U.S. travelers wait to see if Cuba strides will be undone
By Spud Hilton, San Francisco Chronicle
February 6, 2017 Updated: February 6, 2017 12:54pm
Pouring the first of what would be many Cuba Libres he would make that
day, Israel the bartender at Hotel Nacional said he was excited that
restrictions on U.S. travelers would soon be lifted. He hoped the
embargo would soon follow. He was eager to meet more people from
America, he said, and his family — and country — would be better off.
He pushed the drink across a bar that has propped up the elbows of John
Wayne, Ava Gardner and Winston Churchill. I took the dripping Cuba Libre
to a table outside, lit up a robusto-size Romeo Y Julieta, took a puff
and sat back, an intentional cliche of an American in Cuba.
Soon there would be many more, I thought.
It was 23 days after the first inauguration of former President Barack
Obama in 2009, and I had been dispatched to Cuba to learn about the
mystique of the island nation, to see what, if any, Cold War animosity
remained toward the United States, and to find out what travelers could
expect when the embargo and restrictions are removed, which appeared to
be just around the corner.
The findings: The mystique, it seemed, cannot be described and must be
experienced; I couldn't find anything resembling animosity; and
travelers could expect a developing nation with a historic, threadbare
infrastructure, and a warm, complex, vibrant culture — one that already
hosts plenty of tourists from the rest of the world.
What U.S. travelers could not expect, it turned out, was to legally see
any of it soon.
For travelers, legal, unrestricted travel to Cuba has long been the
prize that waited just over the next hill. While there's been widely
publicized progress during the past eight years to normalize relations,
the top of the hill is still in the distance.
And depending on the will and whims of the Trump administration, that
progress might just be another case of travelers playing Sisyphus,
doomed to keep pushing their hopes up the hill, only to be knocked back
and forced to start again.
Most of the progress in warming relations during the Obama years was
done through executive order, a presidential prerogative with which
President Trump is already familiar. Anything that's been done, can be
undone by the next guy.
But what about the host of tours, new flights and even cruise ship stops
in Cuba? Didn't American Airlines just open a ticket office in Havana?
Nearly all of it can all be rolled back.
How do we know? It's happened before.
In 1999, then President Bill Clinton made it possible for the Treasury
Department to issue "people-to-people" licenses for educational travel
to Cuba. It required going with one of the handful of approved tour
operators and, because of the embargo, it meant that travelers could not
directly spend money there.
In 2003, President George W. Bush imposed travel restrictions,
effectively halting the people-to-people licenses and forcing most of
the tour operators to drop those trips.
Is it possible the Trump administration could do the same thing? Yes,
although at this point it hasn't issued an unequivocal position on the
topic, only isolated references by Trump and his staff that there will
be a "full review" of the policy, and the fact that a few members of the
administration strongly oppose Obama's attempts at detente.
The uncertainty drew a response from Cuban president Raul Castro.
"Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live side by side in a
civilized manner, respecting our differences and promoting all that is
of benefit for both countries and people," Castro told a summit of
Caribbean and Latin American leaders on Jan. 25, according to Reuters.
"But it should not hope that to achieve this Cuba will make concessions
inherent to its independence and sovereignty."
There is enough concern about Trump's plans that the Cuba Study Group, a
coalition of business leaders working toward "peaceful change in Cuba
leading to a free and open society," and a number of U.S. groups focused
on improving relations with Cuba, sent him a four-page "memo" three days
before he took office.
"To reflexively reverse course could have pernicious consequences for
U.S. economic and foreign policy interests and the prospects of
evolutionary change in Cuba," the memo states. "Past policies of
isolation did not elicit internal reforms or lead to political opening.
Furthermore, history shows that the Cuban people, not the government,
tend to be the victims of state-to-state confrontation."
I don't know if Israel the bartender is still making Cuba Libres at the
Hotel Nacional. I don't know if he has enough access to news to know
that the American politics that affect his life could again shift into
reverse. I do know that he, like the U.S. travelers he hopes to meet,
are still waiting.
Spud Hilton is the editor of Travel. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Twitter and Instagram: @SpudHilton
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