“YES YOU CAN” encourages the website of a travel provider specializing in tours of Cuba. Itineraries are listed for nearly every remaining week of 2011 and most of 2012. “The floodgates have opened,” it proclaims, offering visitors endless itineraries for educational and cultural tours. According to the Cuba's National Office of Statistics, the island has already received more than a million visitors this year, an increase of 11.9% over the same period in 2010. While the origin of Cuba’s visitors in 2011 mirror patterns of previous years, the majority arriving from Canada, Russia, Argentina, the UK, Chile and France, it seems Americans may very soon be walking Cuban streets in the greatest numbers seen in more than a decade.
U.S.-based Cuba travel service providers are ramping up operations in the hopes that large numbers of Americans will take advantage of the Obama Administration’s changes to regulations governing people-to people travel to Cuba, announced in January of this year. The changes greatly expand opportunities for educational and religious travel via general license, (the general license does not require the traveler to be pre-authorized for travel) as well as more limited opportunities for travel under the more cumbersome and restrictive, specific license which continues to govern travel for cultural and humanitarian purposes. (For a more detailed explanation about the regulations, see this excellent analysis by the Latin America Working Group)
Last week, I offered a rather bleak but honest assessment of the Obama administration’s track-record on Cuba policy thus far. As it happened, just a day or two later the Associated Press published an article about the potential up-tick in American visitors to the island in 2011 that may result from the the new travel policy. “The forbidden fruit of American travel to Cuba is once again in reach,” reads the opening sentence.
I couldn’t help but dwell on the absurdity illustrated by the juxtaposition of these two realities. On the one hand, we have an Administration that makes what is essentially its first major endorsement of a policy of greater exchange between Cubans and Americans late on a Friday afternoon, as if it were the ugly step child of its Latin America agenda, yet there are potentially tens of thousands of Americans eager to travel to Cuba, and their right to do so just happens to be supported by Americans and Cuban voices that span the political and ideological spectrum.