Joan Brown Campbell, the church lady who befriended Elian Gonzalez during his sojourn here a decade ago, has been to Cuba 37 times — except during the last Bush administration, when she could not get the required U.S. permission to visit the island for four straight years.
She applied again this year now that Barack Obama is in the White House and got the license to travel straightaway. The U.S. State Department even opened doors for her to invite several Cuban academics to visit New York. Among those who attended a conference Brown organized last month: Ofelia Ortega, a member of the Cuban national assembly.
"The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said to me, 'Give us the names of the people you are asking for; we will call them to come in for a visa,' " Brown said. "This was very unusual. In the past, people had to wait in a long line and wait three months before finding out whether the visa had been approved. I have been doing this for 35 years, and this was a shock to me.
"They didn't turn anyone down."
Although Obama has not officially changed any rules regarding non-family trips to Cuba, State Department statistics show anecdotal evidence of a flow of visits.
From October 2008 to August 2009, 16,217 Cubans have visited the United States, up from 10,661 during the same period in 2007-08, the numbers show.
Just Wednesday, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota announced that a delegation from Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment will make a rare visit to its headquarters this week.
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