By Sara Matthis
& Alex Press with Jason Koler contributing
On Wednesday, President Barrack Obama announced a major policy shift in relations with Cuba, located 90 miles south of the Florida Keys. Restrictions that have been in place since 1961 have been lifted including travel, U.S. exports to the island nation, banking laws and how much money can be wired from the U.S. to Cuban nationals.
News organizations have reported that the agreement was struck after a year of secret talks. And it was announced on the day an American hostage, Alan Gross, was released from a Cuban jail after five years of incarceration and flown to the United States. In exchange, the United States freed three prisoners, alleged Cuban spies, including one who conspired to shoot down airplanes flown by American civilians.
Marco Rubio, the U.S. Senator for Florida, decried the president’s action.
“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, based on a lie,” Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.”
The Keys have a very special interest in the political move, as they are the closest to the situation. Literally.
Cuban-born County Administrator Roman Gastesi said he is “delighted” in the shift in policy and said his father is very supportive and happy that he may soon be able to see his country as he was studying medicine in France when Castro assumed control of Cuba and hasn’t been back since.
“This move is long overdue,” Gastesi told the Weekly. “I am delighted America is going to try to normalize relations with Cuba.”
Some Cubans are excited to see conversation start between the countries as well.
“My friend in Cuba, Alexandro, was ecstatic and he isn’t usually too optimistic,” said photojournalist Larry Benvenuti who has visited Cuba more than 20 times. “The older generation still has intense hatred for the Castro regime but the younger generation believes we need communication.”
Other Cuban-Americans are not as excited about the shift. Jose Herrera, director of Sales and Marketing of Islamorada Beer Company, is Cuban. His mother and grandmother fled Cuba to Venezuela to escape the Castro regime.
“There is a lot of personal history. Families had to build make-shift boats and cross 90 miles of shark infested waters to make a little bit of money to send back to Cuba,” Herrera said. “[Castro] is full of empty promises. By not opening up the doors you don’t give him support and money to keep doing that to his people. For example, people are saying ‘Yay, I can buy Cuban cigars now and help the Cuban economy.’ But Cuban people will not see any of that money coming in.”
Perhaps the biggest effect of the improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba will be on the tourism industry. Keys officials have long envisioned a thriving partnership with the island nation that incorporate multiple destinations in both the Keys and Cuba.
“We have the strategic plan and the first order of business the TDC would do if Cuba opened its gates to tourism is focus on what creative message we would advertise in different media outlets. One slogan we developed is ‘Keys Plus Cuba’, with the idea to have people stay in the Keys and take excursion trips to the island nation,” said Director of Tourist Development Council Harold Wheeler. “Another slogan is ‘Cuba Plus Keys’, which focuses on the international market, visiting the Keys from Cuba. Key West and Marathon would have a port of entry designation but we would have to establish landing rights in Cuba.”
Gastesi agreed. He said some marinas are already preparing for the boom and he has met with ferry companies interested in setting up terminals in Monroe County.
“That would be cool,” he said of idea. “You could take your car, luggage, and have a few drinks on the 5- to 6-hour trip.”
President Obama’s announcement does not affect the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy currently in place. Political emigres who reach land in the U. S. would still be granted asylum.
The agreement between both countries also stipulates:
- The U.S. is easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities. Technically, tourist travel remains banned and Americans will not be able to obtain a tourist visa.
- Remittances between U.S. citizens and Cuban nationals has been raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter.
- Transfer of funds no longer requires a licensed agent. Also, U.S. financial institutions can now open Cuban bank accounts.
- There is no limit on donations to humanitarian causes or support for development of private businesses. (Expect the communications industry to be very active; currently, Cuba only has a 5 percent penetration rate for internet availability.)
- Travelers from Cuba entering the U.S. will be allowed to bring back $400 of Cuban goods (although only $100 of that can be spent on liquor and cigars).
- U.S. businesses may now export goods such as building materials, farming equipment and communications infrastructure to Cuba.
According to the International Business Times, the U.S. Commerce Department of Commerce reports that last year, about 170,000 Americans traveled lawfully to Cuba. About 98,000 went through people-to-people cultural exchange programs that have proliferated since 2011.