US groups hope Obama to allow more travel to Cuba

CubaSome Americans are eagerly awaiting the moment when they can make legal trips to Cuba despite the U.S. trade and travel embargo ? and all it would take is a stroke of President Barack Obama’s pen.

While the U.S. Congress is weighing whether to lift the travel ban altogether, these Americans are hoping for a widening of already sanctioned visits and the chance to form a human wave introducing American values and culture to the communist society.

The people-to-people contact worked before, when President Bill Clinton made it easier for such trips beginning in 1999, they say.

“For us on the U.S. side, the Cubans became less of the boogyman. And the Cubans learned more about us and our culture,” said author Tom Miller, who in 2000 and 2001 co-organized bilingual workshops in Havana for Cuban and American writers.

Tens of thousands of Americans legally visited Cuba as recently as 2003, spending a week or two at a time delivering donated food and clothes from their churches, studying the architecture of Old Havana, visiting artists in their homes or even learning how to salsa dance.

Then President George W. Bush clamped down and the number of sanctioned trips plunged. In 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, about 40,500 Americans visited Cuba, most of them presumably making illicit trips through third countries like Mexico.

But now that Obama has lifted all restrictions on travel by Americans with relatives on the island, the U.S.-based groups that once brought ordinary Americans on regular study tours hope he will let them resume those visits as well ? even if the rest of the travel ban remains intact.

“We’re doing a lot of strategizing and dusting off the old itineraries,” said Leslie Balog, Cuba coordinator for the “reality tours” organized by the San Francisco group Global Exchange. “We’re planning like it could happen tomorrow.”

Although Obama’s April 14 presidential decree affected only Americans with Cuban relatives, organizers of past tours believe legal travel for other Americans will eventually reopen, at least a bit.

“We’re hoping they’ll eliminate all travel restrictions, but it seems more likely they will go back to where we were under the Clinton administration,” Balog said.

Global Exchange brought as many as 2,000 Americans to Cuba annually under the special “people-to-people” category created by Clinton in 1999 and laxer regulation of other approved U.S. travel categories.

People-to-people travel was intended to spread American ideals and increase understanding between the two nations, which haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1961.

Bush shut it down in 2003, saying the policy was increasingly being used to organize tourism packages masquerading as study tours. He also tightened restrictions on educational, religious, humanitarian and other kinds of authorized travel.

Enforcement of the Cuba regulations soared, jumping from 188 cases against people, businesses and groups in Clinton’s final year in office to 766 in Bush’s first year.

U.S. educational travel, a category that still exists, was slashed by up 90 percent, said William Leogrande at American University, which had to shut down the Cuba study programs of several weeks it once offered between semesters and in the summer.

The more than 100 U.S. universities with licenses for educational travel dwindled to a few dozen after new rules allowed only study programs of 10 weeks or more and permitted only students from the licensed school to participate.

American University still operates a semester-long program in Cuba, with less than a dozen students. Leogrande hopes that will change. “I do think things are going to move now. I think we will see a broadening back to the Clinton era,” he said.

Trips conducted by U.S.-based alumni groups, museums, sister city associations, bird-watching clubs and other organizations allowed Americans to visit Cuba without fear of being fined.

Miller, author of “Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba,” was co-director for two years of the U.S.-Cuba Writers Conference. He said it brought 25 writers to Havana to “mix it up with some 25 Cuban writers in a sort of literary detente.”

Instructors for the bilingual seminars on fiction, nonfiction, translation, poetry, plays and performance included celebrated Latino authors Junot Diaz and Cristina Garcia.

As many 30,000 Americans visited Cuba legally over the four years that people-to-people travel existed, giving them a U.S.-sanctioned look at this island most of their compatriots cannot.

“What was wonderful about that period is that it allowed us to break down the barriers between the United States and Cuba,” said Sandra Levinson at the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.

Along with Global Exchange, the center conducted a large chunk of the tours to Cuba.

Levinson said resumption of the trips could be the key to the survival of the center, which now raises most of its money showing and selling works by Cuban artists ? something increasingly harder to do in the economic downturn.

Balog, at Global Exchange, is optimistic.

“We don’t know when it could be ? in six months, another year, or even tomorrow,” she said. “We have to be ready.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.