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American Tour Groups Arrive in Cuba, Diplomatic Thaw Ahead?

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In what could prove to be a significant step forward in Cuban-American relations, the first groups of American tourists have begun arriving on the island for cultural immersion trips known as “people-to-people exchanges.”

In January of this year, President Obama announced the easing of trade restrictions with Cuba, a move that opened new airports to Cuba-bound flights, restored access for those visiting for educational and religious purposes, and effectively made the island as accessible for Americans as it had been during the Clinton Administration.

Thus far, a few dozen travel groups and providers have been granted licenses¬†allowing them to organize trips for “purposeful travel” that emphasizes educational exchanges, interactions with the Cuban people and cultural activities.

Che Guevara graces Cuban cashThe first American visitors under this system, a group led by Insight Cuba, had an itinerary that included orphanages and medical facilities, art museums and live music performances, tobacco farms and a walking tour of Old Havana.

Despite the newfound openness to groups of tourists, the economic embargo against Cuba remains largely in place, with Americans forbidden to spend their dollars on, well, just about anything. Among the forbidden items are some of Cuba’s cultural touchstones–namely rum and cigars.

That said, original work of art are allowed to be imported into the U.S. with the correct paperwork.

While Cuban-American hardliners are incensed that American tourists will be offering a financial boost to the financially beleaguered Cuban government, others see the visits as offering exposure to outside ideas that will ultimately bolster the cause of democracy on the nominally-Communist island nation.

Additionally, tourism offers Cuban individuals a way to make a living without depending on the government, which still employs the overwhelming majority of Cubans.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, there’s yet another opening of relations between Cuba and America–this one lubricated by rum. What’s known as the “Cuban Interests Section” (the de facto Cuban Embassy) is preparing to open “Hemingway’s Bar.”

Named after American writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived for two decades in Cuba at a home in the hills above Havana known as the Finca Vigia, the bar will be a unique addition to America’s capital city.

Not only will the bar be invitation-only since the Cubans control who may enter what is, from a diplomatic point of view, their sovereign soil, but due to the restrictions still in place on Cuban-American commerce, the drinks at the bar will be free. Yes, completely free of charge.

An open bar named after Ernest Hemingway at the de facto Cuban Embassy in the heart of our nation’s capital? With Daiquiri Diplomacy in effect, US-Cuba relations look set to improve.

By Matthew Calcara for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related Links: MSNBC, Reuters, Huffington Post, Detroit Free-Press, The Atlantic, Finca Vigia Foundation

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