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Expecting the unexpected in visit to Cuba

HAVANA, CUBA — Yes, the dateline is correct. As readers awakethis morning, I — along with a group of 27 journalist representingsmall daily and weekly newspapers across the country — have justarrived for a week-long study mission of Castro’s Cuba.

Although relations between Cuba and the United States havethawed a bit in the last few years, tensions still exist betweenthe two countries, as evidenced by the Elian Gonzales situationlast year. In fact, Castro just weeks ago disconnected alltelephone service with the United States in an ongoing dispute overtrade laws.

Cuba is a country closed to Americans. It is not one whichAmericans may easily visit; special visas are granted tojournalists, humanitarian groups, educational tours and religiousgroups. Otherwise Americans are not supposed to visit, although itis possible to sneak in, with Cuban approval, through othercountries.

Through special arrangement with the Cuban government and theUnited States government, our group has been granted permission tovisit and learn about the Cuban system.

Although the U.S. government restricts American travel to Cuba,the island nation is wide-open to tourism from the rest of theworld. Since the fall of communist Russia in 1991 and the resultingeconomic crisis to Cuba, tourism has become a major industry forthe cash-strapped communists. With its secluded white-sand beachesand crystal clear Caribbean waters, Europeans and Canadians are nowcoming in droves spending U.S. dollars — the preferredcurrency.

What are we going to see? We are not sure. With the exception ofHavana, we are not positive as to where or who we will be allowedto visit. We are at the mercy of the Cuban foreign ministry. Arequest has been made for a meeting with Fidel Castro, but we havebeen told it is unlikely. However, they say plans change quickly inCuba, so who knows?

We will spend our first few days in Havana, then on to theindustrial city of Santa Clara, the site of final battle of theCastro revolution in 1959. From there, we think, we will go to thecity of Trinidad, which dates back to 1514. They have told us to beflexible, for the wheels of communism sometime move abruptly andschedules can quickly change . In fact, it was just Wednesday nightthat Santa Clara was added to the agenda and the city of Cienfuegoswas deleted. No explanation was given as to why the abruptchange.

We do know we have to be careful, not from crime, for there isnot a lot of crime in Cuba, but from putting local citizens indanger from the secret police. Cuban law restricts the inter-actionbetween locals and tourist. Authorities will question locals whohave been observed as being too friendly with Americans.

While the Cubans and the Cuban government love our Americandollars, it is the U.S. government that puts a cap on how much wecan spend. On return to the U.S. next Sunday, custom officials, weare told, will be inspecting closely — confiscating anything thatmay be in violation of those spending restrictions.

The United States will allow us to spend no more than $100 perday while we are in the country. Due to the restrictions, the onlymoney we can spend is the currency we carry in. American creditcards and travelers checks drawn on American banks are notaccepted, so only currency, preferably in small denomination bills,is allowed.

I have been told to expect nothing but to expect everything,that the trip will be an adventure to a culture that few Americansare able to experience. Even before we depart we are learning thatquickly.