“U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba.” When that news alert hit my inbox three years ago, I was sitting at Noble Coffee in Ashland, replying to my college students’ emails. I had to find a streaming clip of the full announcement to be sure it was true. I watched President Obama from the East Room at the White House say, “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” It was the most sensible thing about Cuba I had heard from a U.S. president in half a century.
Before, in order to visit Cuba legally as an individual, you needed to apply for a special license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. You had to justify your trip under one of 12 categories and, if your application for a travel license was approved, purchase the flight from a small slate of expensive charter companies. I told everyone I knew that “yes, you can get there from here,” but the cost as well as the lengthy and convoluted application process usually discouraged all but those with the heartiest tolerance for bureaucracy.
Suddenly, despite the ongoing U.S. embargo, beginning in January of 2015 Americans could simply fill out a form at the airport and check a box declaring they were participating in “people-to-people” exchanges. What traveler isn’t, after all? What used to take six months now took 60 seconds. Jan. 5 of this year was the first day in five decades that an American flying from the West Coast could purchase a commercial airline fare direct to Cuba. I went online that day and bought a round-trip ticket from PDX via LAX to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport for less than $500.
While English-language news media had seized on President Obama’s phrase “normalize relations,” I learned how much better the policy sounded in Spanish: Cubans called it “la apertura,” the opening. They embraced the travel changes — and the new stream of visitors — with characteristic hospitality. Everywhere a sense of hope was palpable: among street vendors selling souvenirs in la Habana Vieja, families opening restaurants in their Vedado dining rooms, and common Cubanos on the Malecon posing for selfies with travelers.
During this unique year, people-to-people exchanges attracted thousands of Oregonians to Cuba. But last month, the Trump administration put an end to the travel allowance. When I returned to the island for a second visit in November, I was on my way to the airport when Alaska Air announced that the once-daily West Coast flight, after only a year of operation, will be cancelled. Cesar Ramos, a Habanero who offers taxi services in his restored 1955 Ford Fairlane, told me he was scaling back plans to list a room of his family’s apartment on Airbnb. “The embargo: we’re used to it. We had to get by like this in 1968, and we’ll keep doing it in 2018.”
You can still get there from here, but you’ll have to get there like 1968, not like 2018.