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Miami Herald - People-to-People Tours to Cuba Take Off Thursday

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By Mimi Whitfield

Liane and Tom Young became interested in Cuba while listening to the Buena Vista Social Club, the best-selling Cuban album in history, and through the allure of the island's famed cigars.

When the first Americans to participate in people-to-people exchanges with Cuba in 7½ years leave Miami on a Marazul charter Thursday afternoon, the central Virginia couple will be aboard.

They want to meet the people who go with the music and cigars, said Liane Young. "My husband and I think this is a fabulous opportunity to get to know the Cuban people,'' she said earlier this week as she finished packing for a trip that will take the couple to Havana and Pinar del Rio, a prime tobacco-growing province.

Young, who is retired but working on a screenplay, and her husband, a small-scale organic farmer, said the couple chose the eight-day trip because they wanted to see Cuba beyond Havana but didn't want to tie up too much time in travel.

The Youngs are traveling with Insight Cuba, which arranged people-to-people exchanges from 2000 to 2003 before the Bush administration tightened travel to the island and stopped the trips as a way of shoring up the U.S. embargo.

However, the Obama administration has not only allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island if they can get visas from Cuba, but also announced guidelines in January allowing other Americans to visit Cuba if they engage in "purposeful travel'' -- such as people-to-people -- that interacts with ordinary Cubans. The administration hopes the contacts with Cubans would support civil society and the free flow of information.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department had approved licenses for 35 organizations to arrange trips to bring Americans and Cubans together. A number of them have scheduled their first trips this fall. But at least one, global travel provider Abercrombie & Kent, which had planned to piggyback on the license of a nonprofit group, put its 13 planned trips on hold because of apparent conflict with rules issued by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control last month.

Critics of the people-to-people exchanges say they are merely disguised tourism ventures that will permit more U.S. currency to flow to the Castro government.

But Young said, "I truly believe this is a cultural exchange.''

A sample itinerary for the trip she is taking includes stops in Old Havana, Cathedral Square and museums as well as visits to schools, an orphanage and Callejón del Hamel, a community art and cultural project where tour participants will meet with Afro-Cuban artists. The trip is also supposed to include sitting in on a meeting of a neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, chats with tobacco farmers and possibly catching a baseball game of Havana's Industriales team.

Young, who knows some Spanish, said she really wants to meet Cubans and wishes her trip would include a little instruction in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish. "I hope that I can understand them,'' she said. "I think it's important for Americans to get educated about the rest of the world, especially when it comes to a neighbor who is so very close."

One thing she hopes to share is her family's experience raising dairy goats, which she thinks could be a source of milk for individual families.

And she and her husband want to gain a better understanding of U.S. policy toward Cuba. "We've never understood why the U.S. hasn't liked Cuba,'' she said.

But Rep. David Rivera, a South Florida Republican who has submitted an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that would not only eliminate the people-to-people exchanges but also limit visits by Cuban-Americans to once every three years, has a few answers.

"Cuba is a totalitarian society where every aspect of life, for residents and visitors, is controlled by a communist dictatorship which has also been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government,'' he said in answer to a query from The Miami Herald. "The type of travel being pushed by the Obama administration only serves to strengthen the Castro regime by providing hard currency resources to maintain its oppressive government."

When Congress resumes after the August recess, he said, "I intend to continue supporting measures aimed at preventing the Obama administration from lifting sanctions on Cuba and giving more unilateral concessions to the Castro dictatorship.''

But the Cuban-American community is divided on the issue of travel to Cuba. Air charter operators estimate Cuban-Americans may make 375,000 to 400,000 trips to the island this year.

When two South Florida charter operators traveled to Washington last month to present a petition with several thousands names of people opposed to an effort by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to limit travel by Cuban-Americans, they were rebuffed.

A staff member handed Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, a note saying that the congressmen did not meet with anyone who deals with "totalitarian regimes,'' said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, which also provides charter service to Cuba.

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