RALEIGH — There was a time when average Americans were as likely to slip over the DMZ into North Korea or talk their way through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin as they were to visit Cuba.
But the end of the Cold War and President Barack Obama’s easing of some travel restrictions in 2011 have resulted in record numbers of Americans traveling to the communist island about 100 miles south of Key West, Fla.
The Cuban government reported last fall that more than 98,000 U.S. citizens visited the country in 2012, up from 73,500 the year before. The numbers don’t include Cuban-Americans, which Cuba doesn’t count as tourists.
Cuba has been drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists a year since the 1980s, mostly from Canada and Europe. But it’s still not easy for Americans to make the trip across the Florida Strait; U.S. airlines can’t fly to the island nation, and U.S. citizens who want to visit need special licenses from the U.S. government and a visa from Cuba.
Obama made it easier to travel to Cuba by making those licenses available to a larger number of cultural, religious and educational groups, with the goal of increasing “people-to-people” contact between the two countries.
Triangle residents Saul Berenthal and Israel Srebrenik are arranging the licenses and visas for 40 people from the Triangle. The group will make the short flight from Miami to Havana on a charter jet.
They’re working with a Cuban nongovernmental organization that arranges for hotels, transportation and meals. In accordance with U.S. embargo restrictions, the travelers will pay for everything in advance, and the payments will go through a third country before arriving in Cuba.
Many Cuban-Americans won’t go to Cuba and don’t believe the people-to-people trips are helpful. They still harbor resentments about the revolution and the property and the freedoms that were taken from them and their families. They believe in the spirit of the embargo, which means not spending any money that could support a repressive government.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Miami, speaks for many of them.
“It’s clear these tourist trips do little more than help the regime’s image, fund its repressive machine, and undermine the courageous work of Cuba’s democracy fighters,” Rubio, a Republican whose parents came to the U.S. before the revolution, told The Associated Press last fall.
But Berenthal and Srebrenik say things are changing in their native country, and the best way to nudge them along is with direct contact between Americans and Cubans. Government imposed isolation hasn’t worked, Berenthal notes.
“The only way things are ever going to get better between the two countries is if we learn about each other,” he said.