Despite embargo, Cuba sees future in U.S. visitors

Officials hope recent trip by politicians will help shift policy


By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA Americans are once again flocking to Cuba. Senators from Washington, business moguls from Oklahoma, and tourists from Illinois are streaming into the land of cigars, rum, and Fidel Castro.

The number of Americans visiting the island had dropped after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Now, though, there has been a surge, a sign that Cuba remains one of the most intriguing spots in the hemisphere.

Just this week, the Young Presidents Organization a Dallas-based group whose members include CEOs under 50 years of age sent 500 visitors, most of them from the United States.

"I think it's the largest single group of Americans that has visited Cuba in more than 40 years," said Kirby Jones, a U.S. expert on Cuba who accompanied the group.

About 2,000 Americans are expected to visit Cuba in January not including those traveling to the island illegally. Most travel to the island is banned, although the U.S. government does allow some business, educational, cultural, and other visits. Travelers range from musicians and artists to lawmakers.

The Cubans tend to roll out the red carpet for the politicians, especially if they think they can be of help in changing U.S. policy toward the socialist regime.

Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island met with Mr. Castro for 61/2 hours on Thursday and into Friday. The senators said they talked about a range of issues, from terrorism and drug trafficking to human rights and democracy.

Mr. Specter said he told the Cuban president there ought to be contested elections on the island the same thing he has told him during a past visit to Cuba.

"Last time," the senator said, "I told him, 'Why don't you have an opponent?' He said, 'I do have an opponent the United States.' "

The Cubans hope that by meeting with American visitors they can get across what they say is the most objective, accurate picture of their country a picture that they say is often distorted in the United States.

Mr. Jones, who has traveled to Cuba regularly for more than 26 years, said he believes that these visits do influence U.S. policy.

"Look at this," he said as hundreds of members of the Young Presidents Organization walked into a private, open-air dinner held for them next to the centuries-old Havana Cathedral. "You have the U.S. government saying there's an embargo on Cuba, that you can't travel to Cuba. But 100 CEOs are here, saying, 'I want to find out about this country.' They're voting with their feet."

Members of the group said they have no political aims and came to Cuba for educational and cultural reasons.

Other visitors openly declare their political beliefs. Said Mr. Chafee, the senator from Rhode Island, "We favor lifting the embargo. We want to help the Cuban people as much as possible."

That kind of talk infuriates anti-Castro groups in Miami and Washington. Help the Cuban people, they say. Help those who want political change. But don't prolong the Castro regime.

The debate over Cuba is expected to continue in Washington, where some 20 Cuba-related proposals await lawmakers' consideration this year.

The bills can be roughly divided into two groups those that would loosen the longtime ban on trade with Cuba and allow Americans to travel to the island freely, and those that would offer Mr. Castro concessions only if he allows greater economic and political freedom on the island.

"Support for changing U.S. policy is strong in Congress," said Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of religious, human rights, and other organizations.