Travel Freedom Raises Questions About U.S. Policies Toward Cuba

After being away for decades, many members of the first generation of Cuban-American exiles are returning to their native land. But there are still many uneasy with the relaxed travel restrictions.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene in Miami. We came here after a trip to Cuba. We visited the island now to try and understand how it's been evolving and what impact, if any, the changes have meant in people's lives. But one big change is actually playing out right here in Miami. We're going to talk about with NPR's Greg Allen who's based here. And I have the pleasure of sitting right next to him a park bench. Greg, it's good to see you.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So we're in a neighborhood called Little Havana. Help us understand exactly what this place is.

ALLEN: Right, well, this was the neighborhood that was first settled by Cubans when they came to America, even before the Cuban revolution. In more recent years, though, many Cubans live, of course, throughout the entire state of Florida. This has remained, though, a cultural touchstone for Cuban-Americans. As you go up and down the street you see plenty of coffee shops - agencies where you can send money directly to Cuba - also botanicas, the little shops that have herbal remedies and religious paraphernalia. It's got a real feel, here, of Cuba.

GREENE: It does. I mean having just been in Havana, it's amazing how familiar it is. And you and I are actually sitting in a park looking at a huge map of Cuba, if we needed any help with the geography. But as important as the connections are - as important as Cuban culture is here, it's important to remember that a lot of people here in these neighborhoods around us, for a long time never traveled to the island even though it's so close.

ALLEN: Right, for many years - you had people who had arrived here, say, in the 1960s, and they wouldn't go back at all - refused to go back to the dictatorship, for one reason. Also, it was difficult. In recent years, though, we've had - the administration in Washington has lifted most of the restrictions on travel. So for Cuban-Americans, you can go to Cuba as much as you want. Also, even more surprisingly, we've had the Cuban government lift restrictions on their citizens in recent years. So now, for the first time, we've got Cubans traveling freely from the island - coming here and going back - coming on shopping trips and going back. You see it every day at Miami's airport.

GREENE: It's worth noting these changes - really recent. They're happening really quickly.

ALLEN: Right, I mean, traveling to Cuba was really controversial here for Cuban-Americans until fairly recently. Let me play you some tape from a news report from a TV station here in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Travel agents say that it was set on fire overnight, and investigators believe this was no accident.

ALLEN: And David, that was just two years ago. A travel agency run by Vivian Mannerud that operated charter flights to Cuba was firebombed. Investigators confirmed it was arson.

VIVIAN MANNERUD: It was sobering, but it was right after we had finished the papal visit.

ALLEN: Police still haven't made any arrests. Mannerud is convinced, though, that the firebombing was connected with work she did with Miami's Catholic archdiocese, helping fly some 600 people to Cuba to attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict the 16th.

MANNERUD: And we had taken many Cuban-Americans - many who had said they would never go back to Cuba - many prominent Cuban-Americans, many wealthy Cuban-Americans. There was a part of the community that was very upset that all these people went to Cuba for the Pope's visit.

ALLEN: Many see that papal visit as a turning point. Some prominent Cuban-American businessmen, long opposed to any opening to Cuba, planned return trips and began supporting economic and civic engagement. The most prominent was Alfonso Fanjul, billionaire head of Domino Sugar.

At Miami's airport, the charter flights that leave daily for Havana are mostly filled with Cubans returning home after a visit and Cuban-Americans who have arrived in recent decades. But you also find Cuban-Americans, like Irene Ruiz, who left Cuba nearly 50 years ago.

IRENE RUIZ: I get out in 1966, and I back in '96 or '97.

ALLEN: It's a familiar story. After being away for decades, in recent years many members of that first generation of Cuban-American exiles have been returning to their native land.

RUIZ: You have family, and then you need your family. You need that love - your family. And then I decide to go and see my family.

ALLEN: Changing attitudes toward Cuba also showing up in polls of Cuban-Americans. Support for the embargo is dropping. A majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida now support unrestricted travel - also talks in trade between the U.S. and Cuba. Tomas Bilbao is with the Cuba Study Group, an organization founded by Cuban-American businessmen who favor engagement with the island. With the upswing travel, he believes Cuban-Americans are voting with their feet.

TOMAS BILBAO: And let me just be clear. I don't think anyone's saying that we need to reward the Cuban regime. I think that what we need to do is focus on helping the Cuban people, even if that provides a benefit to the Cuban regime.

ALLEN: But there are still many Cuban Americans uneasy with the relaxed travel restrictions. They include Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: There are people that come here, and six months after they arrive - a year and half after they arrive, they're going back to Cuba 18 times a year. And I'm telling you, that's a problem.

ALLEN: That's Rubio speaking last year to U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, a lobbying group that takes a hard line against any move to weaken sanctions on Cuba. Relaxed travel restrictions now allow Cuban entrepreneurs to travel back and forth, ferrying goods and remittances between Miami and Havana, which Rubio says helps the Castro regime. To counter that, he says the U.S. may want to revisit the special status Cubans have long enjoyed as political refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUBIO: People all over the country are turning to us and saying, well, why do you have a Cuban Adjustment Act? Cuban Adjustment Act exists for people that are refugees and exiles and that - of course there are refugees and exiles from Cuba. But if you're going back 18 times a year, we have to deal with that issue. That's a problem.

ALLEN: Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, after being here for a year Cubans receive permanent residency status and become eligible for government benefits, ranging from supplemental social security income to disability. Maurice Claver-Carone of U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC says there's evidence that some Cuban migrants are abusing their special status, qualifying for government benefits here and spending the money in Cuba.

MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE: In a country where the average salary is $18 a month, which is Cuba, you know, $200 per month is 10 times that. So you live comfortably in Cuba. So people are making the decision - hey, we essentially can live off the government here, but, you know, essentially living most of our time in Cuba.

ALLEN: And David, there has been some talking in Congress about amending the Cuban Adjustment Act to differentiate between political refugees and those who come here for economic reasons.

GREENE: Alright, NPR's Greg Allen with that report. We're sitting together in the little Havana neighborhood of Miami. And, you know any changes to the law I can imagine Greg, probably a pretty sensitive topic.

ALLEN: Right, I mean when you talk about Miami's Cuban Americans, you're talking about a very important voting bloc in the nation's largest swing state. So changes will be done very carefully if at all.

GREENE: All right that's the view of Cuba from Florida. I want to bring in one other voice here and it's the voice of the person sitting to your left on the park bench here Greg. Jasmine Garsd, our colleague who hosts NPR music's alt Latino and was the interpreter for our trip to Cuba. And Jasmine, you and I talked a lot during the trip about what you thought of Cuba growing up in Argentina. It had a resonance that's different than the one that's sort of Americans are familiar with. Explain to me what you're talking about.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Sure absolutely. Well I think it's important to understand that Latin America has a really different relationship with Cuba than the U.S. does. There's definitely a romantic vision of Cuba, a vision of Cuba as a paradise island, some of that is based in certain facts, I mean it is pretty impressive in a Latin American country to have achieved literacy and college education rates like Cuba has, universal healthcare. And there's definitely I think a sense in Latin America of Cuba as romantically feisty, you know, of a nation that was at some point exploited by foreign interests like so much of Latin America is and stood up for themselves. Of course, you know that vision is counterbalanced by directors who make legitimate points out human rights abuses, freedom of speech, all valid points. But there's definitely a very different perspective about Cuba in Latin America.

GREENE: Different perspective. OK, you grew up with that different perspective. Now that you've been for the first time what are your impressions?

GARSD: I think a lot of the great things I heard about Cuba are true. There is universal health. As we saw people are so educated on that island.

GREENE: Yeah.

GARSD: But they're also struggling with serious human rights issues. They're struggling with access to information; I mean we meet these highly educated people that don't have access to the Internet. So, I would just say some things are just so wonderful and some things are so disappointing. It's a complex story.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Jazmine Garsd and NPR's Greg Allen. Thank you both so much.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

GARSD: Thank you.

GREENE: We're sitting on a park bench in Little Havana, also sitting here - NPR's Nick Fountain, who did the fine production work for our trip to Cuba. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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