One of the main aspects Annie Betancourt hopes to see improved if the United States ends the embargo against Cuba is airline travel.
Many of the current flights, which are all private charter flights, have become more like cargo hauls, she said. Families bring hats, clothes and food back to their relatives in Cuba.
“It’s quite a spectacle to go on a flight to Havana,” she said. “Bundles and bundles.”
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker visited Cuba Wednesday and President Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Sept. 29 to discuss increasing interactions between the nations, which have been restricted for nearly 55 years.
Pritzker said she hopes to make commercial flights to Cuba more accessible for U.S. citizens. It’s all in an effort to convince Congress to expand business relations with the nation, just an hour plane ride from the shore of Miami Beach.
Betancourt, a former state representative, said Florida is in an advantageous position to benefit from increased exchange with the island nation, which is only 90 miles off the coast.
Betancourt was born in Havana, Cuba, in the 1940s. She witnessed the revolution on January 1, 1959 at the age of 12.
Just over a year later, she was living in the United States and later received political asylum.
Betancourt has since led 22 expeditions to Cuba as a director with the League of Women Voters, she said. The League’s Sisters Across the Straits trips foster exchanges between American and Cuban women.
And some of the Cuban women, many of whom are professors, visit Florida as well. This gives them the chance to see how politics work in the U.S., she said.
As a state representative from 1994 to 2002, Betancourt said she wasn’t able to deal with issues like Cuba relations because they are usually resolved at the federal level. But when she ran for Congress in south Florida in 2002, she made restoring diplomatic relations with her birth country an issue.
After 54 years of strained relations, she said she was happy to see the American flag flying above the embassy in Havana in August.
But the leaders of Cuba, current and former, often blame the U.S. embargo for the country’s economic problems, she said.
“The embargo is not the excuse, it’s simply the fact that they have a failed system,” she said.
“It’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the minute you draw the curtain back there’s no such thing as a wizard,” she said.
Issues like youth unemployment and a lack of social mobility are two of the biggest problems she sees when she visits the nation today, she said.
“There seems to be hope that the relations will improve but there are still many impediments and many barriers that need to be worked out,” she said
Some of the relations within the State and Treasury departments will take time to rebuild, she said. But she is optimistic.
“It doesn’t make any sense not trading or doing business with your neighbor,” she said.
Areas like research stand to benefit from increased relations as well.
The University of Florida has a study abroad program to Cuba, said Thomas Frazer, a professor and director at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at UF.
Frazer traveled to the nation this summer to work with a group of students and researchers from America and Cuba, he said.
But in previous years, financing was difficult because state funding was barred from use in Cuba, he said. Most of the money came from private donations and foundations.
They studied the marine environment, which Frazer said offers a unique opportunity for comparison.
There are many environmental similarities between Florida, especially in the tropical climate of south Florida, and Cuba, said Donald Behringer, a fisheries and aquatic sciences professor at UF, in an email.
Sugar cane, citrus fruits, and many other crops are grown in both south Florida and Cuba, said Behringer, who led the Cuba study abroad program over the summer.
Similar crops face similar challenges, he said. These range from climate change to disease.
But increased economic development of Cuba following the end of the embargo is likely to impact the natural environment as well. This could pose dire consequences for coastal marine habitats and organisms if conservation is not kept in mind, he said.
But he’s hopeful for the future, he said.
“It’s not without its problems, and our governments may still disagree on many fronts, but the people are welcoming and enjoy life to the fullest,” he said.