Interested in more than Cuban music, cigars, classic cars and famous cultural and historical icons, a growing number of U.S. citizens are beginning to discover a country which has been off limits to them for over half a century.
The thawing of relations between Havana and Washington, which began on December 17, 2014, brought with it modifications to travel regulations to Cuba, the results of which are evident today on streets nationwide, and are beginning to shape a new future of relations between both countries.
Speaking to Granma Lauren Smith a New Yorker on her first visit to the Cuban capital, stated, “I wanted to see what was going on in Cuba.”
Lauren is one of the more than 100,000 U.S. citizens who have traveled to Cuba since Washington eased travel restrictions in January 2015.
An example of the changing relationship between the two countries, separated by 90 miles of water and a complicated history, is the exponential rise in U.S. visitors to the island since the beginning of 2015 to date (50% greater than the same period in 2014.)
“I expected to see the streets patrolled by soldiers, but actually I’ve seen a lot of tranquility in Havana,” states Lauren Smith.
Direct contact with Cuba’s complex and multifaceted reality is breaking down stereotypes which have developed over decades of conflict.
Various experts have highlighted the possible implications of greater exchanges between the two societies: “U.S. citizens’ perception of Cuba will quickly change and the fact that the blockade is a nothing more than an obsolete Cold War policy, which must be eliminated, would become more obvious” noted Luis
René Fernández Tabío, researcher at the University of Havana’s Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies (Cehseu).
Bill Delahunt, former Democrat Congressman and longstanding supporter of rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, agrees, noting the absurdity of travel restrictions.
What is changing is that more and more U.S. citizens are realizing the futility of the policy, noted the former legislator, adding that those who return from their visits are likely to support the new relationship and insist there be no return to the policies of the Cold War era.
For her part, Mary Drobny, U.S. tour guide for the company Cultural Journeys, describes the recent steps as a “great start,” while noting that they must continue to be developed.
However, U.S. law currently prevents increased interaction.
As early as January 16, 1961, the U.S. Department of State announced measures restricting its citizens from traveling to Cuba, supposedly unable to offer them consular services and guarantee their safety on the island.
At the beginning of January that same year, the Dwight Eisenhower administration decided to sever diplomatic relations with the country, while both the Cuban and U.S. embassies in Washington and Havana, respectively, were closed - re-opened on July 20, 2015. Today, a U.S. citizen wanting to travel to Cuba can only do so under 12 authorized categories, for which President Barack Obama has established general licenses.
The categories range from religious to citizen exchanges, however tourist visits continue to be prohibited under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, the same piece of legislation which paradoxically permitted U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, although under harsh conditions, with the obligation to pay for goods in cash, in advance.
THE BATTLE IN CONGRESS
Two bills which could potentially change the situation are currently making their way through both the House of Representatives and Senate.
Jeff Flake, Republican Senator from Arizona and Democrat Patrick Leahy, representing Vermont, are introducing a bill in the Senate to remove restrictions on travel to Cuba, which already has almost 50 co-sponsors in a 100-seat chamber.
Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas (CDDA), who has organized several visits by Congress members to Cuba, believes that legislation to remove the travel ban has a good chance of succeeding, despite also needing approval by the House of Representatives, among other legal processes.
She expressed her confidence that Senator Flake will get the 60 signatures needed to move forward with the initiative.
However, a similar bill introduced to the House of Representatives by Mark Sanford, Republican Senator for South Carolina, has only achieved 46 co-sponsors (38 Democrat and eight Republican) in a body composed of 435 members. The numbers alone demonstrate the difficulty of advancing initiatives related to easing blockade legislation.
For his part, William M. LeoGrande, professor at the American University in Washington and author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, believes that there is no chance Congress will lift restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba this year. He also highlighted that the Republicans have control of both Houses with many unwilling help Obama to end the ban.
Cuban academic Luis René Fernández Tabío agrees, pointing out that it remains to be seen if a positive change regarding the issue occurs in Congress, in particular after Obama made his final State of the Union Address, during which he once again insisted on the need to end the blockade.
The three experts agree that depending on the outcome of this year’s presidential elections, anything could happen in 2017.
An increasing number of U.S. citizens are predicted to visit the island this year, especially once regular commercial flights between the two nations begin in mid-2016, as reported by various U.S. airlines. Despite this, the number of U.S. visitors arriving to the island will probably remain in the range of hundreds of thousands, as has been the situation thus far.
However analysts agree that the island could potentially see the arrival of millions of U.S. visitors.
Fernández Tabío stated that lifting travel restrictions would greatly benefit both the Cuban tourist industry and U.S. travel companies.
They would also expose the many difficulties, caused by the blockade, which U.S. citizens face when visiting the island - from problems with bank transactions and communication, to the lack of familiar products.
From an economic point of view, ending the ban would mean a substantial increase in revenue for Cuba. If lifted, tourist arrivals are estimated to increase to one, perhaps even two million, in the first year alone, given that Cuba represents the forbidden fruit everyone wants to try,” noted the Cuban academic.
LeoGrande highlighted that an end to travel restrictions would not only impact the Cuban economy but that the “increase in visits, as well as social and cultural exchanges between the two countries, will help to advance the process toward the normalization of relations,” he concluded.
Some however, point to the other side of the coin, recalling historic problems associated with the presence of U.S. tourists on the island. Despite the fact that after more than 50 years of Revolution, Cuba is no longer the same as it was in 1959, we still remember the U.S.’s attempt to make the island a “hybrid casino-brothel.”
Given such divergent cultures, others have noted the possible impact of a massive wave of U.S. tourists on Cuban society.
“Cuban culture has real character,” states Lauren Smith, the young New Yorker who spoke with this publication on Obispo Street, in Old Havana, and doesn’t believe that so many years of history can be wiped away in a single day.
For Maureen McKinley, another more experienced U.S. citizen, it’s clear that “changes in this country depend on its people and their efforts to build their own future.”