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Oakland to Cuba: Obama lifts travel restrictions for family visits

on April 17, 2009

Delvis Fernández, like any other grandfather, wants his grandchild to know his roots, to appreciate his culture and to connect with family members. So last week, he decided to bring his 12-year-old grandson on a trip to Fernandez’s hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba, located smack dab in the center of the island.

To get there, Fernandez, his grandson and the group he traveled with—Global Exchange—took a route that would scare off even the most jet-setting of travelers, bouncing from San Luis Obispo, Calif. to Los Angeles to Phoenix to Atlanta to Mexico City to Cancun and finally to Havana. In total, over 48 hours of travel time. “And I’m close to 69 years old,” said Fernández, now back in the States. “It was quite an adventure.”

It was a circuitous journey that, for Fernandez and other Cubans and Cuban-Americans, has just gotten significantly more direct. On Monday, President Obama lifted all restrictions on travel and remittances for people living in the States with family in Cuba.The new policy also allows for U.S. telecommunication companies to enter into agreements that would develop telecommunications links between the island and the United States.

For Fernández, the change in policy is a step in the right direction, and an indication that further changes can be close at hand. “I compare policy towards Cuba like a big dam,” he said. “Now there’s a hole in the dam—there’s a major break in the dam. What we need to do now is tear down that wall.”

Fernández is president of the Cuban American Alliance, a national organization dedicated to education on US-Cuban policy and promotion of greater links between those two countries.On a local level, that translates to a sister city program linking Oakland to Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city in the country.Though Fernández is now based in San Luis Obispo, he spent 40 years in the East Bay area and said he considers Oakland to be just as much a hometown as Santa Clara.

Like Fernández, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland and other East Bay cities in the House of Representatives, recently returned from a trip to Cuba. Lee has been a vocal opponent to the long-standing trade embargo and travel restrictions that have defined American policy toward Cuba. On Monday, she praised the policy change. “President Obama’s decision is a step in the right direction and I look forward to working with the Administration as we work to create an open dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba and restore normalized diplomatic relations with our nearest Caribbean neighbor,” Lee said in a statement.

Praise and celebration were not uniform throughout the Cuban and Cuban-American community nationwide. Congressmen Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, Republicans from Florida whose districts include large Cuban-American constituencies, issued a joint statement calling Obama’s change in policy a “serious mistake.”

Fernández said there is a certain portion of the Cuban community in America that leans towards a hard-line position on Cuba. But he said that many in the community have mellowed their political stances, and that Cubans living in the Bay Area were more likely to support engagement with Cuba. “In the Bay Area, there’s a more liberal kind of attitude,” he said.

Fernández said that since the announcement of the change in policy, he has heard from Cubans and Cuban Americans all across the country ready to take advantage of the new rules. “I have been busy, busy, busy,” he said.“There are many people in line to get passports and documents ready to go to Cuba.” Fernández mentioned the example of one man who was preparing to make the journey, despite being in his 80s.

But while the change in policy has immediate impact for those with family on the island, some Cuba-watchers point out that opportunities for economic and cultural engagement remain limited. Bill Martínez is a San Francisco-based immigration lawyer who is active in the US-Cuba Cultural Exchange, an organization that lobbies to allow Cuban artists and musicians to perform in the United States, and for American artists to perform on the island. He said he was encouraged by the changes put forth by the Obama administration, but he wants to see more.

“There is zero impact on cultural work, except for a ray of hope,” Martínez said.He said he hopes that before Obama attends the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend, he will announce an easing of restrictions on visas for Cuban and American artists.“This all will happen in little chunks,” Martínez said, adding that he expected American policy towards Cuba to be a major focus on the summit.

Laura Enríquez, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, said it was unlikely that policy changes would remain limited only to Cuban-Americans.  As a member of the steering committee for the UC-Cuba Initiative, she expects a new round of planning for study abroad programs now that further liberalization seems possible.

“The UC system was experimenting with having an exchange program in place” before tightening of travel restrictions for study abroad in 2004, she said.  “My sense is that there will be movement in that direction again.”  She added that undergraduate students were most affected by the 2004 restrictions and will likely benefit as these policies expand.

For now, advocates are energized by the potential for more change and celebrating what they see as a positive indication of what is to come. And for Fernández, like many others here in the States, it as much about strengthening personal family ties as it is about effecting policy change.

“This is one of the most exciting times of my life,” Fernández said. “To see my grandson hugging and crying with people he just knew from stories…it was long overdue.”


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