major players in both

So let us go to Cuba. To see for ourselves. Or at least let me go.


Luckily a man directs me to another booth where a sweet mulatta with a soft voice speaks to me in English and nods her head like a co-conspirator when I sheepishly (and unnecessarily) utter could you…please…not…stamp my passport.

I later discover that Cuba doesn’t stamp any foreigner’s passport. I have heard it is because they don’t want the U.S. to ask travelers questions and give them shit in the event someone travels to both countries, but I am not certain.

She stamps the visa paper I purchased in the airport that is inside my passport, buzzes a red door, and just like dat—bienvenido a Cuba!



About Nathaniel Kostar 


About Nate Kostar’s exciting Renaissance Man Project, and how you can help:

Over the past 3 years I have periodically embarked on a journey that has taken me to four distinct locations around the world. They include:

  • Dorf Tyrol, Italy. The Castle of Ezra Pound
  • Phuket, Thailand. Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp.
  • Paris, France.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana

In each country I have studied the skills expected of an Italian Renaissance Man (poetry, combat, visual art, and music so far), but in a modern, more global sense. In other words, rather than learn how to fight with a lance and ride a horse I went to Thailand to learn Thai Kickboxing, also known as Muay Thai–”the art of eight limbs.”

Ultimately, the goal is not to become a “Renaissance Man” in such a short period of time, but rather, to investigate the intrinsic values that lie at the heart of the Renaissance philosophy and see how they can apply to, and hopefully improve, my own life. I am also concerned with the benefits of becoming well-rounded, and of with the knowledge that can be gained by casting myself in uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes painful (ie: Muay Thai) situations.

This project began three years ago and I only have two months left. The first month will take place in The Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands where salsa is part of everyday life for many.

To help donate to Nate’s project and bring it to completion, click here!