Cuba Libre? Hold Off Booking That Ticket For Now Imagine spring break on a Cuban beach. Or Cuban produce on sale in American shops. As the Obama administration mulls over easing travel restrictions to Cuba, some observers say lifting the half-century-old trade sanctions could have real benefits for both countries. But any substantial changes in U.S policy are far away.
NPR logo Cuba Libre? Hold Off Booking That Ticket For Now

Cuba Libre? Hold Off Booking That Ticket For Now

Tourists ride in a horse-drawn carriage on a Havana street in January. Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

Tourists ride in a horse-drawn carriage on a Havana street in January.

Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is considering easing travel restrictions to Cuba, raising the prospect of what lifting the half-century-old U.S. trade embargo against the Communist regime might mean for both countries.

Imagine American tourists bronzing on Cuban beaches and Cuban tomatoes glowing in the produce sections of U.S. supermarkets. Or Cuban baseball teams playing in American ballparks, while U.S. ballerinas twirl on a Havana stage.

Could it mean young Cuban-Americans returning to the island to invest or revisit the culture from which their families were exiled?

Critics of the embargo see great possibilities.

Cuba watcher Bruce M. Bagley says there could be many advantages for both countries. "There could be closer cooperation on [interdicting] drugs. More academic contacts would be great. American agriculture wants to sell more to Cuba, and the Cubans need it," says Bagley, chairman of department of international studies at the University of Miami.

He says sanctions haven't worked and that it is time to try something else.

Opposition To Sweeping Changes

The administration apparently isn't considering sweeping changes. Any substantive lifting of the trade embargo would require congressional action in any case, especially the repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which extended and strengthened the sanctions.

But the changes the administration are reportedly considering now would make it possible for more Americans to travel to Cuba, including sports, cultural and educational groups, and it could expand direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba.

President Obama loosened some of the restrictions last year, when he made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit the island and send money to their relatives there.

The administration reportedly plans to announce the next round as early as next week. The proposed changes were first reported in a story by The Miami Herald earlier this month. The White House and the State Department have declined to comment on the details.

If the administration goes ahead with the reported easing, it would basically restore contacts that were allowed under the Clinton administration, but prohibited under President George W. Bush.

But Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a director of the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council, says now is "the worst time to lift any type of sanctions against Cuba's regime," because the Castro government has shown no real inclination to change.

Perez-Castellon says there is an economic incentive to ease some sanctions against the regime coming from foreign investors who put money into Cuba's tourist industry and were left holding the bag when the island's tourist business stagnated.

Promoting Tourism In Cuba

"There are a lot of economic interests that would like to promote the tourism industry in Cuba, which has basically failed," Perez-Castellon says. Among them, she says, are Spanish companies that put a lot of money into hotels in Cuba, but got little return from their investments.

Tourism has been a major source of revenue for Cuba, a popular destination for visitors from Canada and Europe.

Charles Suddaby, vice president for hospitality consulting at the global real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, says Cuba attracted more than 2.4 million visitors last year and seems on track to do slightly better this year.

Suddaby says a lifting of travel restrictions for U.S. tourists could generate a huge wave of interest, but he says it would probably be better to have that process take place gradually.

"There's a lot of hotel capacity down there," he says, "But it's not all of a quality that U.S. tourists might expect."

Suddaby says much of Cuba's tourist market came from cheap, all-inclusive packages, but that the government is now looking at a broader market, including sports tourism and luxury resorts.

Cubans line up to buy produce at a market in Havana in May. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

Cubans line up to buy produce at a market in Havana in May.

AFP/Getty Images

Food For Cash

Agriculture is another sector where Cuba and the U.S. could cooperate if sanctions were lifted. Cuba already buys food and agricultural products from the U.S., more than $690 million worth in 2008.

The sales were authorized by the Clinton administration in 2000, under a measure that specifies that trade can only be one-way, with Cuba buying from the U.S., and only in cash.

William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, says Cuba's food purchases from the U.S. have dipped in the past two years, in part because countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand have offered the Cuban government better credit terms.

But Messina says further easing of restrictions could potentially stir a lot of agricultural trade between the two countries. For instance, Cuba could become a supplier of winter vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, which are currently grown mainly in Florida.

Other potential crops could be citrus and sugar for ethanol fuel.

Messina says Cuba could be a stronger market for American agriculture products, including fertilizers, pesticides and farm equipment.

All of this would be far in the future, even if the Obama administration were to make far more sweeping changes than it is currently planning. The administration has repeatedly said that it will not lift the embargo unless and until there are political and economic reforms on the island.

But Bagley says the proposed easing of sanctions is the best way "to ease the political transition in Cuba, which is inevitable, given the ages of the Castros." Bagley says that by engaging with Cuba, the U.S. could influence that transition in a positive way, rather than leaving the island with another generation of anti-American rulers.