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As much as anything else, Cuba today is about waiting. Many Cuban expatriates are waiting for Castro to fall, hoping they'll be able to return to their homeland under a new, more tolerant regime. Foreign businesses are waiting for greater access to a previously deprived, and potentially explosive, marketplace. Meanwhile, Cuban citizens wait patiently in lines for their monthly ration of a half-dozen eggs.

Tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America are doing less waiting: They continue to arrive in greater numbers every year (foreign visitors exceeded 2 million in 2004), and new hotels are going up every day to house this influx of visitors. Yet in a sense, even these visitors are in a state of limbo: Although they can lounge on lovely beaches or take a look at Hemingway's haunts around Havana, most are sheltered from interacting with everyday Cuban people. Despite relinquishing some control in the last decade, the Cuban government has since tightened up again and still does its best to separate its visitors from its citizens (new restrictions on interactions went into effect in March 2005), although the greatest restriction is that Cubans simply don't have the money to share many of the venues that tourists enjoy.

That's a shame, because to us, one of the greatest draws of this island nation is its people. Whether you troll for tuna with a local fisherman, watch a baseball game in the park or banter with a shopkeeper, it's the Cuban people -- passionate, vivacious and welcoming -- and their unique and fascinating culture that are the most potentially rewarding aspects of a visit to the island.

Of course, a big part of the Cuban waiting game involves U.S. citizens. They are not forbidden to set foot on Cuban soil, but the U.S. government continues to restrict its citizenry from spending money in the communist country, as it has since 1961. This has proven an effective deterrent to the development of large-scale tourism from the U.S., though individuals have quietly been visiting Cuba (via third countries) for years. Although some people from the U.S. can get permission to visit the island, large numbers of U.S. visitors will not return until the restrictions are eased.

No doubt Cuba will be immensely popular with U.S. travelers should they have easy access to the island. For many, Cuba is attractive because of images associated with its past: Hemingway, deep-sea fishing and gamblers rolling dice to a mambo beat. In other words, a paradise for carefree travelers. But the Cuba that would open to U.S. citizens is quite a different place. Although the hotel infrastructure now approximates international standards, at least in Havana, much of its infrastructure has visibly deteriorated during the past 40 years. Shortages of fuel, transportation, food, electricity and water are widespread. Many of the hardships are caused by the loss of annual subsidies that used to come from the old Warsaw Pact countries. Conditions have been made worse by controversial U.S. economic sanctions that have remained in place since the Soviet bloc disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Also, Cuba is not an inexpensive country to visit, or at least it hasn't been in recent years. Food, hotels and transportation costs are similar to, and sometimes more expensive than, those in many other destinations in the Caribbean.

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