By Diana Nelson Jones and Michael A. Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A prisoner exchange and a diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba leave many questions about what might happen next, but Cuba watchers hope for a warming trend.
“It’s been a long time coming and hallelujah!” said Paul Busang, president of Gulliver’s Travels, a Shadyside travel agency that at 50 is nearly as old as the travel barriers. Tourism remains restricted for now, but the shift in policy and easing of some restrictions is “one of the best things to ever happen in the travel industry,” he said. “There’s pent-up demand to go there.”
Social media lighted up with exclamation points over the chance to buy previously banned items such as Cuban cigars, but as a reminder: Cuba’s economy is in shreds, Fidel Castro is alive and his revolution, which still resonates with many Cubans, remains the fuel that fires an anti-diplomatic lobby in Florida.
Some Cuba watchers believe the economic crisis spurred the diplomatic outreach.
“I think we all miscalculated the pressures on Raul Castro,” said Kathleen Musante, a frequent traveler to Cuba with students from the University of Pittsburgh, where she is a professor of anthropology and former director of the Center for Latin American Studies. “The economy in the last three or four years has appeared as desperate as it was” after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “I think there is no going back now.”
Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul Castro, who succeeded him, has been less restrictive toward small entrepreneurs and even grassroots activism.
If thawing leads to warming, some people fear the United States will export its brand as the Castro regime’s replacement.
“There’s a lot of grassroots work being done in Cuba, and people want to make sure that whatever happens happens from within, not from outside,” said Kenya Dworkin y Mendez, a native of Cuba and professor of Hispanic studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s going to take a long time to see how this plays out.”
“I think this is a huge step and I commend President Obama for taking it,” said Thomas Buell, a member of Mayor Bill Peduto’s Welcoming Pittsburgh Advisory Council and director of development and marketing for Global Pittsburgh. “In a very public way it invigorates the conversation about global connections. I have always wondered how we could open trade relations with China but not with Cuba.”
Travel to Cuba is legal only with a license from the Department of Treasury and a set of qualifying reasons. With the new agreement, licenses previously awarded case by case will now be general licenses for public performances, workshops and athletic competitions; human rights and humanitarian work; foundations and institutes; and authorized exports.
Only Congress can end the trade embargo, but the government sanctions a lot of trade with Cuba. In 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State, the United States was Cuba’s “primary supplier of food and agricultural products, humanitarian goods, a significant supplier of medicines and medical products.”
Restrictions have gradually eased over the years, in 2009 for family travel and amounts of remittances to Cuban relatives, and in 2011 for religious, cultural, educational and personal travel.
Ms. Dworkin y Mendez was whisked out of Cuba as a baby in 1956 and said she looks forward to the day when she can knock on a relative’s door in Cuba “and have that conversation” that has kept each side suspicious of the other. “That’s the future I want. But more important is that Cubans are able to survive and have normal lives and earn a decent living and not have to deal with repression.”
As for a tourism bonanza, Ruth Nagy, director of travel operations of AAA in the region, isn’t so sure: “Not in the immediate future,” she said. “We’re very restricted on what we can do. You need a license to operate a tour there.”
With the new policy, Americans can return from Cuba with up to $ 400 worth of goods, including $ 100 in tobacco and alcohol. That ends a longstanding ban on importing Cuban cigars, one of the island’s most coveted products. Travelers also will be able to use U.S. credit and debit cards there.
“Since we stopped relations with Cuba, we had a war in Vietnam where a lot of people died and now people go on vacation there. You look at any survey and everyone wants to go to Cuba, but we’ve been penalized by the population of South Florida. I think their day is over.”
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com. Mike Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org.