Sandra Levinson’s desk at the Center for Cuban Studies is surrounded by art from more than 45 years of traveling to Cuba. One of the pieces is a photo taken in 1961, on the very day Washington broke off relations with Cuba, showing a man selling the newspaper in front of the US embassy in Havana. The headline reads "Viva Cuba Libre" — "Long live a free Cuba."
The center is a small art gallery and library on the fourth floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan. It's also one of the most experienced groups around when it comes to arranging trips to the island. But for Levinson and her colleagues, the trips they arrange have more to do with politics than beaches and mojitos.
Levinson opened the Center in 1972 with one mission: to renew US-Cuba relations, person by person. Organizing small, legal tours was a key way to do that, she thought.
The center arranged its first tour to Cuba in 1973. “For our work, what’s most important is that people get to know as many Cubans as possible, in as many different jobs as possible, and learn both the bad, good, indifferent, the black, the white, and all the grey shades in between," Levinson says.
If you went on one of their tours, you would likely meet a cross-section of Cubans: neighborhood organizers, labor leaders and artists on the island’s southern coast. Trips like this have to be arranged by groups like Levinson’s — specially licensed by the US government to travel to Cuba.
Florida-based Marazul Charters also pioneered these group tours starting in 1979, when the US briefly loosened travel restrictions to Cuba.
Marazul was founded by Francisco Aruca, who fled Cuba in 1959 to escape a prison sentence for organizing against Castro. He became a loud voice on US-Cuba issues, hosting a radio show out of Miami. But his anti-Castro views later softened and he advocated for normalized US-Cuba relations — a stance that was not greeted warmly by Cuban exiles in Miami.
Aruca, who died last year of a heart attack, received death threats, and the windows of Marazul’s offices were repeatedly smashed.
“We were just there to begin the reuniting of Cuban Americans with their own families and the beginning of sending these kinds of programs to Cuba where people could talk with one another," says Bob Guild, Marazul’s vice president.
He also figured it would be a booming industry before long. "We thought things were going to unfold quickly, and normalization would happen, flights would begin, everything," he says. "Now it’s 35 years later.”
But he still thinks the small tours that Marazul and Levinson’s center put together have helped improve relations between the two countries — even if it has meant slogging through piles of paperwork to make it happen.
“No matter the restrictions, we’ve still had hundreds of thousands of people who’ve traveled there," Guild says. "And they brought back an experience which challenged everything they had once thought about Cuba. It’s not that everyone comes back with a completely different view of the Cuban government, but they come back with a different view of the island."
Now that President Barack Obama has announced the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Marazul’s offices have been inundated. Guild says he's getting constant emails from people inquiring about the ins-and-out of heading to Cuba, and he expects many more travel companies to start focusing on Cuba.
But for long-standing travel groups like Marazul and the Center for Cuban Studies, the thaw in relations is more than an opportunity for new business. Levinson happened to be in Cuba last Wednesday during Obama's announcemt. Levinson watched the president's speech while huddled around a TV with other members of the tour she was leading.
“I think we were all ... shocked, surprised, and delighted," she says. "What I think no one with any pride or dignity could take in all these years was the fact that the United States government refused to recognize Cuba’s government. So I think what made us start crying was that, that finally Cuba had its dignity back.”