H A V A N A, Aug. 1 -- From wide-eyed high school students to Wall Street bankers, Miami crocodile specialists to New Orleans jazz musicians, Arthur Miller to Jack Nicholson — it seems all of the United States is coming down to Cuba these days.
Still subject to a U.S. embargo barring normal tourism to the Communist-run island, Americans are nonetheless streaming into their Caribbean neighbor in unprecedented numbers via a proliferating variety of legal and not-so-legal means.
A record number of some 140,000 U.S. residents are expected to visit Cuba by the book this year, either to see relatives or on U.S. government-licensed travel for business, cultural, academic, sport and other “people-to-people” exchanges.
“It is easier than ever to travel to Cuba. Point at any American in the street and I’ll find a legitimate reason for a license to go to Cuba,” said Pamela Falk, a Cuba expert from the City University of New York who advises on licenses and has accompanied various U.S. groups to Cuba.
Many more Americans — estimates on both sides range from 20,000 to 50,000 a year — are sneaking into Cuba, in breach of the U.S. embargo’s ban on Americans’ spending money here, via third countries like Mexico, Canada, Jamaica or the Bahamas.
That means Americans are accounting for maybe 10 percent of the more than 1.6 million foreign visitors now coming annually to Cuba in a tourism boom that is throwing a lifeline to Cuba’s troubled economy. That enrages hard-line anti-Communist Cuban-Americans, who see the trend as helping prop up their nemesis, President Fidel Castro, in power for the last 41 years.
But with Washington legislators immersed in debate over moves to ease four-decade-old sanctions on Cuba, including an end to the travel ban, the U.S. “invasion” seems only likely to expand, analysts say. With the embargo lifted, Cuba estimates it would receive 5 million Americans per year.
‘Everyone Benefits,’ Say Some
“As an American, I resent my government telling me where and when I can travel. And I can assure you that most Americans think the same, regardless of what they also may think about the Cuban regime,” said Nicholas Robins, director of the Cuban Studies Institute at New Orleans’ Tulane University.