First Americans in Cuba under easier U.S. travel rules

Tue Aug 16, 2011 6:42pm EDT
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By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - The first group of Americans to tour Cuba under new, more liberal U.S. travel regulations have been greeted by hugs, handshakes and a welcoming Cuban government, according to a trip organizer.

The 30 travelers are pioneers in a new era of "people-to-people" exchanges the Obama administration approved in January to "enhance the free flow of information" to Cubans and over the objections of those who favor a hardline against the communist government.

About 30 to 35 travel groups are believed to have obtained licenses so far under the new regulations, which reinstate rules put in place by President Bill Clinton in 1999, but revoked by his successor, President George W. Bush in 2003.

The first group of travelers have been to orphanages, medical facilities, art museums, music performances and tobacco farms and have walked the streets of Old Havana in a first taste of the forbidden fruit that Cuba has been for five decades under the U.S. trade embargo against the country.

Their reactions, said Tom Popper of Insight Cuba, the travel agency bringing in the group, have varied widely.

"Some people are amazed by what they see and astonished by the people and the culture and everything around them," he told Reuters this week.

"And some people feel horrible that getting coffee is a struggle and food stuff is hard (to find) and that there's two economies and that a doctor has to drive a taxi to supplement his income," Popper said.

He described an emotional visit to a facility for the blind where 40 people awaited the group and applauded their arrival.   Continued...

<p>A man boards a private-licensed taxi near Havana's Capitol building August 1, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan</p>