Cindy Domingo, organizer of a Seattle delegation of women that travels every year to Cuba, said that their annual cultural exchange could look a little different after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro have begun warming relations between the two countries.
“Students, retired people would have a chance to travel with us,” Domingo said.
The annual trip, which is part of the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration, visits women’s groups, maternity wards, cultural centers, hospitals and health clinics and has been done on the tightly regulated educational and general visas. The travel visas control who can go to on the trip, and what they can do there, she said.
“It’s a full-time educational schedule,” Domingo said. “If the guidelines change, it means we’ll have time for leisure activities.”
Domingo said that U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration had been advocating for the release of American Alan Gross, who had been convicted after delivering communications equipment to religious groups, which is illegal in Cuba, as well as the release of the three remaining U.S. convictions of Cuban Five. An unnamed spy who was working for U.S. intelligence also was released by the Cuban government.
“The situation with Alan Gross had been dire,” she said, referring to his ill health. “We had been in touch with families of the Cuban Five, and I know that they are happy.”
“I knew that some type of changes were going to happen,” Domingo said. “I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly.”
Judy Zeh, an organizer with the Seattle-Cuba Friendship Committee, also applauded the changes.
“I thought it had to happen eventually,” Zeh said. “The previous policy was so irrational.”
Zeh’s late husband had been advocating for a thaw in relations with Cuba ever since the embargo began in the 1960, after the U.S. began its embargo against Fidel Castro’s regime.
“Cuba has changed as well. Raul is allowing more private enterprise. There’s just less and less reason for the U.S. to maintain that policy.”
Zeh said that the group’s work isn’t done, however. The group’s collection of computers, building equipment and medical supplies for donation and distribution in Cuba probably will still be needed, she said, and the U.S. embargo against Cuba is still in place.
Hap Bockelie, also an organizer with the Seattle-Cuba Friendship Committee and whose son studies medicine at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina in Havana, said that he’s eager for average Americans to learn more about Cuba.
“I know it’s a controversial thing, but it’s only controversial because…. the reality of Cuba is not available to most people in the United States,” Bockelie said.
Most residents of Cuba support their government, he said.
“That flies in the face of the narrative we in the United States are given,” he said.
Bockelie said that the Cuban government also has made strides in eliminating homelessness in their country and addressing the need for additional trained doctors in the developing world.
“Cubans seem to have their priorities straight,” he said.
Bockelie said he was “ecstatic” at the thawing of relations.
“I think it’s a good thing, because people will be able to go there and see for themselves.”
While groups in Seattle applauded the changes, others around the country criticized the president’s moves to normalize relations.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a longtime critic of the Castro regime, was one didn’t ease his criticism, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Cuba needs a new government. Cuba needs a free election,” the Times quoted Regalado as saying. “You can’t expect that this will mean that Cubans will be able to march down the streets of Havana chanting ‘down with the tyranny’ without being attacked by the groups of the state security.”
A demonstration in Little Havana in Miami over the weekend drew about 200 protesters, who said that better economic relations would empower a Cuban government that suppresses dissident speech, according to the Associated Press.