Congress, about to take up free travel to Cuba as a bipartisan bill introduced Thursday makes the rounds, might want to consider the laughable scenarios resulting from current U.S. policy.
Americans traveling to Cuba can’t legally dip a toe in warm Cuban waters, can’t stroll on soft white sands, and perhaps, say, come upon the opportunity to strike up an unscripted conversation with locals.
But American visitors can, for example, dine and drink at the state-owned venue Cabaret Le Parisien at the historic Hotel Nacional and gawk at erotic dancers shimmying like wild weeds in a windstorm.
Going to the beach is considered by the U.S. government a purely touristy activity, and is forbidden, even under the relaxed travel conditions set forth recently by the Obama administration.
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Watching a Las Vegas-style show of scantily clad men and women, on the other hand, falls under the scope of cultural enlightenment, and is permitted as an educational experience.
Topsy-turvy, isn’t it?
Such are the idiosyncrasies of U.S.-Cuba travel rules, which often times end up having the opposite effect of what the American government intended: throngs of Americans engaging with ordinary Cuban citizens, breaking down the stronghold the Cuban government has on information, and countering the negative image of five decades of anti-Yankee propaganda.
“I think it’s important that more people go and get sense of the enormity of the problem,” says a Florida academic who has made two trips and will soon travel again to the island. “It’s not just a simple, ‘Oh, let’s open it up.’ There’s a lot to sort out and no one has the answers.”
But, as he and many other Americans who have traveled to Cuba have assured me, there’s no substitute for the perspective gained by going at this point in history, even with the restricted movement of tightly organized trips.
In a week when a defiant Raúl Castro put a major damper on the cautiously optimistic mood of U.S.-Cuba talks with a litany of demands — most of them quite ridiculous, he being the dictator in the diplomatic equation — the outlook for positive change on Cuba’s end is almost non-existent.
But the Freedom to Travel Act of 2015 could be a way forward.
Truly free travel will depend on bilateral talks with Cuba to iron out issues like air service agreements so that airlines can offer routine scheduled service. But it certainly doesn’t require any agreement with the guardians of the Cuban island-fiefdom for the American government to act and lift an unwarranted prohibition on its own people.
About 100,000 Americans travel to Cuba a year via charter flights booked by travel groups that have over the past few years come to add Cuba as a destination. Add to this 400,000 Cubans and Cuban-Americans who live in the United States and travel to Cuba every year, and the numbers are already substantial.
Allowing American citizens the right to freely travel to Cuba would put the burden of opening up where it belongs — with the Cuban government.
Most of the Miami congressional delegation will dutifully object to the free-travel bill on grounds that most of the money Americans spend goes to state coffers. There’s no getting around that now and maybe not ever: Although there are small numbers of cuentapropistas — self-employed entrepreneurs — practically every business, facility, or attraction in Cuba is state-owned.
But the opponents of free travel are missing the larger picture — not only that a democratic government shouldn’t be in the business of prohibiting its citizens’ travel, but also that there are unquantifiable benefits to engagement.
“We saw how well Cuban government officials live in western Havana — in neighborhoods that might have been in Coral Gables,” another traveler told me. “And we saw areas of Old Havana with poor Cubans living with garbage on the streets. We also ate in some very nice private restaurants. We saw the buses ordinary Cubans rode in — such a contrast to the upscale, Chinese-made buses for foreign visitors. Etc. etc. I'm grateful that I got to see a little of Cuba, and I'm under no illusion about the nature of the Cuban government.”
For my American academic friend, the Cuban travel experience began with a premise: “It’s Cuba, so it’s hard to know how much you’re being fed and how much is real.”
But despite his tour guide’s futile attempts to praise the Revolution (“everyone would roll their eyes,” he said) the disastrous results were in plain sight: a once stately Havana in ruins, a harbor without boats, palpable repression.
At a museum showcasing priceless masterpieces, the air conditioner was broken, yet the “stubbornly proud guide” in a white pressed guayabera walked around “as if they were living in Paris.”
“There wasn’t one night when we sat down to dinner that someone didn’t cry when we discussed our experiences,” he said. “All the destruction is the result of the ego of that man [Fidel Castro]. How can you ride around and watch your country fall apart around you — and not do something to at least slow down the catastrophe?”
The reward of travel — even more so of free travel — is that no one has to tell you what it’s like. The regime’s apologists notwithstanding, those who keep their eyes open can see it all.