The current discourse on travel to Cuba is in a sorry state, if you judge by this HuffpoLive video.
Wild conjectures, politicized “facts”, mutual accusations of character assassination, and of course, a round of Grossball. For the record, I’m friendly with both Henry and Giancarlo, but have no idea why they were invited to talk about people-to-people contacts when neither one of them have been in one of those trips or conducted a poll or audit, and are just –because they are my friends, I’m going to be nice– advancing a hypothesis without a smidgen of proof that those trips are only “mojitos and beaches”. This line of thinking has been made up out of whole cloth by people like Marco Rubio, without any data or polls to confirm it, with no evidence other than seeing lines of Cuban Americans at the airport with lots of bags (and if you think this is exclusive to Cuba, take a walk around the Miami river and see how many packages are shipped to Haiti, or look at the lines of airline passengers going to any poor Caribbean or Latin American country) and a few Facebook photos, and out of that they have indiscriminately classified those trips as “abuses” and want to eliminate them.
Hogwash. Every time I hear anybody talking about “drinking mojitos” or “dancing salsa” I can’t help but laugh at how pathetic this argument sounds. As if you could participate in a cultural contact without playing music together, or watching a dance performance, or the simple act of drinking a beer was a slap to the face of a dissident. Never mind that the typical itinerary is filled with conferences, visits to museums or art studios, and in-person witnessing of the transformations happening in today’s Cuba.
It’s a reductive and reactionary argument, and would be laughable except that there are real consequences to letting this line of thinking to go unchallenged. By now, Senator Rubio has more or less succeeded in branding the trips “abuses”, the Obama administration gave in to his kidnapping of important nominations and now has OFAC tightening regulations and the number of licensees is decreasing. This can’t be allowed to continue, because it’s an ineffective response that doesn’t put pressure on the regime but instead plays right into its hands by making the U.S. the one banning travel, and because it’s against American values to tell free citizens where they can travel.
So let’s be clear what’s a fact and what is misinformation:
Fact: most Americans and most Cuban Americans want open travel to Cuba.
Fact: most dissidents –the people suffering the brunt of the repression inside Cuba– want more contact, not less.
Fact: Cuba can’t control the actions or movements of every traveler, or paint a pretty facade in front of every pair of eyes (There are many personal accounts of how partcipants in these trips do meet with dissidents –Tomas Bilbao gives a great example with the case of Harold Cepero, who was not involved with the dissident movement until he met people who went on these trips, including several members of Roots of Hope with whom he had a close relationship.)
Fact: every Cuban inside Cuba who interacts with a participant on these trips becomes more connected, more informed and less dependent of the regime to survive. On that score alone, people-to-people contacts have brought more benefits than 50 plus years of embargo.
I know by personal experience that more contacts with the Cuban people help them be more free and less dependent on the regime. Below the fold I’ve posted a piece I wrote for my old blog “Stuck on the Palmetto”, about how the mindset of the Cuban people changed after the mid 80s, when tourism from Western countries was allowed. It was and continues to be a big change, and the Cuba of today bears little resemblance to the Cuba of the Cold War years. No, travel hasn’t changed Cuba to the extent the hardliners want, but it has done more for the Cuban people than the isolationist policies they have imposed for more than fifty years. It’s incredible to me, as somebody who grew up in a country where one of the primary policies of the regime was to keep us isolated from the outside world, to hear supposed “freedom lovers” plea to keep Cubans isolated. Doing away with people-to-people contacts will only serve those who want to continue churning the anti-Castro machine in Miami.
Then Came The Foreigners
Recent events have given new impetus to an old debate: what is to be gained from allowing free travel to Cuba, not just by Cuban Americans but by all Americans? Perhaps to best answer the question, it would be useful to look back at the time when the first Western tourists arrived in the island.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, tourism and travel does bring dollars to the government. Since the state owns – either wholly or a majority stake on – all hotels, airlines, car rentals, stores, etc, inside the island, all the money that visitors spend and even the money spent in the black market or on the few private activities allowed such as rental of rooms, family restaurants inevitably ends up in the government’s coffers.
But let’s also acknowledge reality: no other country has joined the US in banning travel to Cuba, and Cuban Americans have voted with their feet and their wallets in this issue, traveling in large numbers to visit family and sending remittances. A number of Americans also travel legally with special licenses or illegally via third countries and polls have shown a majority of them support the lifting of the travel restrictions. Many also argue that imposing restrictions on American’s freedom to visit any country they wish is fundamentally un-American. Some others point out the apparent hypocrisy of banning travel to Cuba but not to China or Vietnam.
So what’s the point of continuing a deeply unpopular policy that’s undermined at every turn and only achieves making scofflaws of responsible citizens? Its proponents point out that starving the government of visitor’s dollars could precipitate changes inside Cuba – yet a look at North Korea would prove that isolation makes common people suffer the brunt of the policy, before the government does – and experience shows that expanded and extensive contact of Cubans and visitors brings about definite change, change inside the minds of Cubans.
It was the late 70s when Cubans who had left the country were first allowed to come back to visit. I remember these news were received with much trepidation, but what was more telling for me, even at that young age, was the sense of danger those visits represented to the government. “The worms are coming back” was the whisper on the streets. My father, a committed supporter of the revolution who had stopped communicating with his brothers and sisters who had left, had loud arguments with his siblings who remained in Cuba. State agents visited my third grade class and explained to us why we shouldn’t believe the tall tales of the returning exiles. It was all propaganda aimed at making us believe in the goodness of the sociedad de consumo, without telling us of the myriad problems those exiles faced at home: drugs, homelessness, prostitution, exploitation. All the things we had left behind as a society. We had to stay strong, steadfast and vigilant against an enemy that now was being allowed to visit thanks to the generosity of our Revolución.
So the anticipation was high for a little kid – how would those monsters, those people hell-bent on our destruction, behave once they were allowed back? And then I met my aunt. She looked normal. She brought presents. My sister and I asked her if she was rich. She said she worked very hard, two jobs. She even praised our school when she saw a history class project I was doing, remarked that her kids –my cousins I’d never met– didn’t know anything about Cuban history. She was not the enemy, quite the opposite; she was full of love for Cuba. Our everyday world -the streets, the houses, the beaches- brought tears to her eyes. How could somebody so full of hate and resentment act this way? And so the first card of a carefully constructed house of cards fell by the inescapable weight of the truth.
Little by little, the viajes de la comunidad became routine, part of our reality. But these people were the remnants of capitalist society who had left with Batista. They had been shortsighted and unwilling to follow our path – but they were not the traitors we had expelled in the 80s, during Mariel. Those had left to lives of poverty and need, and surely were regretting their decision. And then in 1985, when the effects of the end of Soviet subsidies were being felt in Cuba and the long war in Angola was taking its toll in dead and maimed soldiers, the first marielitos were allowed to return. The scum, the worms, the ungrateful ones we had discarded as so much dead weight. And again, we saw the same love, the same nostalgia for what they left behind. They spoke of hard times but also of opportunity. They bragged about their houses and their cars, but also complained about the cold climates, the foreign language, the harsh realities of immigration. The worms had come back, transformed into butterflies. An urban legend circulated: a marielito had bought a carton of eggs for the family next door. “You threw them at me before, now you can’t buy them at the store”. From them we learned it was possible to live somewhere else, prosper even, and continue to be just as Cuban. And another card fell that year.
Shortly afterward, facing a dire economic situation during what was called with dark undertones “the special war period in peace time”, the government had no choice but to turn to tourism. What had been denounced as a plague that ravaged less lucky countries in the Caribbean, falling prey to the ills of gambling, drugs and prostitution, what we had left behind, was now to be our salvation. Hotels were hastily built or renovated, sometimes in cooperation with foreign firms, a first for us. We had to turn to the capitalists to survive? Until then, the only contact we had had with foreigners were the cold and distant Russians and Eastern Europeans, who despised us and lived secluded in their exclusive areas. Now legions of Mexicans, Germans, Canadian and Spaniards were invading the beaches, walking on the streets of the old city, taking photographs and videos, wearing clothes we couldn’t afford, their skins impossible shades of pink. And talking to us, seeking us out. While many wanted to stay ensconced inside all-inclusive properties, others wanted to learn about our lives and our country and we wanted to learn about them, make friends, show them around, find the common threads between us and these people we had been told so often were only interested in prostituting our women and make our men shine their shoes.
There were three things that shook our collective consciousness: first, most of them were not rich people. They were secretaries, office workers and teachers, yet they could afford to travel. Second, we suddenly became second-class citizens in our own country, not welcomed in the hotels or restaurants, chased away from the beaches. The socialist illusion of equality we had been living in fell to the visitor’s wallets – but we knew who was to blame, who was making the money. During this time of extreme need, our government had chosen to sell us out instead of standing up for us as promised. Third, we discovered our long lost entrepreneurial spirit. We realized we couldn’t any longer depend on the government to provide. The tourists and the exiles were the source of hard currency and to them we turned, creating an underground economy that taught many Cubans the principles of the marketplace. Doctors became taxi drivers, architects became bartenders. Even though it was illegal and punishable with prison, dollars became the currency on the street and on the black market, and a vast network of illegal activity –room rentals, unauthorized tour guides, underground restaurants, sales of arts and crafts, even santería ceremonies for hire – undermined the role of the all-providing socialist state. Those changes, and the shift they brought to our worldview, were irreversible.
This was a two-way street. For those visitors who came to see the socialist paradise they knew from the folk songs of the 60s. What they found was a country in ruins, full of contradictions, with people who went after their last dollar with a smile – but could you blame them? How to reconcile this reality, so different than the images of equality and happiness for all they came chasing after? Speaking from experience, I have seen many foreigners change their perspective of Cuba and Castro completely after a visit. It’s hard to revere ideals when they are sold as tourist trinkets. Yes, some only stayed in the tourist zones, and some took the government propaganda tours. The majority though, saw the reality of a beautiful country mired on the illusion of a socialist paradise.
My generation, the sons and daughters of the revolution, the ones who were supposed to be los hombres nuevos, we were the first ones to experience this change. The government kept telling us how good we had it, how lucky we were; but we knew better now. Could any of these changes happen without contact with people so different from us? Would have we realized the gusanos and the foreigners weren’t the enemy? I doubt it. I’m convinced that the battle to change Cuba is first won in the minds of the Cuban people and their exposure to different ideas, to a different way of life. I know from experience that a closed country benefits only those who want to keep its people obedient and following blindly, and this is made easier by ignorance and fear of the unknown. American travelers are the last taboo standing, the last card that needs to fall. Many minds need to be opened about Cuba and inside Cuba, and I can’t think of a better way to achieve this than to allow people to see with their own eyes.