Aurora: ¡Claro qué sí, me encanta hablar de Cuba!
As you probably know, US citizens cannot legally travel to Cuba purely for tourism (unless, of course, your names are Jay Z and Beyonce.) Many US citizens travel there through Canada, Mexico, or other countries, and risk the potential of a large fine if caught.
Several years ago the Obama administration loosened the travel restrictions on travel to Cuba, issuing licences for what are called "People to People" exchanges. These are typically organized by religious, arts, or other organizations that must provide an agenda showing legitimate and meaningful interactions between US and Cuban citizens. The idea is that if enough US citizens interact meaningfully with enough Cuban citizens they they will want a democratic republic like ours. I am a photographer, so I traveled there with a group of other photographers. During our time there we met with, photographed with, and exchanged ideas about photography with a number of Cuban photographers. I have heard that people who just want to go there to visit Cuba (i.e. "tourists") can sign up with groups with which they have no legitimate affiliation, pay their money, do just enough P2P work to satisfy the requirements, and spend the rest of the time at the beach.
Now, about my experiences there. First, safety: Havana may be the safest large city on the planet. Because of the US trade embargo and the fact that the Soviet Union no longer supports Cuba, tourism has become maybe the biggest business on the island. Lots of Europeans go there, as well as a few of us norteamericanos. The Cuban authorities take good care of their tourists. There are lots of police around who do not hesitate to intervene when they even think a Cuban national might be bothering a tourist in any way. I saw that twice myself. It is illegal for Cubans to own firearms. The sentences for even petty crimes can be very severe, and I hear that Cuban prisons are not nice places, so the crime rate is very low. One of my friends went to Cuba before me, and told me that he was out photographing alone at 3AM with thousands of dollars of camera equipment and felt perfectly safe, mostly because he could see the police on the corner watching his back. Even hotel rooms are safe, because they are owned by the state, the maids and other employees are state employees, and they know that if they are even accused of taking something from a tourist's room they will lose their job and never be able to work again. First morning there I left a peso and a stick of gum for my maid. Later that day she sought me out and made sure it was actually for her before she would take it.
All this might sound oppressive, and for Cubans it is. Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian government that does not take dissidence lightly. Before we left for Cuba we were told: 1. Do not attempt to photograph soldiers or police officers. 2. Do not attempt to take photographs in the airport. 3. If someone tells you not to take a picture, do not argue, ask why, or attempt to sneak a picture. Just nod, put your camera away, and walk away. Obey the rules and you will have no problems with the authorities in Cuba. In my former profession we used to say, "forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission." This saying does not apply in Cuba!
Cuban people are intelligent, well informed of world events, and they love people from the US. I cannot tell you how many times while walking down the street in Havana a Cuban would ask, "Where you from?" When they heard, "Los Estados Unidos," they would smile and say, "I love los Estados Unidos, invariably accompanied by the two-fingered peace/victory sign. asked several Cuban why they were not resentful of US citizens over the embargo that has made their lives so difficult all these years. They all said they knew it was between the US and Cuban governments, and not between the US and Cuban people. As I said, well informed, given the cencorship that prevails there.
I can only say one negative thing about my trip: the food isn't that good. They have few spices with which to cook, and they tend to overcook everything. This negative is neutralized by the great rum one can drink with his/her dinner. Frankly, the best food I had was a fried pork, tomato, and onion sandwich that I bought from a vendor at the mercado where the Cubans buy their fruits and vegetables.
Here is how good my trip was: halfway through the week I decided once was not enough and that I wanted to return. I also decided that even though I didn't need to speak Spanish to get along, I consider myself a traveler vs. a tourist, and I think a traveler should at least try to communicate in the native language. Hence the hard work I am putting into learning Spanish. I am booked for another trip there in December. This time I my license is permitting me to travel there by myself for the first three days to continue working on my photographs, and then meet up with the group that is coming later. I cannot wait!
Let me know if my novellete here did not answer all of your questions.