Mel BlumenthalColumnistSnowmass, CO Colorado

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November 20, 2012
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Checking out Old Havana with good friends

While writing this week's column I'm sitting in the lush Spanish-styled courtyard of the Hotel Santa Isabel in Havana, Cuba. I am slowly sipping a lime mojito but fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, without the traditional Cuban cigar ... under pressure at home I swore off smoking many years ago so all I can do now is appreciate the pungent aroma wafting my way from a nearby table. Paulette and I along with Snowmass friends Bob and Adriane Sirkus, John and Robbie Michelman and 16 new friends we met on the tour spent the past week based at this beautiful historic colonial style hotel in the heart of Old Havana, which is situated on the Plaza de Armas, a cobbled square flanked by colonial-era buildings, museums and restaurants. We're all here on a People-to-People tour soaking in the history and culture of this beautiful country as well as spending a good portion of each day interacting with the resilient and optimistic people who live and work in and around this historic capital city.The People-To-People program, created by President Clinton in 1999, quickly came under fire from Cuban-American politicians who argued that it allowed travel to this U.S.-embargoed country as just thinly disguised pleasure vacations as opposed to its intended purpose of creating cultural bridges between us and the Cubans we meet along the way. George W. eliminated the People-To-People travel program in 2003 and the Obama administration revived it in 2011. However, Florida Senate Republican Marco Rubio and several of his Cuban-American colleagues, under apparent pressure from Cuban-American constituents, once again are leading a renewed charge to eliminate or dramatically restrict this travel program.Underlying all of Rubio's hyperbole -and that of many other Cuban-Americans who reside in Miami, just a short 90 miles north of Havana - are strong and justifiable bitter feelings against the revolutionary regime that ultimately tore their families and livelihoods apart following the revolution lead by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s and his eventual alliance with the Soviet Union. The revolutionary government expropriated private property, with little or no compensation, nationalized public utilities and tightened controls on the private sector as well as all media.Over time the Communist Party strengthened its one-party rule with Castro as ultimate leader, leading to the eventual emigration of well over a million Cubans of all social classes to the U.S.With all of the suffering the Cubans have endured under Castro and his predecessors, their anger runs deep.But with the passage of time and signs of the easing of restrictions under the current presidential leadership of Castro's brother, Raul, the bitter feelings may begin easing - particularly within the younger generation of Cuban-Americans. It's anticipated they may begin supporting the call to loosen the U.S.-Cuban embargo that has been a significant impediment to an improved Cuban economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and their termination of economic support and eventual pull-out from Cuba. One hopeful sign, last year Raul ushered in a new, but limited, generation of entrepreneurs following an announcement that the state's inflated payrolls could end up jeopardizing the very survival of the Revolution.About 85 percent of all Cubans with jobs are employed by the state, earning about $20 per month in exchange for free access to health care, education and a ration of subsidized food and other necessities of life.In an effort to revive Cuba's crippled economy, many Cubans are taking up the government's offer to work for themselves, educating and entertaining tourists, selling coffee and food in their homes and front yards, renting out their houses, making furniture and selling anything they can get their hands on. By 2010. the government had issued 75,000 business licenses to people wanting to join Cuba's small but growing private sector, in what could be the biggest remodeling of the state-run economy since Fidel nationalized all commercial enterprise in 1968. Streets that once had no sign of commerce are gradually coming back to life as people open up businesses in their homes and roadside stalls. Although many inside and out of Cuba remain skeptical concerning the future of Cuba's political structure and economy, there is a perceptible sense of hope and spirit coming from almost everyone we came in contact with.As attitudes and perceptions continue to change amongst Cuban-Americans as well as other American citizens through travel programs such as the People-to-People program, and our U.S.-Cuban political relations improve, there likely will be many more opportunities for the free flow of commerce and travel between the two countries which will inure to the mutual benefit of both.If you have the opportunity to visit Cuba now or in the future, take it. I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.I'm ready for another mojito, more cigar smoke and conversation at secondview@earthlink.net.


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The Aspen Times Updated Nov 20, 2012 04:54PM Published Nov 20, 2012 04:50PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.