US lawmakers push to ease travel ban to Cuba

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LISA MULLINS: Cuban-Americans consider it a lost home. A place held hostage by the Communist government in Havana. And their community's political muscle has helped to keep the US trade embargo against Cuba in place for 47 years now. That means, among other things, that most Americans are banned from travelling to the island of Cuba. This week a bipartisan group in Congress urged President Obama to lift travel restrictions. The BBC's Michael Voss is in Havana. We know that the prospect of the U.S. Congress lifting travel restrictions for Cuba got an awful lot of attention here, both positive and negative. And we also know that Cuba's Vice Minister of Tourism there in Havana where you are responded to a reporter's question about it yesterday. Now, Michael, you were in the room then. Tell us what she told the assembled reporters.

MICHAEL VOSS: Yes, Vice Minister Maria Elena Lopez said that Cuba has no special preparations for any potential avalanche of American tourists. If they come, they come, she said. The U.S. Government still hasn't made its decision on this. I have spoken to senior figures in the Cuban tourist industry who do tell me that U.S. airline companies and U.S. cruise ship companies have both been in regular direct contact and talk with the Cubans talking about if a ban is lifted how do we come in, can we come in, how's it going to work? There are direct flights. There are charter flights, daily, from Miami to Havana. They're all subsidiary charter companies of major U.S. airlines that fly in here. They don't have any markings on them, there's no names on the planes, but they are all charter subsidiaries of U.S. companies who are allowed to fly Cuban-Americans in, for example, to visit relatives. And I think it's these same airlines that are saying "What are we going to do and how are we going to do it?" And the Cubans would rather have U.S. airlines fly in here directly than American tourists visiting on Cuban planes. They don't have much of a fleet.

LISA MULLINS: I know, right now, there's a group of American artists in Havana. They are there with the blessing of the U.S. government. Can you tell us what they're doing there?

MICHAEL VOSS: Every other year there's a huge arts festival here. And a Cuban American gallery owner in New York has managed to get thirty U.S. artists all representing small galleries in the Chelsea district of New York to come and show their work in Cuba. It's the first major group exhibition of U.S. artists here for twenty-five years. The largest since the revolution. It's called Chelsea visits Havana. And it's a real mix, a real cross section, of, sort of, modern art, contemporary art in New York. It was put together by a man called Alberto Magnan. His mother and his grandmother were both Cuban artists. The family left when he was five years old. I spoke to him about bringing the show here, how he pulled it off, and whether he really saw this as a sort of political statement.

ALBERTO MAGNAN: It's not a political statement. It's basically a cultural exchange statement. And what I'd like to do is just create a way to have more cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba. Just exchange ideas. I think it's a really great thing.

LISA MULLINS: Michael, are Cubans visiting this exhibit, and I wonder if Cuban artists are visiting it?

MICHAEL VOSS: On the opening day the gallery was absolutely packed with Cubans. Both ordinary Cubans and Cuban artists. Artists and other Cubans feel isolated, they feel cut off from the United States. They're not getting the inspiration. They're not seeing what latest trends are. So, it really has created a buzz in the art world here.

LISA MULLINS: By the way, we know that it took Alberto Magnan a couple of years to organize this event in Havana. Was it officials in Cuba holding things up or American authorities?

MICHAEL VOSS: It was a bit of both. The art museum in Cuba was really keen on the idea and they wanted it. The Cubans didn't give the green light until January, after Barack Obama had been elected President. This time, about a dozen of the artists, as well as the curator, Alberto Magnan, managed to get licenses or waivers from the Treasury Department. I think it is a sign that the Treasury Department, which controls and restricts travel to Cuba, is, perhaps, loosening up on the licenses that it is giving.

LISA MULLINS: Alright, the BBC's Havana correspondent, Michael Voss. Thanks a lot, Michael.

MICHAEL VOSS: Thank you, Lisa.