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U.S. closing door on Cuba tourism

Debate, if it existed inside the Teatro Amadeo Roldan on a mild evening in Havana last December, centered on the third pianist, an intense, humble young man with dreadlocks that bounced to the ranging melody he crafted from a shining Steinway grand.

Who is he, a heavy-set American whispered. Someone nearby mentioned the name Rolando Luna, but that was a mixup. A Canadian woman a row or two ahead had no idea. Then, from the front rows, the answer crested the auditorium in a gentle ripple of Spanish: Aldo Lopez-Gavilan.

Discovering a rising star seems pretty normal stuff for a Cuban jazz festival catering to visitors from Havana and abroad.

But for Americans granted rights by the U.S. government to travel to Havana as part of a music tour that also visited neighborhoods and schools, such events got just a little too close to Cubans.

That, anyway, was the message sent in March, when the Treasury Department, which enforces travel-to-Cuba regulations, announced it would not renew so-called people-to-people licenses designed to increase direct contact between U.S. and Cuban citizens.

And in October, President Bush made the point more clearly when he stood in the Rose Garden before a crowd of Cuban-Americans, key voters in Florida, and vowed to crack down on Americans illegally visiting Cuba.

Like many things, the debate about whether U.S. tourists can travel to a long, narrow island that is 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida, and is home to 11-million people, centers on power and money. The power is that of Fidel Castro; the money is that carried in the pockets of visitors.

Those in favor of making travel to Cuba illegal for Americans, most vocal among them hardline members of the Cuban-American community, argue that tourist dollars simply prop up a regime that has held power for decades by suffocating a free press and imprisoning opponents.

"If U.S. tourism were to open to Cuba, you would give that regime between five to eight more years of life, because tourism works by giving the regime all the money," said Joe Garcia, director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a pro-embargo, anti-Castro group in Miami.

It is true that Castro's government has a lock on most tourist facilities, from towering resorts at Varadero to bed-and-breakfasts in private homes. The government pockets fistfuls of dollars while paying workers weak pesos.

Yet there is no proof that keeping Americans out is the answer. After 40 years of embargo, Castro remains in power, governing an island wracked with poverty.

Late in October, the Senate followed the House in approving a bill to make it illegal to enforce the administration's travel ban. Bush has threatened to veto such a bill before it becomes law, and his administration, with authority to enforce what is already there, drives the debate.

Even with this tougher stance, Americans with the right status _ professionals, academics, or those on humanitarian trips, for example _ can still visit Cuba legally. But many proponents of people-to-people travel saw it as a rare opportunity to put a far larger group of Americans in touch with ordinary Cubans.

And some travel proponents point to the irony that the same action that curtailed American travelers' rights also allowed Cuban-Americans to send more money each year to relatives on the island. That money, no doubt, quickly enters the official, government-controlled markets.

"We're putting more money into Cuba and we're taking out ideas," said Jim Friedlander, of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which has run people-to-people trips to Cuba for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, among others.

"The United States is much more effective when we flood a country with our culture, than with arms, or nothing at all."

But things are not so simple. Cuba has developed, despite U.S. efforts, into a full-blown Caribbean tourist destination. Each year, thousands of Italians, Germans, Canadians and Spaniards flock to high-end resorts, off-limits to Cubans, and to small coastal villages.

Thousands of Americans, entering illegally through Canada, Mexico or Jamaica, join them.

It is unclear what the president's threats mean for Americans. A National Security Council spokesman said the government plans to monitor illegal travel more closely, but not necessarily to prosecute offenders.

On the island, visitors find a range of draws, from white sand beaches and fresh mojitos (a rum drink), to architecture preserved in poverty and music thriving despite it.

A willing traveler can wander far from the government's grasp, stopping in ration stores to chat with locals about Elian Gonzalez and Che Guevera, about communism and democracy. Many others never get farther than the streets of Havana, where money opens doors into the island's world of prostitution.

Amid all this, the people-to-people programs, run within the spirit of the law, offered structure to promote discussion and understanding. The Havana jazz festival, anchored around concerts in modern auditoriums and quiet, tree-shaded cafes, is one example. In the coming and going, visitors could witness the suffering tucked along side streets. But more importantly, on such organized trips, Americans had a chance to sit down and talk with artists and students and others living inside Castro's system.

Even today, lines drawn according to dictators and nationalities cannot prevent random encounters. Consider the events of a single evening in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city:

A young Castro apologist led a tour at a government museum, explaining with an odd smile how Castro's rule had kept Cubans from living in poverty. Minutes later, a retired English professor sat on a park bench and deftly hinted for an invitation to dinner. At a nearby restaurant, where the old man ate fried chicken, a young doctor explained that he had lost his job because he challenged Castro's travel policy, which prevented him from leaving the island to visit France.

An American, not allowed to visit the island, talking with a Cuban, not allowed to leave it, seems more than ironic.