BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
Joan Brown Campbell, the church lady who befriended Elián González during his sojourn here a decade ago, has been to Cuba 37 times—except during the last Bush administration, when she could not get the required U.S. permission to visit the island for four straight years.
She applied again this year now that Barack Obama is in the White House and got the license to travel straightaway. The U.S. State Department even opened doors for her to invite several Cuban academics to visit New York. Among those who attended a conference Brown organized last month: Ofelia Ortega, a member of the Cuban national assembly.
``The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said to me, `Give us the names of the people you are asking for; we will call them to come in for a visa,’ ‘’ Brown said. ``This was very unusual. In the past, people had to wait in a long line and wait three months before finding out whether the visa had been approved. I have been doing this for 35 years, and this was a shock to me.
``They didn’t turn anyone down.’‘
Although Obama has not officially changed any rules regarding nonfamily trips to Cuba, State Department statistics show anecdotal evidence of a flow of visits.
From October 2008 to August 2009, 16,217 Cubans have visited the United States, up from 10,661 during the same period in 2007-08, the numbers show.
Just Wednesday, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota announced that a delegation from Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment will make a rare visit to its headquarters this week.
Experts say that although statistics have not been released regarding how many American academics, musicians and church groups have visited Cuba under Obama, the U.S. State Department has relaxed strict Bush-era interpretations of existing law.
More Americans are heading to Cuba in the ``people to people’’ travel excursions. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently made the trip on a legal trade expedition, and actor Benicio Del Toro has gone at least twice since his movie Che opened last year.
Cuba Education Tours offers American professionals tips on how to qualify for a general research license. They offer trips over Thanksgiving, Christmas and a ``51st Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution Tour spanning New Years.’‘
``Even though the administration hasn’t yet published changes allowing more cultural and educational exchanges to and from Cuba, anecdotal evidence suggests that such loosening has already taken place,’’ said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a critic of Obama’s Cuba policy. ``We see ads informing college students and artistic groups of planned excursions to the island. So it looks like its back to the era of two-week college courses in Cuban culture taught on the beaches of Varadero.’‘
DATA NOT RELEASED
The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control declined repeated requests to release data showing how many Americans were authorized this year to travel to Cuba. The State Department acknowledges that the Bush administration narrowly interpreted existing law.
``Actually, there has not been an official directive, and there certainly has not been a policy change,’’ said Bisa Williams, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. ``There’s a flow up here and down there. We’re just saying we are going back to what’s on the books. There is still a full review of every application.’‘