Americans can once again participate in Cuba’s Havana Marathon in 2014.
Three years ago, I had the chance of a lifetime to run a half marathon in Havana, and politics aside, it was an amazing experience.
For Americans, Cuba has long been a forbidden island. It sits less than 100 miles off the tip of Florida, yet it’s one of the few places in the world U.S. citizens can’t freely visit. It’s been that way since 1960, the year the U.S. government first set in place a commercial embargo meant to diminish the economy of Fidel Castro’s repressive communist government. The politics between the U.S. and Cuba haven’t changed much in the past 54 years, even if it’s Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl, who’s been running the country. Cuba’s economy has been in dire straits for years, especially after the Soviet Union fell, but, as I found out during my short trip in 2011, it’s still an amazing place with friendly people, a proud history and rich culture.
I know Cuban-Americans have strong feelings about their homeland, the Castro regime and the struggling Cuban people, but for me, the experience was all about the chance to see Cuba before the Castro government fell and, ultimately, the universal language of running. I visited during the 2011 Havana Marathon—known locally as Marabana, a playful combination of “marathon” and the correct pronunciation of “Habana.” I ran the entire half marathon with a local runner, Diorge Echevarria, and, through my broken Spanish and his broken English, thoroughly enjoyed our 13.1 miles of running and cultural interaction. (We both remarked that the tip of Key West was less than 100 miles away near mile 3 along the Malecón sea wall.)
During the race weekend, I chatted with runners from dozens of other countries (who were able to freely visit Cuba) while relaxing at a modern, jointly owned Cuban-Spanish hotel. As with any international adventure I have taken, I learned a lot and came away with a new understanding for the Cuban way of life via the many locals I interacted with during my five-day trip.
That trip was made possible by Insight Cuba, a New York-based cultural exchange organization, created an approved trip for about 25 American runners to visit Cuba and run the Havana Marathon. But after a successful event that year, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury—the organization that oversees cultural exchange licenses—decided that running didn’t meet the proper guidelines for a people-to-people cultural exchange.
Tom Popper, the president of Insight Cuba and longtime runner, didn’t give up, though. After three years of working with OFAC and other U.S. bureaucratic offices, his organization submitted and received permission to take 156 American runners to Cuba for the 2014 Havana Marathon and half marathon through a new amateur sports license. This year’s races will be held on Nov. 16.
There’s a slight catch: all participants on the specific running tours have to be runners who have completed a half marathon or marathon already. That would requirement would generally eliminate novice runners and non-runners. But, knowing many runners have non-running spouses or domestic partners, Popper’s organization created simultaneous people-to-people tours so significant others can visit Cuba at the same time.
For this year’s race weekend, Insight Cuba has created three tours between four and eight days in length: the Havana Marathon 4-Day Tour (Nov 14-17), the Havana Marathon and People-to-People 8-Day Warm-Up Tour (Nov 10-17), and the Havana Marathon and People-to-People 8-Day Cool-Down Tour (Nov 14-21). Tour prices range from $2,495 to $4,395 per person (double occupancy). All tours include the mandatory U.S. Department of the Treasury license and other necessary paperwork, plus an expert Cuban tour guide.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was first there in 2003 to bring runners there,” Popper said recently. “We finally got the license to a few runners there in 2011, but then it wasn’t allowed after that year. But we kept trying and we finally received approval again. Sport and athletic competition continues to be the great global conduit to bring people, cultures and countries together.”
Believe it or not, it’s actually legal for American citizens to visit Cuba, but here’s the catch: it’s illegal for Americans to spend money or conduct business in Cuba. You also need a special license approved by the state department in order to get on a flight to Cuba at Miami International Airport. Americans have been visiting Cuba illegally for years, mostly by traveling through Mexico. But that’s a risky situation that can result in a big fine or jail time if U.S. officials find out about it.
The race courses wind through magnicient avenues that line Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage city, and past historic places of interest, including the famous Malecón–a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches along the coast from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana to the vibrant neighborhood of Vedado. Along the way, runners will see the circa-1930 Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the expansive Revolution Square, and El Capitolio, the former national capitol modeled after the U.S. Capitol when it was built in 1920.
Certainly seeing so many vintage 1950s American cars was somewhat mind-blowing, but experiencing Old Havana was truly special.
“People always ask me what it’s like, and I tell them there is an old charm to Cuba and to Havana,” Popper says. “Every time you go to Cuba, you get the feeling that it hasn’t been spoiled in some way.”