A part of old Havana showing government efforts to restore historic architecture. Photo by Erin O’Neill
A part of old Havana showing government efforts to restore historic architecture.
Photo by Erin O’Neill
Rolling her cigar, looking fine and waiting for tips from passersby eager for a picture, an old woman in old Havana. Photo by Erin O’Neill
Rolling her cigar, looking fine and waiting for tips from passersby eager for a picture, an old woman in old Havana. Photo by Erin O’Neill

With President Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement of the United States’ intention to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, many U.S. residents and companies have begun to plan trips to and investments in Cuba. It seems Cuba, as a travel destination and potential business opportunity, has rapidly jumped to the top of many U.S. residents’ bucket lists.

Some Idyllwild residents have already gone, as part of tour groups permitted to travel to Cuba for one of 12 authorized purposes, including family visits, journalism, professional research and professional meetings, humanitarian projects and educational activities.

Erin O’Neill, a professional underwater photographer, went with the Women Divers Hall of Fame under the auspices of a conservation group called Ocean Doctor headed by David Guggenheim. She went in late December 2014 and was there on New Year’s Eve.

Heather and George Companiott went a year earlier with Heather’s sister’s non-profit, Center for Democracy in the Americas. Both O’Neill and the Companiotts came back with glowing praise for the Cuban people — their warmth, their fun-loving nature, and their affection and warm welcome for Americans.

Both gave high marks to the Cuban health-care system, since both O’Neill and George had to avail themselves of Cuban medical care while there. For O’Neill, it was an eye inflammation, treated effectively and for free. O’Neill pointed out that tours are required to have medical insurance that can be used in Cuba for tour members.

Another member of O’Neill’s party fell face-first into rocks and required extensive treatment including CAT scans and plastic surgery, all professionally taken care of by Cuban medical, at no additional charge. Said O’Neill, “Medical care is free to all Cubans and is of very high quality. Education, through university, is also free and of high quality. And there are no homeless people living on the streets, no beggars asking for handouts and there is no hunger.” She acknowledged that although Cubans are poor as a whole, there is virtually no income disparity. “Doctors work for the about the same money as private taxi drivers,” she said.

O’Neill also was impressed with Cuba’s environmental preservation efforts, especially in protecting healthy coral colonies and in reforestation of large mountain areas that had been denuded under the pre-Castro regime. One reforested area is now a UNESCO sustainable village site and biosphere habitat. ”Their conservation efforts are so amazing and the results are incredible,” she said.

Because of the nature of O’Neill’s tour — diving expeditions and visits to remote areas, she saw first-hand the protected coral colonies, the healthiest in the Caribbean, according to O’Neill. Her group also saw cultivation of officially endangered fish species that are being carefully expanded, as well as ongoing major mountain reforestation projects.

Kids on the street in Havana. Photo by George Companiott
Kids on the street in Havana. Photo by George Companiott

For George, his use of the Cuban health-care system came courtesy of some bad langostino, a seafood. “The nurse came to the hotel, gave me antibiotics and there was no charge,” he said. “It could not have been better. And the people overall were so well educated. I’m glad we went before it changed. We just wrapped ourselves in another culture and immersed ourselves.”

As to rapid change, Heather’s sister, Sarah Stephens, who heads the nonprofit Democracy for the Americas in Washington, D.C, does not think change will come quickly. “We’re a long way from getting the embargo lifted,” she said. “Only Congress can lift the embargo; it can’t be done by presidential executive action.”

Stephens founded her advocacy group in 2006 after working with the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. She has been part of groups that directly negotiated with Fidel Castro and has long been engaged in the effort to normalize relations with Cuba. She was actually in Cuba on Dec. 17 when the announcement of reopening diplomatic relations was jointly made by Obama and Castro and broadcast to the Cuban nation. “We had no idea the announcement was coming,” said Stephens. “We were in the room with a group from a Cuban think tank when the announcement was broadcast. There were tears on both sides. The Cubans [in our negotiations] stood up and sang their national anthem. They were proud. On the street it was the same.”

The United States and Cuba have a long history together. After the defeat of Spain by U.S. military in the Spanish American War, Cuba was under a U.S. military government from war’s end in August 1898 until Cuba achieved formal independence in May 1902. But U.S. influence in Cuba continued through significant U.S. corporate investment, as well as trade and travel between the two countries.

That came to a halt on Jan. 3, 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s government, after two years of diplomatic relations following the success in 1959 of Castro’s revolution. The cited reasons for severing relations were that Cuba was moving closer to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence by signing a trade treaty with the U.S.S.R and Castro’s insistence that the U.S. reduce the number of staff at its embassy, fearing that the embassy was fostering spying.

Long noted for its climate, architecture and gracious people, Cuba has been virtually off limits to most Americans, requiring tour group licenses from the Treasury Department that could takes month to obtain.

But all that is rapidly changing with weekly announcements by U.S. governmental agencies of easing of certain procedural travel restrictions, permitted use of American credit cards in Cuban transactions, removal of tour group licensing requirements, bipartisan efforts in Congress to lift travel restrictions altogether, and agitation by U.S. Gulf Coast farmers, farmers’ unions and shippers to open agricultural trade.

And while many polls show most Americans in favor of lifting travel restrictions as well as the long-standing trade embargo, there is still opposition in some camps, largely because of Cuba’s Communist government and post-revolutionary record of instances of human rights abuse.

Cuba is only one of four countries in the world with which we presently have no diplomatic relations. The other three are Bhutan, North Korea and Iran. We do maintain full diplomatic relations with many autocratic regimes whose human rights records are not good.

So, with American companies likely to financially benefit from the opening of relations, there seems to be an evolving bipartisan Congressional push for taking down the last barriers to a mutually productive relationship between Cuba and the United States. Legislation has already been introduced in Congress, the week of Jan. 23, to lift the embargo and boost the sale of food to Cuba, a position supported by U.S. farmers.

Baseball begins early in Cuba — a young boy on the street in Havana. Photo by George Companiott
Baseball begins early in Cuba — a young boy on the street in Havana. Photo by George Companiott

Stephens is leaving for Cuba this week with a delegation of American senators to see the effects the embargo is having on the country and the Cuban people. “Dec. 17 caused a lot of people, especially many in Congress, to reevaluate policy toward Cuba. It makes a huge difference to have the presidents involved, both Obama and [Raul] Castro. It’s a scary step for Cuba. We need both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to move this relationship forward.”

“We will definitely go back,” said O’Neill. “I can say, more than with any other culture in the world, that the fate of the Cuban people is in their hands.” The Companiotts, Stephens and O’Neill all hoped Cuba and its people could preserve what makes them uniquely Cuban as doors to greater U.S. travel and investment begin to open.


  1. Mr. Smith, I have a second home in Idyllwild and my primary home is in Palm Springs.
    Your story about Cuba is pretty, but incorrect.
    I was born in Cuba and left in 1969, went to visit family in 1995 and can share with you the truth about “free medical care’ and “Education”.
    On these organized tours you only see what
    the government wants you to see, and it is pretty nice.
    I will be in Idyllwild next week, and love to chat with you, and tell you the truth, so your reader can get a different perspective.

    Rafael Lorenzo Jr
    (760) 320-6290