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Cuba Through The Lens Of A Miami University Professor

Joe Sampson
Miami University
Organoponico Vivero farm- Alamar, Cuba.

On the heels of the U.S. re-opening its embassy in Cuba, Miami University is planning a  journalism study abroad program there.

Professor Joe Sampson traveled to Havana in June to begin putting the program together. The trip started with a plane packed with a mixture of Cubans returning to familiar terrain and American tourists visiting a place both unfamiliar and once forbidden, despite its close geographic proximity.

According to a University of Havana study, a thaw in relations between the two nations has resulted in a 36 percent increase in American visitors to Cuba in the first half of 2015.

Credit Joe Sampson / Miami University
Anne and Melissa Means of Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

"Everybody that we’ve met on our tour has been very nice," says Anne Means of Fort Myers Beach, FL. "When you ask people questions you can certainly tell that they have been led probably all if not most of their lives in what to think and what to say and they are very attuned to that and no one criticizes the government here as we are free to do in our country.”

Means was traveling with her 14-year-old daughter Melissa. They're a part of a growing number of Americans choosing to vacation in Cuba for the first time. The increase in U.S. tourists is putting a strain on available hotels in the capital city while also providing a windfall of foreign dollars for government-run tourism programs.

Credit Joe Sampson / Miami University
Las Terrazas- Sierra Del Rosario Mountains, Cuba

With its warm climate, rich cultural history, and inviting beaches, tourism is a key revenue generator for the island nation of 11 million people. Tourists and their dollars are finding their way out of the city and into more remote regions including Las Terrazas, a government owned eco-village in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains 30 miles west of Havana.

Designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO twenty years ago, today the area is home to 930 miles of tree lined terraces, dozen of bird species, and a community village of 125 farming families.

In the fall, workers harvest 30 tons of honey. Economic reforms allow locals to keep 35 percent of all profits generated at Las Terrazas.

Otis Campa is 46-years- old and lives in the village. He's worked as a tour guide in the area since 1995. He’s noticed a growing number of Americans visiting the area recently. They're drawn to its hiking trails, bird watching, swimming, canoeing, and zip-lining.

Campa hopes the natural splendor of Las Terrazas can aid in breaking down decades of bad blood between the U.S. and Cuba.

"I believe we have many things in common; a lot of thinking," says Campa. "In (the) way people love nature, people love social interaction. And then it is really necessary to open these common relationships because we are close neighbors."

A sentiment most seem to share and find reason to cheer for.

Credit Joe Sampson / Miami University
Farm Engineer Isis Salcines

Cuba's Green Revolution

Eight miles to the east of downtown Havana, a quiet revolution is taking place one row of vegetables at a time.

On the 25-acre urban organic farm in the Havana suburb of Alamar, workers are helping improve the local diet, provide an infusion of much needed cash to the neighborhood, and ease the government’s heavy dependence on food imports. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food rations.

What might better relations with the U.S. mean for farmers here? Engineer and daughter of the property’s founding president, 40-year-old Isis Salcines, says she welcomes new opportunities but isn’t looking for outside help.

“Now we try to create the conditions to be more sustainable. Maybe the Americans say 'I want to send a machine, I want to send a tractor.' No, we are happy with our oxen.”

Economic reforms now allow employees to share in the profits of the government- owned property. The percentage of the profits employees keep is based on seniority. When it opened in 1997, the farm collective had five workers. Today, a quarter of its 175 employees hold advanced degrees.