By Alicia Neaves
A travel and trade embargo has diminished relations between the United States and Cuba for over half a century. In December, President Obama announced plans to change that.
Turns out our neighbors to the South might not seem so far after all.
Political experts from the United States and Cuban natives shared the same predictions. They knew an agreement between the two countries would happen eventually, but never under the notorious Castro regime.
"We've tried this current policy that we have prohibiting travel for about 50 years and it hasn't worked, and so it's time for something new, it's time to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba. This will be good for Cuban people, and also for Americans," Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said.
"Is Cuba going to change overnight, no. Will we change overnight, no. But will there be more respect for the United States throughout Latin America? Yes," Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said.
After more than half a century, the United States is in the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations with our neighbors just 90 miles south of the Florida coast, the communist nation of Cuba.
"I think our former policy towards Cuba was a real failure. It did not bring democracy to Cuba. Most countries in the world did not respect the trade embargo on Cuba, so European nations, Canada, Latin American nations traded with Cuba. So we were really one of the few nations that wasn't trading with Cuba," Professor of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Raul Madrid, said.
The initial efforts to isolate Cuba began in 1961 just two years after Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government. This approach to bring democracy to the island nation evidently didn't work. Instead, it appeared to fuel the Castro regime.
"180 some odd countries in the U.N. have condemned our embargo. Doing it by ourselves just doesn't accomplish anything. It's also allowed Cuba to continue the status quo, playing the, 'We're being picked on by the big, bad United States,'" AP World History Teacher at Odessa High School, Lee Jordan, said.
President Obama's announcement calls for some big changes. During the embargo, travel to Cuba from the U.S. was almost impossible. Not anymore. You couldn't use your American credit cards in Cuba. Now you can. How about the famous Cuban cigar? You won't have to go under the table anymore for that. How about trade? Both countries could save money by importing goods from each other instead of looking to more distant countries. For example, sugar imported from Cuba. There are even talks of an American embassy in Havana.
"I now Cuba says they've lost over a trillion dollars to the embargo over the course of half a century, which, for a small nation like that it's just unbelievable. So, by helping their economy and building jobs, we can do some good for their country and hopefully get the reciprocation in terms of democratic principles and all things the United States stands for," Jordan said.
Although the president made the initiative to end the embargo, final approval is in the hands of congress.
"Congress is not about to go along with it. Congress is not about to end the embargo. So, President Obama and the administration basically have to chip away at the restrictions through other means," Madrid said.
Congressman Mike Conaway is in favor of relaxing trade restrictions once progress is made in Cuba. He said in a statement, "Innocent Cubans are still suffering in a brutal police state, and progress has not been made toward either goal laid out in the Cuban Democracy Act. There must be movement before we can engage in a trade relationship with Cuba."
Instead of short-term, dramatic changes, experts predict an incremental change and a gradual increase in trade and tourism.
Wendy Cacer is from Havana but recently moved to Odessa. She agrees with experts. This historical change won't happen overnight.
"The same day President Obama made the announcement, a friend of mine called me and was like, 'Did you see what just happened? Can you believe it?' I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn't hear anything. So immediately went online to see what was going on," said Cacer.
She says many U.S. investors have displayed interest in Cuban resources. The renewed flow of trade will bring a steady stream of investors, in her opinion. What she hopes follows is more money for workers.
"I think the Cuban government will raise salaries of the workers because if they don't, they can't expect you to work for their industries. That's the main economic problem in Cuba, the low salaries of the workers," Cacer said.
Cacer knows firsthand the struggles in Cuba. Although she's moved to Texas in search of a better life, most of her family remains on the island.
"I came here because my dad is a political refugee in Cuba. He's an independent journalist there. Because he wasn't writing what the government wanted, authorities were after him, because in Cuba, the media is run by the government," Cacer said.
Although she says the Cuban government keeps a heavy hand on internet content, she hopes with higher salaries, more people can afford the internet to at least communicate with loved ones far away.
Experts say with more tourists traveling to Cuba, and more trade in the future, it will be harder for the Castro regime to keep a tight control on Cuban society. "We just have to wait and see what happens, because the final call isn't ours. You know?" Cacer said.
With a historical announcement to mend ties with the two countries, it's no question it will be one for the books - the school books. Just ask Lee Jordan, or Raul Madrid.
"It'll be really fun to teach it this year once we get to that part of the Cold War and talk about it, because now we have a starting point and we can talk about an ending point. Or at least the beginning of an ending point," Jordan said.
"I think it reflects both flexibility of Raul Castro, who's now in charge in Cuba, but also President Obama looking to find some innovative solutions to old problems," Madrid said.
This announcement came as a surprise to many. The question that still remains unanswered is, will Cuba continue with communism post-Castro? Or will the country make a dramatic change and embrace democracy?
"Apart from so many years in isolation, Cubans have found a way to keep on. They will continue their fight. They'll keep going as they are and as themselves," Cacer said.