First Americans in Cuba under easier travel rules
'People-to-people' tourists greeted by hugs, handshakes, welcoming
By Jeff Franks
updated 8/16/2011 8:09:30 PM ET
HAVANA — The first group of Americans to tour Cuba under new, more
liberal U.S. travel regulations have been greeted by hugs, handshakes
and a welcoming Cuban government, according to a trip organizer.
The 30 travelers are pioneers in a new era of "people-to-people"
exchanges the Obama administration approved in January to "enhance the
free flow of information" to Cubans and over the objections of those who
favor a continued hard-line against the communist government.
About 30 to 35 travel groups are believed to have obtained licenses so
far under the new regulations, which reinstate rules put in place by
President Bill Clinton in 1999, but revoked by his successor, President
George W. Bush in 2003.
The first group of travelers have been to orphanages, medical
facilities, art museums, music performances and tobacco farms and have
walked the streets of Old Havana, in a first taste of the forbidden
fruit that Cuba has been for five decades under the U.S. trade embargo
against the country.
Their reactions, said Tom Popper of Insight Cuba, the travel agency
bringing in the group, have varied widely.
"Some people are amazed by what they see and astonished by the people
and the culture and everything around them," he told Reuters this week.
"And some people feel horrible that getting coffee is a struggle and
food stuff is hard (to find) and that there's two economies and that a
doctor has to drive a taxi to supplement his income," Popper said.
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He described an emotional visit to a facility for the blind where 40
people awaited the group and applauded their arrival.
"They had a presentation, a couple of them played music, they danced
together," Popper said. "People hugged. There were tears everywhere. It
was just beautiful."
Such exchanges, he said, "make a difference in Americans and make a
difference in Cubans. So I just hope maybe one day they can see the
value in what we're doing."
Opposition to rapprochement
"They" are the U.S. politicians and others, mostly Cuban exiles in
Florida, who oppose rapprochement with the government led by President
Raul Castro and believe American travel to Cuba helps the communist
system whose fall they have awaited for 50 years.
They have fought to preserve that part of the embargo which prevented
almost all Americans from going to Cuba and out of which the new
regulations take a big bite, according to John McAuliff, who as head of
the Fund for Reconciliation and Development advocates for better
"In principle, the president's January announcement means virtually any
American with a serious interest in Cuba can visit," he said.
Among other things, the new regulations permit Americans to go to Cuba
through travel agencies such as Insight Cuba that obtain a U.S. license
to conduct "purposeful travel," which means it must be educational and
interactive with Cubans.
"No beaches," said Popper.
The tourists were spread out across Cuba this week, but upon arrival
last Thursday, one participant extolled the virtues of the travel opening.
"It's marvelous that more people can come here because of the fact that
it's people-to-people rather than government-to-government. I think
people have a way of coming to terms with an awful lot of trouble that
governments can't do," said the man who, in a possible bow to political
sensitivities, identified himself as James Bond.
Popper said the Cuban government has helped set up events for the group,
including sessions with officials who took "very strong questions" from
Critics have charged they will get a sanitized view of Cuba, but Popper
disagreed. "There's no sugarcoating," he said.
Story: Congressmen want to roll back new Cuba travel rules
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The cash-strapped Cuban government welcomes more Americans because
tourism is a major money earner for the island, but also because it gets
a chance to change perceptions.
"I think they believe that since their politicians are not able to work
out anything diplomatic, each person who goes back to the United States
has a new and different perspective," Popper said.
It appears to work, because he said most visitors leave saying "Cuban
life isn't as bad as I thought."
McAuliff estimated that a maximum of 100,000 Americans will go to Cuba
this year under the new rules.
Cuban-American members of Congress already have proposed legislation to
roll back the regulations, so it remains to be seen how long the freer
travel will last.
"It will make a real difference in attitudes in both countries if fully
implemented, which is what terrifies the Cuban-American hard-liners,"