International flight operations with a civil helicopter between the U.S. and Cuba have never been common or routine. To the contrary, when civil helicopter operators traverse the Straits of Florida, they generally attract the attention of government officials both in Cuba and the U.S.
The most noteworthy was when an airline pilot “borrowed” a Russian Mi-8 to fly the captain and 33 family members, relatives and friends from a secluded spot near Varadero Airport (east of Havana) to Florida Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, now known as Miami Executive Airport, a general aviation facility about 13 miles southwest of Miami International Airport. The aircraft was configured for a crew of three with only 18 passengers.
According to The New York Times, this great escape was accomplished by Capt. German Pompa, a pilot with Cuban Airlines (also a lieutenant in the Cuban Air Force), on Jan. 3, 1992, by flying approximately 200 miles, mostly over water, at fewer than 30 feet agl to avoid radar detection and interception by Cuban military aircraft.
Interestingly, the current “thawing” of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments and the “normalizing” of international flight operations between the two countries are occurring approximately 25 years after the great escape flight.
If you search the web or canvas recent articles for information on visiting Cuba, whether by scheduled aircraft, a charter flight or privately owned aircraft, it will quickly become apparent that visiting Cuba is not like spending a week in the Bahamas, despite their relatively close proximity. For many visitors, the 1950s image of relic automobiles and colonial architecture is the draw or attraction to Cuba.
In reality, a visit to Cuba will be more of a political science seminar or a comparative economies workshop than a theme park excursion with bragging rights to having experienced Mr. Toad’s “Wild Ride” while driving around Havana in a 1950s-era Chevy or Ford. Even if the purpose of your visit is not for intellectual or historical pursuits, such as visiting the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway penned “Green Hills of Africa” and “Death in the Afternoon,” visitors are likely to observe and experience the suffocating effects of Cuba’s socialistic policies on private enterprise, civil liberties and individual initiative. As succinctly stated in a common Cuban expression, “the government pretends to pay us (workers) and we pretend to work.”
Existing conditions in Cuba reflect scarcity in consumer goods and services, poverty-level wages, an absence of private-sector capital for investing in public or private enterprises, government corruption, inefficient government institutions, and government control over prices and production, which has created a vast black market pervasive in all production and distribution sectors.
In the current setting, Cuba is perhaps a bankrupt economy searching for a new foreign financial sponsor following the country’s failed relationships with the Soviet Union and Venezuela, each having supported Cuba until their own economies collapsed. Accordingly, travel professionals and prior visitors typically suggest first-time visitors, especially those with the means and resources to arrange their own charter flights or use their own private or corporate aircraft, be advised to adjust their expectations regarding lodging, dining, ground transportation, cellphone and computer communications, and shopping while in Cuba.
For example, tourist literature often cites the availability of 4- and 5-star hotels. But these claims represent a Cuban rating system that is in rewarding stars to characterize a specific hotel’s quality and ambiance, usually by an inflated margin of two to three stars compared with international standards. Thus a Cuban 5-star hotel might properly be ranked as a 3-star hotel by international standards.
Even when expectations of quality lodgings are metered down, there remains the ever-present challenge of securing extremely limited hotel space. Many travel agents recommend obtaining lodging at least six to nine months in advance of anticipated arrival date.
Similar expectations should be given to fine dining. The vast majority of restaurants in Cuba are government-owned and/or supplied by government commissaries, which determine the distribution and allocation of all food supplies.
Visitors are also likely to be disappointed with Cuba’s existing communications infrastructure for supporting mobile telephones and computers. Although conditions are expected to improve in the next two to three years, as of late 2016 most U.S. mobile phones will not work in Cuba for either domestic or international calls. The use of satellite phones in Cuba was initially reported as prohibited by the Cuban government, although some recent visitors report a relaxing of this restriction.
Knowledgeable of these prevailing conditions, largely attributable to 50-plus years of communist-party governance and socialistic policies, which have left Cuba’s economy, infrastructure, legal system and other institutions frail and struggling to cope with rapidly escalating domestic and international expectations, will provide crews and passengers with the necessary insight to resist disappointment and frustration during their flight and visit to Cuba.
Until recently, the possibility of using a personal, corporate or charter helicopter for transporting passengers between Cuba and the U.S. was virtually impossible due to a Gordian Knot of regulations, policies, paperwork and official red tape established by Cuban and U.S. agencies (the FAA, State Dept., Commerce Dept., Treasury Dept., Customs and Border Protection, etc.) that restricted or severely impeded the flow of private-sector commerce and communications between the two countries, even though Cuba and the U.S. are physically separated by only 93 miles of water when measured from the U.S. southernmost tip of the Florida Keys to the closest Cuban shoreline. Some of these impediments applied, or still apply, to everyone entering Cuba from the U.S., regardless of their modes of arrival or departure. Other governmental constraints and requirements are applicable only when arriving via a nonscheduled air carrier aircraft, such as a charter flight.
It should be emphasized that many requirements and protocols governing travel to Cuba from the U.S. via privately owned aircraft are changing or being reinterpreted. More U.S. citizens are visiting Cuba, and many arrive via aircraft other than those on a scheduled airline. Further, the applicability of existing formalities and procedures changes almost monthly. The condition of regulatory instability is likely to continue into the foreseeable future as the new presidential administration in the U.S. assumes power over international relations and begins to assert its influence on future relations with Cuba and other sovereigns.
Notwithstanding the dynamic nature of existing government requirements affecting the flying of U.S.-registered civil aircraft to and from Cuba, with passengers intending to sojourn there for a limited period in a status other than as tourists, the following primer provides current insight into what aircraft owners and operators should consider prior to flying their aircraft into Cuba’s airspace.
Perhaps the most significant and encompassing U.S. regulatory requirement on passengers flying to Cuba from the U.S. are Treasury Dept. regulations that allow such passengers and crew to visit or sojourn in Cuba, provided the trip’s purpose is classified under one of 12 approved categories.
Tourism, vacationing or sightseeing are not among the authorized purposes. More specifically, for persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction, lounging on the beach, swimming, scuba diving, windsurfing, sightseeing, hiking, etc. are not recognized as approved purposes.
While crew and passengers are no longer required to obtain a specific license from the Treasury Dept., they may now self-certify by completing an affidavit certifying that their trip is for one of the approved purposes. This form is then produced any time if requested by the U.S. government within the subsequent five-year period.
It should be noted that this general requirement is entirely a U.S. government requirement and applicable to all persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction, regardless of their mode of travel to Cuba. The Cuban government is generally disinterested or indifferent toward this requirement and does not appear to enforce or even give deference to its existence. Crews and passengers visiting from the U.S. are issued a tourist visa by the Cuban government prior to departure.
There’s often a fuzzy line between what constitutes an educational activity, one of the Treasury’s trip purposes and a tourist activity, which is expressly prohibited by the U.S. government. As might be expected, many, if not the vast majority of, visitors from the U.S. self-certify the purpose of their Cuban visit as educational, often characterized as conversational Spanish classes, revisionist lectures on Cuban-American history or on-site seminars regarding the writings, adventures and heroics of Ernest Hemingway during his post-World War II expat days while living and writing in Cuba.
On the Cuban side, governmental agencies require that private aircraft operations from the U.S. to Cuba obtain and pre-pay certain permits, approvals and handling fees. Such criteria include: Cuban tourist visas for each passenger and crewmember; landing and navigational permits issued by the Cuban Civil Aviation Institute; and written confirmation from Cuba’s airport handling agency.
If at least one of these pre-arrival requirements were not properly completed prior to departing the U.S., the aircraft and its crew/passengers may not be allowed to depart or might be denied entry into Cuban airspace.
While compliance with this multitude of required government approvals and permits is itself daunting, given language and communication barriers, the process is made even more vexing for aircraft owners and their passengers by the fact that Cuba is currently an all-cash economy for visitors from the U.S. The existing form of payment for commercial and consumer transactions creates more complications than might initially be imagined, since U.S. dollars are not legal tender in Cuba and all transactions are with government-owned enterprises.
More specifically, Cuba has established a two-currency system: the Cuban Peso (CUP), the common form of payment between Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), colloquially pronounced “kook,” which is not traded internationally, can only be obtained in Cuba and is typically used by all foreigners when visiting Cuba. The CUC currently trades on parity with the U.S. dollar.
However, as of late 2016, Cuba extracts a 13% fee (10% tax or surcharge, 3% transaction charge) for converting U.S. dollars to CUCs. Bottom line, while being mindful of customs laws, bring much cash, especially if you will be purchasing aircraft fuel, parking your aircraft or paying the tab for lodging and meals. R&WI