LONG BEACH -- More than five decades have passed since Fidel Castro and his army of revolutionaries strode triumphantly into Havana, Cuba, improbably toppling a dictatorship lording over a nation that for decades had been the top foreign destination of American tourists.
Yet within months, everything began to unravel between the former allies.
By 1960, the nations had entered a tumultuous three-year period that included a failed U.S.-backed invasion in the Bay of Pigs and a standoff involving the Soviet Union that very nearly ended in nuclear war.
By mid-1962, American tourism to Cuba was officially over -- the favorite playground of sun-seeking Yankees off-limits to all but perhaps a few CIA spooks.
Now, 20 years after the Soviet Union's collapse and amid growing ties between Washington and nearly all of Cuba's former Communist allies, the United States and Cuba remain locked in a strange Cold War-era travel and trade embargo reduced to a trickle by an American-imposed embargo that many believe has long outlived its purpose.
It was only in September that the White House began tacking a new course, cracking the door open for a potential future explosion in cultural, political and economic exchanges with one of America's closest neighbors -- geographically at least.
Standing at the forefront of this shaky new frontier is Long Beach-based Cuba Travel Services, which arranges flights, hotel bookings, car rentals and help with visas and other paperwork for the tiny sliver of American tourists, businessmen, athletes, lawyers, doctors, students and others permitted to visit Cuba each year.
While the company has been operating for 20-odd years, the firm's potential has been curtailed most of its existence by restrictions imposed by a tiny but politically powerful alliance of anti-Castro expatriates and their allies in Washington.
But the new rules, coupled with legislation gaining momentum on Capitol Hill ending the travel embargo completely -- and lifting restrictions on American agricultural exports -- have renewed optimism that Americans and Cubans may soon regain the strong ties they once enjoyed.
Michael Zuccato, Cuba Travel's general manager of West Coast operations, believes the tourist potential alone is unlimited -- far beyond the roughly 180,000 Americans who now visit Cuba annually.
"I think when the embargo is finally lifted, you'll see a flood of people who may have always wanted to visit but haven't been allowed because of a (political) dispute irrelevant to the situation today," Zuccato said on a recent afternoon from the company's offices perched in a downtown high-rise overlooking the port.
"There's miles and miles of undisturbed beaches, beautiful architecture ... and the countryside. It's a remarkable country."
Prior to the new travel rules announced last fall by President Barack Obama, Cuban-Americans were permitted to visit only "immediate family" just once every three years and for a maximum of 14 days, with no exceptions for seeing sick relatives, weddings or funerals.
Financial remittances were limited to $1,200 dollars annually, and nothing could be brought back save for a few select "telecommunication" products, namely recorded music and film.
Travel by most other Americans was nearly impossible, with certain exceptions for athletes and accredited doctors, students, artists, democracy advocates and journalists.
The rest were forced to sneak in illegally through a third country, primarily via Jamaica or Mexico, and faced penalties, fines and even jail time upon their return to the United States.
But with the new rules and proposed legislation have come a potential flood of new visitors able to spend, stay and travel virtually unimpeded throughout the island nation of 10 million souls.
Zuccato, who's visited several times, reveals a Cuban culture and history that very few Americans have experienced.
"Just a wonderful culture and people," he said, naming a few of the attractions found in cities like Havana and rural provinces largely untouched by industrial pollution and modern urbanization. "There's world-renowned ballet, music, baseball. People could have fun visiting the cigar factories, driving through the countryside. I think when people begin visiting (en masse), the embargo collapses, because the pressures from the American people will be too great. In my view, the travel embargo is the only reason (the wide embargo) has stood so long."
Congress may open travel
Opponents of the embargo have been encouraged by proposed legislation currently winding its way through Congress and supported by Long Beach Congresswoman Rep. Laura Richardson, who met with Castro during a visit to Cuba in April 2009.
The bill, HR 4645 by Congressman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., would deny the president the ability to "regulate, prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens, or lawful permanent residents, or any transactions incident to such travel."
It further would remove an existing law requiring Cubans to pay cash in advance for all American agricultural exports -- a barrier akin to requiring, for example, a consumer pay the full cost of a new car without the option of making monthly payments.
The bill would also erase the cumbersome and time-consuming paperwork needed for travel by business groups, farmers, athletes and others interested in a visit.
Trade groups back reform
The National Foreign Trade Council, a coalition of business and travel groups, have endorsed lifting trade quotas, and eased further lifting of sanctions in a recent letter to Congress.
"Current policies towards Cuba have clearly not achieved their objectives," said Jake Colvin, the NFTC's vice president of global trade issues. "Without the support of our allies and the larger international community, U.S. sanctions serve only to remove the positive influences that American businesses, workers, religious groups, students and tourists have in promoting U.S. values and human rights."
Todd Work, a Cuba Travel agent-manager, said that while roughly 75 percent of the company's clients are Cuban-Americans from Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, there is growing interest among California college students and professors, medical researchers, athletic clubs and vintners.
Work is currently helping facilitate a winter trip for a track team from Santa Monica High School.
"There's a lot of interest among students and athletes on both sides," Work said. "It's enjoyable promoting cultural and social ties between Cuba and California ... acting as a sort of bridge. I think we'll see more of that in the future, beyond the family visits that have traditionally made up the majority of travel."
Cuba Travel based their Western U.S. operation in Long Beach because of its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport -- one of only three American airports permitted by the State Department to offer flights to Cuba (Miami and New York's JFK are the others) -- and because the city sits at the crossroads of America's third-largest Cuban-American population, behind Miami and New Jersey.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates roughly 80,000 Cuban-Americans live in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with another 40,000 or so scattered across Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.