Cedar Rapids Gazette
Since President Donald Trump signed a directive last month outlining his plans to tighten travel and spending restrictions on Cuba, some Iowans say they’re disappointed with his administration’s decision.
From agricultural leaders to veterans looking to help others, some residents who were optimistic about the trajectory President Barack Obama set for more open relations worry about the implications of further limiting American interactions with Cuba.
Inspired by documentaries that showed a thriving skateboard culture amid widespread poverty in Cuba, Cedar Rapids resident Jason Everett is flying to Cuba on Wednesday to bring skateboards to disadvantaged kids. He said if he’d scheduled his trip much later, it’s unlikely he’d be able to go at all.
“There’s a very small window for people to do what I’m doing,” he said.
Trump’s policy differs from Obama’s in two main ways, said Martina Kunovic, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and visiting researcher at the Cuban Institute for Cultural Research in Havana.
The new regulations limit individual “people to people” travel — the kind of trip Everett is taking, which opened up under the Obama Administration and allows travelers to visit for non-academic educational purposes — and prohibit American spending in businesses affiliated with the Cuban military, intelligence or security services, which reportedly control most of the tourist industry, Kunovic said.
During his June 16 speech in Miami, Trump said he was canceling “the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba” and implementing a new policy taking aim at what his administration sees as a repressive government.
“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” he said at the event, adding that the Cuban regime “exploits and abuses the citizens.”
However, embassies set up by President Obama won’t be eliminated, and commercial flights and cruises to Cuba will continue. The Treasury and Commerce Department will begin issuing regulations in mid-July, Kunovic said. Changes will go into effect once the policies are finalized, which will likely take months, she said.
Though there wasn’t significant change in economic relations with Cuba under Obama, the administration’s diplomatic improvements gave some Iowa farmers hope that open trade policies were on the horizon.
“The (Trump Administration’s) rhetoric is a step backward,” said Kirk Leeds, chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association. “It’s headed in the wrong direction.”
The nearly 60-year-old embargo is harmful for Iowa farmers while other nations benefit from trade with a country just 90 miles from U.S. shores, added Jerry Mohr, an at-large director of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and a member of Iowa’s Engage Cuba Coalition state council, a national nonpartisan organization working to end travel and trade restrictions on Cuba.
Logically, Iowa would be the dominant soybean supplier in Cuba if Congress lifted the embargo, said Leeds, who is also a member of Iowa’s Engage Cuba Coalition council.
However, since the island is relatively small and poor, Leeds isn’t sure open trade would provide a significant economic boost for farmers. At the same time, every market is important, he said, and the expanding tourism industry would present the best opportunity for Iowa agriculture as travelers often expect quality beef and produce, which the U.S. produces efficiently.
So far, it’s unclear if the policy will further limit agricultural exports to Cuba, Kunovic said. However, if the Cuban entity responsible for imports is determined to have ties to the Cuban military, there could be increased restrictions, she said.
The embargo — one of several U.S. policies intended to contain communism — can only be dismantled by the Senate, Kunovic added.
The economic restrictions cause more than just financial troubles, said Craig Hill, director of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Engage Cuba Coalition member. In part because many Cuban farmers don’t have access to modern production methods, the nation struggles with food insecurity, he said.
“We want to be a reliable supplier, a responsible supplier and a cheap supplier,” Hill said. “It’s a (diplomatic) and humanitarian need as well to be reliable suppliers for Cubans.”
After years of economic sanctions, Mohr said, it’s clear that the embargo isn’t effective.
“Why do we want to keep punishing (the Cuban) people?” he asked. “They’re great people. Let’s open things up.”
Study Abroad Programs
Iowa State University associate professor Rose Caraway first traveled to Cuba on a study abroad trip in 2002. Now, she hopes to launch an Iowa State study abroad program there.
After the Obama Administration loosened travel restrictions, Cubans were optimistic that continued change might allow them to communicate more easily with family and friends in the U.S., said Caraway, who researches the relationships between religion and sustainability in Cuba and has traveled there regularly for more than a decade. She worries that the new development could negatively impact Cubans’ perceptions of America.
Caraway doesn’t have concrete program arrangements yet, but she said the ambiguity makes it hard to move forward in the planning process because, at this point, it’s impossible to assess how the policy will impact education and travel.
At the same time, officials at another Iowa university with an existing Cuba study abroad program say Trump’s regulations don’t pose concerns for educational travel.
The University of Iowa offers an official study abroad opportunity in Cuba that predates the loosening of academic travel restrictions under Obama, said Autumn Tallman, associate director of International Health and Safety and Security at the university.
The new policy doesn’t prevent the university from sending students to Cuba, said Dimy Doresca, director of the university’s Institute for International Business. Doresca, who leads the school’s Cuba trip, said a spring 2018 program is in the works.
If relations open up, Caraway said, Americans may be able to learn from the emphasis on community she’s observed in Cuban culture.
“I think that’s something to look at and maybe ask ourselves about,” she said. “In terms of all these issues that we’re dealing with here in the United States, (they) may be connected to this central question of community.”
Everett, a veteran and member of the Iowa Army National Guard, said his own international travels prompted his upcoming 15-day trip to Cuba. He feels fortunate to have experienced the kindness of strangers around the world and wanted to give back, he said.
“Subculture is really thriving there. The kids are hungry for ways to express themselves,” he said.
Friends from as far away as China have sent Everett money to buy skateboards to bring to Cuba, he said.
But there’s not much time left for people who want to take on similar projects, Everett said. He received government approval for the trip under the “people to people” category, but rules governing that type of travel will be stricter under Trump.
Nate Sherwood, co-owner of Cedar Rapids skate shop EduSkate, has helped Everett pick out supplies for the trip, which Sherwood sees as a chance to help passionate skaters who might not have the resources to buy a skateboard.
“There’s so many cats in Cuba that are so talented, but accessing quality equipment is so hard,” Sherwood said.
Everett is also working with Rene Lecour, founder of Amigo Skate, a Miami-based organization dedicated to sending instruments, art supplies and skateboards to kids in Cuba. Lecour has traveled to Cuba about once a month for the last seven years.
Having a positive impact on other people’s lives makes the risky business of bringing goods into Cuba worth it, he said.
“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of really sweet people over the years like (Everett), who are just taking time and energy and money and doing something to help somebody else,” Lecour said. “There’s nothing more beautiful than that.”