JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The country of Cuba is only 90 miles from the Florida Keys but in many ways we are worlds apart. Communism is still the law the land, trade sanctions still exist and diplomatic relations are strained.
Yet, more and more Americans are going there. Most notably Jay Z and Beyonce who traveled to Cuba in April for their 5th wedding anniversary, causing quite a controversy.
Critics said they broke the law. However, according to the State Department, Americans can travel to Cuba for educational and cultural reasons with exceptions.
And, Insight Cuba, a travel agency advertises "legal" travel to Cuba for Americans.
For Dr. Juan Garcia of Jacksonville he is skeptical of what Americans are seeing when they travel to Cuba. He believes that the images of more openness are just part of a cover-up by the Castro regime.
His views are founded on his experiences as a refugee from Cuba. In 1960, just after Fidel Castro took over Dr. Garcia had to escape. His life was in jeopardy.
"I was anti-Castro," said Garcia. "They first put me in front of a firing squad in the mountains. And, by some long story I got out of there. They put me in jail."
After being released from jail he managed to escape during a gap in the law when it was legal for him to come to America. He eventually ended up in Jacksonville with his wife Carmen who is also a Cuban refugee.
They raised three children and have 9 grandchildren locally.
Over the years, the Cuba Dr. Garcia left has changed. Cell phones are now allowed. Cubans can now travel to and from the United States. There are new self-employment laws and state land can be leased to private farms.
Changes that St. Augustine resident Sole Pegliuca has seen first-hand.
"There have been openings for private enterprises. People can leave the country freely without an exit visa," explains Sole.
Sole has traveled to Cuba more than 40 times in the last 10 years with a friendship non-profit called St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association.
Her group takes conservationists to the island to study birds. They also promote cultural exchange by bringing Cuban artists to St. Augustine.
She believes that these trips are helping to bring about democracy in Cuba.
"The Cuban people are wonderful, wonderful people. They want to have contact with the American people and I thing that more than anything is what is going to bring about a transition to democracy is contact with folks like us," explains Sole.
Dr. Garcia hopes that his native country will become democratic one day but for now he's not optimistic it will happenin his life-time.
"I will never be able to see a free Cuba," said Dr. Garcia.
I hope to see for myself what it's like in Cuba. I'm currently working with the St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association about travelling with them to Cuba this July.
For more information about travelling to Cuba click here http://www.insightcuba.com
For more information about the St. Augustine Friendship association click here www.staugustine-baracoa.org
First Coast News