N.J. author foresees easing of Cuban embargo and travel restrictions

Relations between the United States and Cuba will take a leap forward in the coming week when Secretary of State John Kerry raises the flag at the U.S. embassy in Havana.

That step, while symbolic, could set the stage for business, cultural and familial exchanges in the coming months, according to a Ramapo College expert on the Caribbean nation.

For Cuban-Americans in New Jersey, the warming of relations between the two countries should mean renewed family ties and the opportunity to travel more freely to their homeland, said Dr. John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, professor of American Studies.

Cuban-Americans likely will have “a kind of back-and-forth life” living in the two countries, said Gronbeck-Tedesco, author of an upcoming book on Cuban-American history.

But for real change to occur, the United States has to back off the trade embargo and travel restrictions it’s had on the island nation since 1960.

The issue continues to vex Washington, as the house in June voted against easing travel restrictions while senate committees last month voted for them and for the financing of exports to Cuba.

The question has jumped traditional political boundaries, Gronbeck-Tedesco noted, with officials such as New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, normally a reliable vote for President Obama, opposing normalization. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in agricultural states are supporting warmer relations, seeing opportunities for increased trade, Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

Sticky issues such as American financial claims and Cuba’s human rights record remain unresolved.

For example, Menendez this week at a hearing questioned why the United States should ease up on Cuba, saying its government engages in human trafficking and forced labor.

There also is some wariness about warmer relations among Cubans, Gronbeck-Tedesco said, noting a risk of unrest because the benefits of renewed ties will not be distributed equally.

“There is such a thing as doing too much, too fast,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

But the overall movement is towards warming relations, he said. While most Americans have backed normalized relations with Cuba for years, a poll by Bendixen & Amandi International this year found that a majority of Cuban-Americans, who had been staunchly against normalization, now support it.

If restrictions are eased, Gronbeck-Tedesco does not expect a dramatic increase in Cuban emigration to New Jersey. However, he does foresee more family reunifications involving many of the more than 83,000 New Jersey residents of Cuban heritage.

The Obama administration made family visits easier last year by easing rules on licenses family members need to get into Cuba.

The Congressional Research Service reported that around 600,000 people traveled to Cuba from the United States in 2014. Besides family visits, those travelers include authorized educational, humanitarian, religious, athletic and government groups. Tourism travel still is prohibited.

If the tourism ban is eased, travelers from here to Cuba, Gronbeck-Tedesco said, will find reasonable accommodations if they stick to tourist areas.

“The Cuban government has put a high priority on making sure tourist spaces like hotels and beaches get the utmost attention,” he said.

In those areas, basic amenities such as safe food, regular electric power and hot water are common, he said.

It’s also a safe place to travel, he said.

If they go, Americans visiting the island nation also will come to know a people who are much more than stereotypical communist drones, he said.

Cubans have passionate interest in art, dance and music, Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

“Havana,” he said, “is one of the most creative places I have been.”

His forthcoming book, “Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930-1975,” explores how leftist politics and art from Cuba impacted culture in the United States.

For example, he said, the time poet Langston Hughes spent in Cuba had “a huge impact on him,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

It is likely that a thaw in relations with the United States will have a similar deep impact on Cuba, he said.

“It’s almost certain that Cuban domestic politics are going to change as a result of this,” he said.

There even is rumor of a possible visit by President Obama before he leaves office, Gronbeck-Tedesco said.

If so, he’d be the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge.

By Tim Darragh, nj.com

August 8, 2015

Tim Darragh may be reached at tdarragh@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @timdarragh. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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