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Brumley: 'Something Big Is Happening' In Cuba

Ramon Espinosa
Maria Castro shouts slogans celebrating the visit by President Obama and the reconciliation of the Cuban and American peoples, while holding a Cuban and an American flag, near the Grand Theater of Havana, where Obama delivered a speech on Tuesday.


During his historic visit to Cuba this week, President Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro -- and ordinary Cubans, who are about to see big changes in their country. KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley has visited the country dozens of times. In fact, he returned from his most recent trip the day before Obama arrived.

"Everywhere in Havana, they were desperately trying to fix everything," he said. "Ernest Hemingway's house was getting a fresh coat of white paint."

But there were also reports that the Cuban government was cracking down on dissent in advance of Obama's visit. 

Change, Brumley says, will come slowly. He's been traveling there for the last four years or so. Just in the last couple years he's visited more than a dozen times. And he's seen big changes.

On his first visit, for example, local guides who worked for the state were not allowed to enter private establishments, such as the restaurants visited by tour groups.

"They had to sit out on the bus," he said. "People on the street would not discuss politics with you, or if they did, they'd bring you into a little alleyway and whisper their thoughts to you."

That's changed, Brumley said. Now people speak their minds.

"Everyone knows that change is coming, whether your'e Cuban or American, when you're there it's just evident in the air that something big is happening."

During a joint press conference with Castro, Obama said American and Cuban citizens should engage each other in conversation. Those "people-to-people" connections will make a huge difference, Obama said. 

Brumley agrees. He says that's what he saw in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or in many former Soviet states where he made friends. 

He studied for a time in Moscow, and he remembers spending time with a Russian friend, "laughing as if he was my neighbor down the street, and realizing -- as anyone would realize today if they went to Havana -- that people are people and it doesn't matter what government they live under. Their needs, their loves, their passions — it's pretty much the same."

Whether the thaw of relations between Cuba and the United States means a blanket improvement in the average Cuban's life remains to be seen, Brumley said. People who work in tourism are at "the top of the food chain," economically.

"The people that have nothing to do with tourism, that are on the outside of that bubble, I'm not sure how quickly their life is going to change."


"Going Places" is KPLU's weekly exploration of travel topics. Matthew Brumley is the co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small group travel to clients including KPLU.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
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