December 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm 6 comments


I’ve been thinking a lot about yesterday’s historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba are taking steps to normalize relations. It’s huge news, on so many levels—not the least of which is tourism.

For decades, the U.S. prohibited its citizens from traveling to Cuba except under certain circumstances, such as academic research. (Penn State Hemingway scholar Sandy Spanier ’76g, ’81g and telecommunications expert John Spicer Nichols have who’ve been to Cuba many times, for example.) More recently, the U.S. government began allowing citizens to visit under specially licensed “people to people cultural exchanges.” I went on one such exchange in 2012 via the Santa Fe Photo Workshops, and the Alumni Association has offered several trips under a similar umbrella. Our former senior editor Lori Shontz ’01, ’13g went on one such Penn State trip and wrote about it here.

Basically, the people-to-people trips have a heavy emphasis on understanding the culture—on my trip, for example, we visited a dance school and a boxing academy, and interacted a lot with Cuban photographers. On other trips you might visit a school, an orphanage, or a tobacco farm. (I remember that on our trip there was talk of visiting a cockfight, and when some of us grimaced at the thought, the Santa Fe Photo Workshops guy chastised us, saying, “You’re here to experience, and photograph, what is uniquely Cuban.” He was right—but, nevertheless, I was glad when the cockfight plans fell through.)

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t exactly throw the doors wide open for U.S. tourists. It’s not like you’ll be able to book a flight from Dulles to Havana on USAirways anytime soon. People-to-people cultural exchanges are still the only legal way to get there. But a few things will change: For one, you’ll soon be able to take your credit cards and ATM card with you. Currently, U.S. travelers have to figure out how much money they’ll need for everything—hotel, meals, taxis, admission fees, you name it—and take that amount in cash. That’s because U.S.-issued ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba; just one example of the embargo. That’s changing—although Cuba is still a pretty cash-oriented society anyway.

Another change is that Cuban cigars and Cuban rum will soon be legal in the U.S. Not that anyone will be selling them in retail stores, but people who visit Cuba can now bring back up to $100 in alcohol and/or tobacco products.


In the fishing village of Cojimar, east of Havana, a sign remembers the “Cuban Five.”

The backstory leading up to yesterday’s announcement is interesting, and familiar to anyone who’s already visited Cuba. We heard a lot when we were down there about the five-decade history of the embargo, about Fidel Castro, about the prospects that Fidel’s brother Raul might take less of a hard line with the U.S., about what everyday life for Cubans is like under communism. There was talk even back then that President Obama would move to normalize relations in his second term. We also heard a lot about Alan Gross, whose imprisonment in Cuba has been a huge bone of contention with the U.S.—and likewise about the “Cuban Five,” whose imprisonment in the U.S. has been a huge bone of contention with Cuba. Yesterday, Gross and the remaining three of the Cuban Five were all released.

Cuba estimates that 100,000 U.S. citizens already visit the island nation every year, and that number is sure to go up as the restrictions are eased. It’ll surely skyrocket if the travel embargo is eventually lifted completely. And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. There’s something very special and unspoiled about Cuba, and hordes of U.S. tourists could easily change that. It makes me want to go back—and soon, before the place is changed forever. Whatever the case, it seems certain that a new era is about to begin.

Tina Hay, editor

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First Trombones, and Now Tubas Brace Yourself for Meya Bizer

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bob Krieger  |  December 18, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Oh Tina! “something very special and unspoiled about Cuba,” How about 70 years of brutal oppressive authoritarian rule that has impoverished a once vibrant land. A brutal communist regime that tortures, imprisons and murders its citizens, steals their property and keeps them poor and uninformed. But worst of all, the evil Castros, their henchmen and enablers have stolen their peoples’ hopes and dreams. I expect better from you. BTW, the Cuban Five were criminal spies who infiltrated the US and were properly imprisoned for their crimes.

  • 2. Barry  |  December 18, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    The salient point regarding the Cuba announcement is that the President is seeking to grant new trade advantages to the most repressive communist government in the Western Hemisphere (birds of a feather?). The family of thieves and robbers that still oppress 11 million island captives isn’t worth our attention or our money, and certainly doesn’t deserve the favors Obama would like to bestow. My guess is that Congress will act quickly to undo any harm…

  • 3. Kevin_Landon  |  December 19, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Tina, Great article on Cuba given the recent news! After 5 decades of a failed policy it is a long overdue change. Don’t let the naysayers get you down!!

  • 4. sherrysauerwine  |  December 19, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Finally a sane foreign policy in regard to Cuba after fifty years of a failed policy that harmed the Cuban people more than it harmed the Cuban government. Somehow the same people who moan about human rights violations in Cuba seem to ignore the human rights violations and oppression in China — you know — the country that makes almost everything that we import and the country that owns a ton of our national debt.

    I’m glad that we will finally re-establish a formal relationship with Cuba. It will ultimately be good for our country as well as for their country.

    I laugh at the poster who said “Congress will act quickly to undo any harm” since our Congress is “owned” by big business and big business stands to reap millions from their ability to once again sell and buy from Cuba and already Marriott, John Deere, Home Depot, and Pepsi-Cola are lining up to gain access. Even Bacardi said in the WSJ that they will be back in Cuba in a second as soon as the way is open for it to happen.

  • 5. Melissa Herman  |  January 16, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    This is in response to Bob Krieger: When Tina said “something very special and unspoiled about Cuba” she was undoubtedly talking about the island’s environment and natural resources that are among the best in the Caribbean. She is what stands to be destroyed if the tourist floodgates open

  • 6. Melissa Herman  |  January 16, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    I meant to say “This is what stands to be destroyed if the tourist floodgates open.”

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