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Posted December 04, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By RALF KIRCHER, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

From a school teacher in Las Terrazas to a area professor, from a flower vendor in Havana to a businessman from Naples, the common citizens of Cuba and the United States are forging friendships while their governments remain at odds

A yellow three-legged dog awoke as witness to international politics hitting home.

On an early Sunday morning in mid-November, near the entrance of the provincial airport of Cienfuegos in south-central Cuba gathered a crowd in the warming sun.

Diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, heat, sweat, the clatter of luggage carts on rough asphalt and the blare of musical notes from two tinny sets of speakers playing competing songs thickened the still air.

Fathers, mothers, children, police officers, baggage handlers, grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins, milled about on foot, several in wheelchairs. They were standing, pacing, driving up quickly, sitting below shade tents next to trailers that sold Buccanero beer, Hollywood brand cigarettes, Havana Club rum.

It was here among the families hugging their goodbyes the effects of two countries at odds politically for more than 40 years were reduced to a personal level.

Here were tears of joy and excitement for those Cubans lucky enough to win the lottery to secure visas to visit family in the United States. Here were tears of division from families saying so long to loved ones who had fled the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and had been able to return, however briefly, for a rare visit. And here were tears of drunken mourning from a father who lived in Key West who came home for the funeral of his son.

At this entrance to the airport in Cienfuegos an awakened yellow three-legged dog who had seen it all before quickly tired of the scene and loped off in his own direction.

Soon to be heading off in their own directions as well were Americans—businessmen, scientists, environmentalists—who had gathered in Cuba for more than a week because they had not seen it all before. They had been visiting to explore opportunities in a country just 90 miles south of the United States with which the U.S. government has had no formal diplomatic ties for four decades.

Their visit for an international trade fair and a conference on coastal ecosystems, while coincidentally a biennial arts and music festival was taking place, would bear little notice in almost any other country. But Cuba is, in fact, one of the few countries in the world with such strained relations with the United States, and this group’s presence—along with as many as 200,000 other Americans in the last year—indicates what may someday be a thawing in official relations. More than ever, their presence represents a change in the minds of a growing number of Americans with which the U.S. government may soon be finding itself in the position of playing catch-up.

Enacted after a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, a U.S. embargo on Cuban trade prevents most U.S. citizens from spending money in—and therefore traveling to—the island nation of 11 million that was taken over in a 1959 socialist revolution led by Castro. Journalists, scientists, those with close family ties and those with special U.S. Treasury Department licenses are some of those people exempted from the travel ban.

It was Castro’s allegiance to the Soviet Union that led to the icy relations that officially exist today between Cuba and the United States. But it was also this connection that nearly led to the economic ruination of Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew its financial props.

In the wake of those economic losses a little more than a decade ago, Cuba turned to foreign tourism as its primary source of revenue. The hard currency that has come with as many at 1.9 million tourists a year has created a dual economy of valuable U.S. dollars and next-to-worthless Cuban pesos, giving Cuba outward appearances of embracing capitalism.

On these outward appearances, a bipartisan group of U.S. politicians has pounced, maintaining that the surest way to a change—if not in leadership, perhaps, but at least in political philosophy—in Cuba is through the mighty dollar: Allow Americans to spend money and spread their image and ideas among the Cuban people, and a new revolution can’t be far off.

Democratic and Republican congressmen and senators used these arguments to pass a provision that would remove enforcement of the ban on travel to Cuba. Currently, the Treasury Department can impose a $7,500 fine on Americans who have visited Cuba via another country, although the regulation is only sporadically enforced.

While this virtual elimination of the travel ban passed comfortably in both houses, it was removed in conference committee on Nov. 12 under threat of veto from President George W. Bush. A veto would have torpedoed a bill that contained other more politically precious aspects close to home, such as money for building highways, supporting Amtrak and raising congressional salaries.

Bush’s stance comes in part because of the outspoken 800,000-strong Cuban-American population in Florida, 80 percent of which voted for him in 2000.

The hard-line Cuban-Americans, many of whom fled or are descendants of those who fled Cuba when Castro came to power, maintain the embargo will work and they will settle for no less than outright removal of Castro before normalizing relations. They point to Castro’s summary execution of three hijackers attempting to flee the country earlier this year and to his April roundup and jailing of dozens of dissidents and journalists as the most recent evidence of a 40-year pattern of human rights violations.

In spite of this year’s events, this was the fourth time the House passed a measure lifting the travel ban but a first for the Senate. This changing political tide may be caused by reasons somewhat less altruistic than spreading the winds of democracy, as U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., put it at an October conference in Miami on easing the embargo.

Since 2001, when the Cuban government began acting on a bill passed late in the Clinton administration that allows cash-only sales of food and humanitarian supplies, U.S. companies have sold more than $260 million worth of goods to Cuba.

Michael R. Mauricio, president of Florida Produce in Tampa, looks at Cuba’s 11 million residents as a valuable market.

“We have states in the U.S. without that population,” he said, pointing out that Cuba’s population trails Florida’s by only 4 million.

Mauricio’s company was the first to put American onions in Cuba in more than 40 years when his first shipment went out in 2002. At the recent Havana International Trade Fair, his was one of 14 Florida companies with representation. In total, 71 companies from 19 states participated in the weeklong fair, resulting in more than $160 million in new contracts.

Florida Produce will ship $150,000 of apples, pears and grapes to Cuba in the near future, and they will likely be on a ship that leaves from Tampa; a shipment of U.S. goods left the port of Tampa on Nov. 14, the first such transport in four decades.

Similarly, J. Parke Wright, a Naples resident and a member of the Lykes family, which has extensive cattle holdings in Florida and which owned ranches in Cuba before Castro came to power, exported the first dairy cows in August. In October, he signed the first contract to export beef cattle since the embargo—250 that will be shipped in the first quarter of 2004.

To listen to Wright, his dealings with Cuba are not so much about the potential market. They are about building friendships between neighbors, about continuing a cattle trade route historical to his family and begun in the mid-19th century and about possibly willing those democratic—and capitalistic—winds.

“A hundred thousand bulls at $2,000 a head, that’s a lot of rockets,” he said, alluding to how the Cuban government might otherwise spend that theoretical and certainly far-off $100 million.

Wright’s interest in Cuba has gone beyond two small but historic cattle deals. In 2002, at his encouragement, a group of American environmentalists and scholars gathered with Cuban counterparts at a conference on the sustainability of mountain ecosystems. This year, a similar group of Americans—including a professor of environmental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, a veterinarian from the Florida Aquarium and representatives from Florida conservation organizations, among others—attended a conference on the Ancon Peninsula in south-central Cuba to discuss the state of coastal ecosystems, a topic of particular importance to Florida, as the two share the same Gulf of Mexico waters.

While Americans are approaching on the economic and environmental fronts, the Cubans are readying themselves for more open relations on a variety of levels, notably tourism.

At one of 18 schools of tourism nationwide, this one near the fishing hamlet of Casildas in south-central Cuba, students are trained to supply the demands of a growing international tourism market. Students from 17 to 35 years old learn languages other than their native Spanish. They train to work as maids, cooks, bellhops, receptionists, entertainers—every position that might need filling at one of the many Spanish, Italian and German resorts opening throughout the country.

Budding performers recently practiced a bizarre collection of musical entertainment—from Latin dance to rap to traditional Cuban “son” music—that is endemic to all-inclusive resort stage shows throughout the Caribbean.

Principal Miriam Fernandez gave a tour of the school’s facilities after the show held on an outdoor stage between classrooms. The classrooms resembled a resort in microcosm: In the Lab de Recepcion, a young man stood ramrod straight behind a hotel reception desk. He looked nervous, as any student might be his first time on the job. Farther down the building were hotel rooms, their beds made tidily by housekeeping students. It was unclear if the broken-down car in the yard of the school was part of the curriculum for valet parking attendants.

At the rear of the school was a cafe, again attended to by students, who poked their heads out of the kitchen, anxious that the fare would pass muster.

About 1,000 students attend this school. They go on to join the service army awaiting the invasion of tourists that may someday come from Cuba’s neighbor to the north.

In so preparing themselves, and in the Americans attending conservation conferences and trade fairs, the people of the two nations have begun acting as the ambassadors their two governments are not yet willing to appoint. And in the process, they, like the people gathered in front of the Cienfuegos airport hugging goodbye, brought the sticky issues of international politics and diplomatic relations down to a one-on-one personal level.

“We try to leave the politics out of it,” said David Guggenheim, who used to be president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and is now vice president for conservation policy of The Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C. “But it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”

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