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New rules make to Cuba easier for Americans

Posted: Sunday, June 3, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:24 am, Fri Jun 1, 2012.

By Eric Lindquist Leader-Telegram staff

Cuba has an exotic reputation as an island nation known for aromatic

cigars, classic cars, spicy Latin dances and -style communism.

But despite lying just 90 miles south of Florida in the Caribbean Sea,

Cuba has been mostly off-limits to American travelers since being put

under a U.S. economic 50 years ago.

That began to change last year when President Barack Obama's

administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses

intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make

it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they

go with a licensed operator.

The opportunity was too good to pass up for Wayne and Carole Halberg of

the town of Washington, who long had dreamed of exploring Cuba.

When Carole received an email from National Geographic touting its newly

approved Cuban people-to-people tours, she told her husband, "I think we

need to go and we need to go soon."

Wayne immediately agreed, and they promptly booked a trip in January led

in part by renowned Cuban authority Christopher Baker.

They're lucky they acted fast because the tour was full within two

hours, and the pent-up demand for Cuban travel among Americans helped

National Geographic fill all of its trips for the year within two days.

"It was wonderful," Carole said of their nine-day vacation that was more

a cultural experience than a tropical island getaway. "It was a rare

chance to see something really authentic."

The people-to-people licenses require U.S. visitors to spend at least

eight hours a day learning about Cuban culture and also to keep a

journal and record all spending in the communist nation. The Halbergs

had plenty to write about, as their trip included visits to farms,

homes, schools, factories, art studios, natural areas and even the

historic Bay of Pigs.

"It's so amazing because Cuba hasn't had much Western industrialization,

so it's environmentally pristine," said Wayne, who considers himself

somewhat of a Cuba buff.

Wayne also is a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and thus treasured the

opportunity to visit the legendary author's house near Havana. Visitors

weren't allowed to enter but could explore the grounds, see Hemingway's

wooden boat and look in the home's open doors and windows.

As the Halbergs traveled through the countryside on tour buses, they

were amazed to see acres of former sugar cane fields left as fallow

land. Sometimes scenes seemingly from a bygone era, such as two men and

an ox trying to plow the earth, played out before their eyes.

And on those rural roads, the 23 tourists on the National Geographic

tour were as likely to cross paths with residents on ox carts or

bicycles as those behind the wheel of a car, Wayne said, noting

economically struggling Cuba has only one car for every 1,000 people.

That's one reason for a government rule that requires anyone driving a

truck who comes across someone standing by the road to stop and let him

or her ride in the back of the vehicle.

In Havana, classic American cars from the 1950s were everywhere and a

huge attraction for visitors.

"If a car breaks down, they fix it where it breaks," Carole said.

"They're masters at it; they're geniuses when it comes to fixing cars."

The Halbergs said their Cuban hosts were friendly and used to seeing

tourists, just not many from the United States, although some Americans

for years have dodged travel restrictions by flying to Cuba from other

countries, such as or Mexico.

But their openness disappeared when the subject of politics arose.

"The people are very restrained about expressing their opinions because

they don't know who's listening. They don't even say Castro's name; they

just do this," Wayne said, pretending to rub a long beard. "The bearded

one."

These glimpses at life in a modern communist society were part of the

appeal of the trip for the Halbergs, who came away impressed by the

country's high average level of and world-class care

but sympathetic to citizens who receive a ration card once a month

entitling them to about 10 to 12 days worth of and basic supplies

from government-owned stores with extremely limited choices.

"They're on their own for the rest," Carole said, adding the government

also provides every child with a birthday cake until age 14 and all

marrying couples with a bottle of rum, a case of beer and a wedding cake

for their nuptials.

The average monthly salary of a Cuban is $18, according to National

Geographic.

For Carole, the trip also was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps

of her grandfather, who visited Cuba a century ago and bought 20 acres

of land for $500. She still has a copy of the handwritten deed (in

Spanish) for the land, which was surrendered to the government after

Castro came to power in 1959, as well as postcards and photos he sent.

When she asked the tour guides about the land purchase, she was told it

was something many early visitors to Cuba were talked into but something

akin to the classic con of "buying swampland in Florida."

Considering Cuba's leadership is mostly elderly and changes appear

imminent, the Halbergs are glad they made the trip when they did so they

could seemingly step back in time and experience old Cuba.

They clearly are not alone, as Cuba is a hot destination for Americans

unsure how long the people-to-people licenses will remain available. The

high level of interest prompted both the Eau Claire Area Chamber of

Commerce and the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association to offer trips this

summer.

The chamber tour is sold out, as many participants viewed it as a rare

opportunity.

"These licenses are only good for one year, so these tour companies may

never get this opportunity again," said Bob McCoy, chamber president,

who is going on the trip this month. "Even if Cuba eventually opens up

more, it would be a different experience. No one will see it like we're

going to see it."

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or

eric.lindquist@ecpc.com.

http://www.leadertelegram.com/features/lifestyles/article_04f8087d-2726-5c04-9b62-e3fc6b4aba77.html

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