Cuba is the only country in the world the U.S. government restricts its own citizens from visiting. Americans can go to Burma, Iran, even North Korea if those places give them a visa.
The Obama administration has now relaxed travel rules for Cuba, leading to a surge in U.S.-government approved tours to the island. But in the U.S., some lawmakers staunchly opposed to the Castro government say the travel programs are filled with heavy doses of propaganda.
The lobby of Havana's iconic Hotel Nacional is as good a place as any to contemplate the evolution of the 50-year-old American trade embargo against Cuba and its corresponding restrictions on U.S. travel.
Every morning, busloads of U.S. visitors, many well into their golden years, gather with tour groups to go out and explore what has long been a forbidden island.
This government-owned hotel and others in Cuba have been packed this winter, and one reason is the restoration of a policy that dates to Bill Clinton's years in the White House. It's a policy known as people-to-people travel, designed to bring ordinary Cubans and Americans into closer contact.
No Beaches, No Cabaret Shows
Last year, some 400,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, making the United States the second-largest source of foreign visitors to the island after Canada. Most were Cuban-Americans coming to see family, but the demand for Cuba tour packages among U.S. visitors like William Colon is growing fast.
"I don't know if you can call this tourism in the regular way that people come and go to the beach," he says. "Here, this is a learning experience; we are learning all about the Cuban people, and our eyes are wide open. I've been waiting for the last 10 years to do this trip, and finally we are able to do it."
Colon is president of the Latino Institute, an educational nonprofit, and he was traveling with a group of 20 other academics, lawyers and students from New Jersey. The U.S. company that arranged their tour, Insight Cuba, claims to be the largest provider of U.S.-government licensed travel to the island, and that means no days on the beach or nights at Havana's Tropicana Cabaret.
Instead, the group goes to hospitals, schools and historic sites, all with a tour guide appointed by the Cuban government in order to keep a pro-Castro spin on things.
For instance, when talking about Cuba's cigar festival, a guide points out that cigars signed by Fidel Castro are auctioned off, with the proceeds going to health care.
If U.S. travelers buy tickets to the island through Mexico or another third country, they can go almost anywhere, renting rooms in private Cuban homes, eating in private restaurants, and traveling around with taxi drivers, all of which would expose them to the full range of Cuban feelings about Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, Cuba's current president.
But those trips are not allowed under U.S. law, and travelers would be risking a fine from the U.S. Treasury Department, which doesn't allow Americans to go to Cuba in an independent, unstructured way.
Even the educational tours offered by some of the most respected organizations in the United States are now coming under fire from a push to restore Bush-era travel restrictions.
Some U.S. Lawmakers Object
A congressional committee is investigating the Smithsonian Institution at the request of Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says the Cuba programs verge on "indoctrination."
Renee Reed, a librarian from Minnesota on her second visit to Cuba, says it is up to travelers to make up their own minds about what they see on their visits.
"It's our responsibility to try to educate ourselves to the best of our abilities so we can have a more balanced perspective," Reed says.
Those who want to limit American travelers to Cuba say that unrestricted American tourism to Cuba would throw an economic lifeline to the Castro government.
Cuba's economy is already being buoyed by Venezuelan fuel subsidies. China and Brazil are making major investments, too, and a Spanish company has started drilling for oil off Cuba's north coast.
Gonzalo Perez, the son of Cuban immigrants who grew up in New Jersey, says tourists from all over the world are already visiting the island.
"Europeans can come here if they want, so the money comes in from that direction, so I don't think my contribution is going to really make a big difference in the big scheme of things," he says.
Perez says his family wasn't too happy about his Cuba trip, especially his grandfather, who he says had to work four years in the sugarcane fields before the Castro government let him leave for the United States in 1970. But Perez says that like his fellow American visitors, he wanted to see Cuba for himself.
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