Three times during the last eight years, John Tredway applied for a license to take American students to debate their counterparts in Cuba. Three times, he was denied.
Then the other day he got word that a new request to take students from New College in Sarasota had been approved by the Treasury Department.
"It really came out of the blue," said Tredway, 60, director of USA Youth Debates, which sends groups of students all over the world. "We had been reading in the press about Obama's new Cuba policy for Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba, but nothing indicated that the policy had changed with regard to other Americans."
After eight years of cultural freeze, it seems the ice is thawing between the United States and Cuba. In the coming months, a major Hispanic musician from Miami and a New York orchestra are planning to perform in Cuba, an apparent reversal of the Bush administration policy of isolating the island regime. A sudden surge of Cuban performers are coming here as well.
"The president (Obama) has himself stated that people-to-people contact is good for both countries," said Timothy Ashby, a Cuba specialist with the Miami law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. "It's pretty clear that's the policy."
The Obama administration has approved a Sept. 20 peace concert in Havana's Revolution Square by Colombian rocker Juanes, who lives in Key Biscayne and is one of Latin music's hottest artists. Cuban officials also say they are also looking forward to hosting the New York Philharmonic in late October. An orchestra spokesman confirmed that a trip to Cuba is being planned and that final arrangements are being worked out.
Juanes visited Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss plans for the concert.
"We have no official role in the concert, but the Department of State is in favor of these types of cultural exchanges since they increase understanding among nations," a State Department spokesman said. "We have respect for Juanes and we wish him lots of luck with the project."
Juanes, whose real name is Juan Esteban Aristizãbal, may need it. The concert is under attack from hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami who accuse Juanes of naively providing legitimacy to Cuba's communist regime.
"The concert promises to be nothing more than a shameless, thoughtless and heartless appearance by the 36-year-old singer and his fellow performers," according to Joe Cardona, a Cuban-American filmmaker in Miami. "It will be one more tacit legitimization of the hemisphere's most oppressive 50-year-old dictatorship," he wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald.
Exiles object to Juanes receiving a license to perform in Revolution Square, usually the scene of Communist Party rallies. But Juanes has defended the concert, pointing out that Pope John Paul II held an open-air Mass in the square in 1998.
"It's a neutral place," Juanes told Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
He noted that the square is built around a monument to Cuban independence leader Jose Marti, who is revered in both Havana and Miami. "No one is using me," he insisted.
The 1962 economic embargo against Cuba prevents Americans or U.S. residents from traveling to Cuba unless they obtain a license from the Treasury Department. Over the years a number of specific categories for licensed travel have been created, including journalists, professional researchers and Americans on approved commercial business for food, agricultural and medical sales.
Last year the Treasury Department approved 21 licenses for "public performances" in Cuba — mostly for athletic events — up from only seven in 2007. Already this year 20 licenses have been approved, according to Treasury Department spokeswoman Marti Adams.
Last month actors Robert Duvall, James Caan and Bill Murray visited Cuba for four days under an unspecified professional research license, which is generally easier to obtain than one for events that can generate revenue or publicity for the Cuban government.
More Cubans, from actors to academics, are being allowed into the United States as well. A group of 12 Cuban actors presented a Spanish-language version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the University of Alabama this month.
"This is beyond uncommon. No musician or performing group has been allowed in this country like this from Cuba since 2003," said Ned Sublette, a performer and composer from New York who has studied and written about Cuban music.
Other licenses are pending. The Sarasota Yacht Club last month applied for a license to organize a regatta to Cuba in May 2010, one of a number of boating events in Cuba next year that Florida sailors are hoping to attend if restrictions are eased.
The increased number of licenses does not represent a change in law, but rather a more permissive interpretation of existing regulations, said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., who favors lifting all travel restrictions.
"Now they are granting licenses the way they are supposed to, as the regulations were written," he said.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.