RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
U.S. relations with Cuba are thawing. The U.S. embargo is more than 50 years old and remains in effect. But MORNING EDITION's David Greene saw what's changing at Miami's terminal, where flights leave for Havana.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The restrictions have really eased a lot. And so Cubans from the island and also Cuban-Americans can travel much more freely between Florida and Cuba. And you just look at people checking in here. I mean, they have carts full of stuff - microwave ovens, televisions - a lot of commerce here. NPR's Greg Allen actually came to this spot recently to try to understand what this means for the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba today.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Eight or nine regularly scheduled charter flights leave Miami daily for Havana and other Cuban cities. Anna Dilla was waiting in line recently with her two in-laws, who were returning home to Cuba after a short visit. Their bags were full of goods they purchased to take home.
ANNA DILLA: Clothings, shoes, hygiene items, make up.
ALLEN: All things that are hard to get in Cuba.
DILLA: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah.
ALLEN: Shortly after taking office, President Obama made it possible for more Americans than ever before to travel to Cuba. He began by lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans. Before, they could travel to Cuba only once every three years. And then last year, Cuba's government made an even more unexpected move. It began allowing its citizens to visit the U.S. with few restrictions. Dilla says the new freedom to travel has made a big difference to her in-laws and others in Cuba.
DILLA: It was a big deal for them, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was much easier than in the past so it's a good thing, you know. Things are getting a little bit better.
ALLEN: Traveling from the U.S. to Cuba is still a hassle. There are restrictions on the type of goods you can bring and how much. Over a certain limit, travelers pay a penalty. Cuba also assesses customs duties on some goods. But because of the changes in regulations in both countries, travel between the U.S. and Cuba is at record levels and growing. That includes so-called people to people travel. Those are trips organized by groups for education or cultural exchange. But by far most of the travel to Cuba is by Cuban-Americans. And is having an important economic impact on the island.
JOE SCARPACI: The presence of the Cuban-Americans is just undeniable.
ALLEN: Joe Scarpaci heads the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and the Economy and has co-authored a book on Cuba’s emerging consumer culture. Perhaps even more important than their travel, are the unrestricted remittances Cuban-Americans can now send back to family on the island. Scarpaci estimates that goods and cash sent by Cuban-Americans now is in the range of $5 billion a year, making it the nation's second-largest source of income. Using a Cuban slang term, he calls it, gusanos carrying gusanos.
SCARPACI: Gusanos - the derogatory term that the folks on the island refer to when the Cubans left the revolution. They crawled away from the glories of the revolution. Now they're bringing back these duffel bags that are long and shaped like worms, or gusanos.
ALLEN: The goods carried of those duffels aren't just clothing and cologne. Deep fat fryers, power saws, electric drills and soldering irons are in great demand in Cuba. Scarpaci says, he knows of many small businesses there that have started up with goods and cash supplied by Cuban-Americans.
SCARPACI: From small restaurants to homebody repairs to plastic mold makers for use of children's toys. In every one of these instances, the capital for that has come from family members abroad.
ALLEN: Nearly 600,000 U.S. travelers - mostly Cuban-Americans - visited Cuba last year. Polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans now support unrestricted travel to Cuba. A majority also believes Americans should be allowed to invest in Cuban businesses. There are some, though, who believe unrestricted family travel has led to abuses. Mauricio Claver-Carone is the director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a lobbying group in Washington that takes a hard line against any move to weaken sanctions on Cuba. Taking a trip back to Cuba once a year to see family, Claver-Carone believes, qualifies as humanitarian travel.
MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE: People that are going back to Cuba more than once a year is not humanitarian. They're essentially residing in Cuba. They have some type of business practice that they've established by taking goods back and forth. They're called mulas.
ALLEN: The Miami to Cuba mules carry goods and cash. At least for some Cuban-Americans, it's a legal end-run around the trade embargo.
CLAVER-CARONE: And essentially, they charge per pound or they charge per package of things that they take to Cuba. So they've established a business practice of travelling to the island back and forth. That is not the purpose of the regulations. That's a business practice and that should be illegal.
ALLEN: There are others, though, who say this is the kind of thing unrestricted travel and remittances were intended to accomplish. By traveling frequently to the island and helping - maybe even investing - in businesses run by family members, Cuban-Americans are helping spread the kind of free-market activity long-sought by the U.S. Those who favor engagement between the U.S. and Cuba say the next steps should include lifting all restrictions on travel to the island and allowing U.S. visitors to use credit cards there. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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