KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) — When Klamath Falls-based lawyer Phil Studenberg visited Cuba at the end of December, he was greeted with joy by the locals.
“People were really excited, as soon as we told them we were from the United States we got a lot of hugs, a lot of handshakes and a lot of high fives,” Studenberg said.
His visit to the island nation started just after Christmas, mere days after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would seek a resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba. President Raul Castro made a similar announcement in his country on the same day.
Studenberg said he was able to travel freely and talk with whomever he wished.
The policy shift began after 18 months of secret talks in Canada. Pope Francis is reported to have been personally involved in brokering a more amicable relationship between the two longtime Cold War enemies.
Official diplomatic ties could signal an end to 50 years of Cold War-era tensions and trade embargoes.
Studenberg visited Cuba nine years ago as well, and he said the populace seems much more open to talking about their communist government and they’re largely excited by the potential changes.
“I think it’s long overdue, I think it’s been one of the most absurd foreign policies we’ve had,” he said of the policy shift. “It just seems to me that communication is a good idea.”
Studenberg recalls as a child seeing the events play out surrounding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since then, he said he’s been interested in learning more about Cuba’s government and culture.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the experiment, what they’re trying to do.”
Studenberg said he has a lot of respect for Cuba’s medical professionals, as well as the country’s literacy rate and its infant mortality rate. According to CIA World Factbook, as of 2014, Cuba had lower infant death rates and a higher literacy rate than the U.S.
However, the country still has social and economic issues to grapple with. Studenberg said tourists might run into doctors working as cab drivers on the side. While many fundamental services are provided by the government, a household’s income can be pretty tight.
“In Cuba, you don’t have a lot of spending money, but they guarantee housing, they guarantee food and medical,” he said.
Aspects of the country still seem to be from another time, with the same old cars on the streets — circa 1950s — some crumbling buildings and heavily restricted Internet access.
Some citizens also are concerned the resumption of diplomacy will change the U.S. immigration policy on Cuban nationals. Since 1966, any Cuban citizen that made landfall on U.S. soil was allowed into the country and set on a path toward U.S. citizenship. Those intercepted at sea were sent home or to other countries.
During his vacation, Studenberg said he saw people lined up to get legal visas for visits to the U.S.
He noted a change in policy might save some lives, as it could deter people from trying to cross over to Florida on a flimsy raft or boat.
Also up for grabs is the export market on the famous Cuban cigars. Studenberg said he heard the cigar makers were worried their product might go down in quality to keep up with demand.
However, if the cigars start being legally imported into the U.S., they might lose some of their allure.
“Frankly, I think it’s a lot of forbidden fruit,” Studenberg said.
According to Studenberg, he enjoys the art and music scene in Havana, which has grown to include works by openly gay artists and artists of different ethnicities.
“The art scene has really taken off, and the music has always been great in Cuba,” Studenberg said.
Personally, he’s worried some of the unique, old school flavor of Havana and other Cuban cities might be lost if American tourists start flooding the country. As of Studenberg’s last visit, the beaches are still pristine with no fast food chain restaurants in sight.
Still, residents in Havana seem to be preparing for an influx of people. Restaurants and private businesses are cropping up in residences, and Studenberg talked with an architect with a plan for renovating Havana’s downtown district.
“If it keeps its unique status, I would love to go back in five years and see what’s happened,” he said.
KTVZ, January 16, 2015