By Michael Hill
Jameel Abdul Haqq of East Orange was living it up in Cuba recently — seven days of seeing sights and discovering the island nation’s rich architecture, its legendary art of Hamel’s Alley, its religious symbols, a newly opened mosque and a building still riddled with bullets from the 1950s revolution.
“I had a fantastic time. Really great,” said Haqq.
Haqq says he’s wanted to go to communist Cuba ever since it embraced convicted cop killer Joanne Chesimard in 1979.
“You have this little small island that stood up against the big boys and won,” he said.
When Haqq saw President Obama announce he was normalizing relations with the US’s Cold War neighbor he said to himself, ‘I gotta go.’
Haqq did what thousands have done since the easing of tensions began, he called a travel agent, others have called the Center for Cuban Studies and its Executive Director Sandra Levinson.
“In a way, within minutes that December 17 happened, everyone thought ‘now I can go.’ You know, they really didn’t read the fine print,” said Levinson.
Levinson says Congress’ travel embargo is still the law, but it permits specific travel to Cuba for individuals to see family, or in a cultural exchange or for business and for groups to study or explore religion, art, architecture, economics and more.
The White House said it plans to ease travel restrictions to Cuba and to allow scheduled commercial flights to Cuba by the end of the year.
“I think we’re clearly moving to a point where individual travelers will be able to go without any restrictions. Legally the travel restrictions should only be lifted by Congress but the president has a lot of leeway that usually he doesn’t use. If he chooses to use it, he can practically, for all practical purposes, make it possible for individual travelers to go,” said Levinson.
“They should have stopped this nonsense years and years ago,” said Haqq.
Haqq says his travel agent arranged for him to visit relatives. He says a man befriended him one day and became his personal tour guide. One stop was the tour guide’s humble house where the lack of wealth of everyday Cubans seems striking — where walls beg for plaster and paint, but also where a Cuban family’s generosity put Haqq in front of a plate of rice and beans.
“The food they prepared was the best food that I had when I was in Cuba,” said Haqq.
Travel agencies are bracing for many more travelers like Haqq perhaps as soon as by the end of this year.