University of Michigan groups visit Cuba after Obama eases travel restrictions
Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Haber
In April, 45-year-old Haber, a nurse for the University of Michigan Health System, stepped foot on Cuban soil for the first time.
She and 34 U-M alumni became a few of the first Americans to visit Cuba since U.S. President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions in 2011. The group was the first of three U-M contingents to tour Cuba as part of U-M Alumni Association-backed travel expeditions. The last group, which includes Lisa Rudgers, U-M vice president of global communications, is touring the country now.
"It was a bag of mixed emotions," Haber says of her trip to Cuba. "My father always wanted to take his family back to Cuba, to the country he left behind to go to the States for freedom."
In many ways, the Cuba Haber experienced during her visit was similar to the one her father left for America. There's been little construction in the 50 or so years since the U.S. closed doors to Cuba. People drive bike taxis and pre-revolutionary cars and pay to use public restrooms, where toilet paper is rationed by the square and toilets don't have lids.
"Havana is a city frozen in time, with buildings that are just crumbling. The infsatructure is just a mess over there," Haber said.
In other veins, however, the city has changed vitally.
"Almost all of these very large, old estates and homes that were built by the very rich in the (1940s and 50s) have all been turned over to renters," said U-M Alumnus David Morrison, a retired foreign service worker who traveled to Cuba with Haber beginning March 19. "There are huge numbers of families crowded in each of these places."
Morrison and his wife, along with other travelers, paid $3,845 each for the eight-day trip to Cuba, during which they visited with Cuban artists, ballet performers, economists and students and toured several cities, including Havana, the island's capitol.
U-M Alumni Association travel coordinator Carrie Fediuk originally planned for just one departure but response was "so overwhelming" she decided to tack on two extra trips. Fediuk applied for an educational travel visa to Cuba in June 2011 and received the go-ahead in November.
Travel to Cuba has been heavily restricted since the 1960s and in 2003 George W. Bush fully eliminated licenses to travel there. Obama in 2011 eased restrictions, allowing educational trips to Cuba, and the first group of U.S. citizens landed in August. Other elite universities, such as the University of California at Los Angeles and Harvard University, have since led similar trips to Cuba.
"It was a very labor intensive process. The U.S. government wanted to know everything about our program, our history, what our intentions were to travel there," Fediuk recalled, adding that officials circled back with her twice requesting additional information. Fediuk, who regularly arranges trips to countries like Egypt, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands and Turkey, said she can't recall a more detailed vetting process.
The difficulty, she said, was well worth the eventual reward.
"It was uncharted territory," Fediuk said. "Cuba is a place we knew our travelers would want to go. They're curious and they wanted to see a place that's been closed off to U.S. travelers for many, many years."
That's not to say the expedition didn't stir up a little controversy.
"Cuba is a communist regime that not necessarily everybody approves of. We know people have lost their lives trying to flee the country and that's bothersome. So when we opened the trip up I knew there would be some people who didn't agree with our decision to go," Fediuk said. "They were concerned about our traveling there and supporting their economy. Based on the fact that it is a dictatorship and not a free economy."
It was the effects of the restricted economy that shocked Morrison the most.
"The irony is that you have doctors and university professors who stand on street corners and offer guided tours to earn a decent living, which they can't get from either being a professor or a doctor," he recalled.
For Haber, the short trip was "an eye-opener."
"Now I totally understand why my family is the way they are," she said. "Cubans are definitely survivors. They do the most they can with the little they have."
Fediuk says she is planning additional trips for 2013.