Many people are asking what the recent renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba will mean for travel and trade between the island and the United States. For Ryan Sethre and his wife Kim, a Colorado couple, the new deal meant a more exciting trip than they anticipated.
Ryan is the coordinator of the ESL tutoring lab at the Community College of Denver. His wife, Kim, is a graduate academic adviser for the University of Colorado, Denver. The day before Ryan and Kim were to leave Havana, President Obama and President Castro revealed their secret negotiations and renewed relationship. Westord spoke to them about their unusual vacation.
Westword: Was this your first trip to Cuba, or have you been before?
Ryan Sethre: This is our second trip. We went in March of 2012. We just really, really enjoyed it and have been talking about going back ever since. Both trips we did were legal trips through inside Cuba, so we go with a group. The first one we did was a very historical. We went to the Bay of Pigs, that area. This one was all baseball related. We went with Eric Nadel, the radio announcer for the Texas Rangers. He put this trip together, it was a week long. We went to baseball games and met with former baseball players, managers, radio broadcasters throughout Cuba. Mostly it was concentrated in a two-hour radius of Havana. We didn't go too far out this time.
What was it like being there when the announcement of renewed diplomatic relations was made?
Ryan: It was pretty surreal. Our group was gathering that morning in our hotel, and there were some rumors going on that something was going on, but none of us really knew for sure what it was. We were touring all day and we ended up over at another hotel. We were in a coffee shop, and Raul Castro was on TV talking to the Cuban people. I got brought over because I was one of the members of our group who spoke Spanish, but I didn't really want to sit and listen to it and then translate the whole thing. I figured at that point that we'll get more information as we go. We went over to this area called the Hot Corner, it's in the central park. It's famous for people just kind of sit there and discuss mostly baseball and politics, and they argue about different things. We went over there mainly to discuss baseball but of course this came up. Then CNN showed up. They knew that that was a good place to interview the locals about such a big thing. Basically it was a day of piecing things together as much as we could. The Cuban Five was a big thing. Those are the five prisoners of war, if you will, that they had. They've been trying to get them released for so long. Then there were only three because two have finished their term. The three that came back, we've been familiar with them since our last trip, and hearing about the push to get them back.
What was the energy like?
Kim: Everyone was just so happy and looking forward to a positive outlook for the future. I think the Cuban people have been wanting this for so long, to mend this relationship, that it gave a lot of hope to everyone down there. Everyone was really happy and celebrating.
Ryan: The Cuban people really do like American tourists. They don't look down on them because of governmental issues that have happened in the past. They enjoy having American tourists there, they're very open. It's a very safe place. I think part of that is because the government would not allow anything to happen. If you're harming tourists, that's kind of like the end in their eyes. They really are open to Americans. Being there and going out to the local night clubs and restaurants and things, you're even more welcomed. They were happy to see us there. They were looking toward what could be in the future. There's a lot of questions as to what it all means and what will ultimately happen, but they look at it as a step in the right direction. People do say 'We love Obama. He's the only President who's ever had us in the best interest and looked at Cuban people as people.' There was a lot of talk about that.
Do you plan on going back again?
Ryan: Yeah, we're actually already talking about putting together a trip. I don't know how far off that will be but we might try to do our own customized trip this time.
Did you first hear about it through friends, or some sort of advertising, or did you just decide 'Hey Cuba sounds fun'?
Ryan: We had been looking into going there for quite a while. In fact about five years ago we had even looked at doing an illegal trip through Belize. Eventually the inside Cuba trips were getting to be more and more common. We thought 'You can do it legally and it's probably a better idea.' So we did that, like I said, in 2012. 2011 is when it became more common, I think, for people to do these trips. 2012 was still a little unorganized. It's come a long way in the last two or three years. We know people who go down there quite often, illegally. They don't seem to have any kind of problem. You feel better going into it knowing that things are taken care of. If you were to have a problem there's somebody there who could help you as opposed to being stuck there in a bad situation. It was always a place of interest. I majored in Spanish in college, so I enjoy going to Spanish speaking countries. It's kind of nice to get out and get to know the locals and talk to people. After this trip, that we just came back from, we have a lot of contacts down there now. We definitely will go back. At the same time, I'm not real interested in going back when Starbucks start opening up, and there's chain hotels everywhere. At some point that will happen.
Do you think this new relationship will change Cuba?
Kim: Some of their ingrained culture is obviously going to stay there; the older cars, the nice old buildings, the colored houses. All that stuff I don't see changing. But there's going to be, I would suspect, an introduction of American chains. Whether it be Marriott or McDonald's or Starbucks. I guess it depends on agreements with the government. Right now they do a lot of their hotels through joint ventures with other countries. The hotel we stayed in is in a joint venture with Spain. The majority of the hotels that they do have, have private interest as well, from other countries. It depends on how they set up the companies that want to come in. but who know what it's going to look like? I would anticipate some development and some change coming in long term.
Anything you want to add?
Ryan: One thing I think Raul, since he took over, there is a little bit more of a capitalistic mentality. Not completely, but there's more private business. People have been encouraged to sell their artwork on the streets, CDs on the street. A lot of teachers have actually gone into tourism. I think a lot of changes have happened since he took over. In a lot of ways it's the citizens of Cuba who are being harmed because of what the government has done.
Kim: Even before the announcement came out, just during the week we were traveling, we would interview a lot of different people. We went to a geriatric center, we went to a lot of different community neighborhood projects and so forth, and almost everyone that we interviewed said 'Cuba is changing.' Even without that announcement out yet, and without the prospect of opening up a little bit, they've already seen a lot of changes. They all realize things are changing.
After the interview, Ryan told a short story about their return voyage to the United States. When they flew back into the U.S. through Miami, they were told by customs agents that they were the first people to bring Cuban cigars into the United States legally. While that may or may not be true, pending the solidification of the new status between the two countries, it will certainly make those cigars taste sweeter.