The first thing Brandon Webb puts out there by way of credentials for writing a travel guide to Cuba is that he was a member of the elite Navy SEALs. I took the bait with high expectations, imagining all of the possibilities for engagement when ordinary Cubans come across an American sniper who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But for Webb, his tours defending democratic values are the stuff of spin and branding. After his book, “Among Heroes,” was published in 2015, some of his former teammates and business associates claimed he embellished his combat experience and exaggerated his association with the fallen soldiers he featured.
His trip to Cuba is depicted as a romp to show off his wealth and white-American privilege to readers.
He casts his SEAL training as giving him the special ability to “blend in” and “simplify” the task of getting to know Havana and its people while in pursuit of a girl-chasing fantasy inspired by none other than President Donald Trump.
“I’ve wanted to visit before the massive invasion of pasty white baby-boomer Midwest-American chubbers ruined the perfect picture of Havana I had built up in my head,” Webb writes in Men’s Journal. “Plus, as any warm-blooded male is wont to do, I had visions of rescuing some beautiful mixed Russian-Cuban girl with green eyes and a sexy accent. I would steal her away from the grips of Cuba’s failed blend of communist-run socialism and bring her back to the city — proof to all my guy friends that dating foreign women is actually the key to happiness for American men. If it works for Trump, then hell, I was game to give it a try.”
Hold the vomit. It gets worse.
The second thing Webb touts is that he traveled to Havana with plenty of money and lived the high life. He ate well, smoked and drank to his heart’s content and stayed in a $400-a-night hotel. He wore a $10,000 black Panerai watch, his preference “when going third world,” instead of his Rolex, which “stands out like dog’s nuts.”
Yet he tried to be as big a cheapskate as he could get away with when dealing with the Cuban people, whose monthly salary he grossly overestimated by several hundred dollars when he said in the article that Cubans’ “average wage” is $500 a month. No, it’s about $25, the cost of the grilled lobster and two beers Webb enjoyed so much, a meal not seen in Cuban homes for decades.
Webb and his superficial “A SEAL in Castroland” give a new meaning to the term ugly American, one who shames the nation on his travels abroad. He could be easily dismissed as a bad writer published in a superficial magazine. But he perfectly illustrates the limits of engagement. As in the case of isolation, the policy isn’t a cure-all for what ails Cuba. Travelers have their own agenda. Some bring their ignorance to Communist Disneyland rather than affect Cubans in a positive way.
In interviews I did recently with Americans who’ve traveled to Cuba, a pattern of missed opportunities for engagement emerged even from educated and caring Americans.
A university doctoral candidate, for example, narrated a fascinating conversation about American politics that she had with her Cuban hosts in the house where she rented a room. But when her hosts pointed out failures of American democracy, citing examples they’d heard in the news, she didn’t take the opportunity to explain the system of checks and balances or the role of due process to address conflict and injustices.
“I don’t tell people what to think,” she told me.
But the point of engagement is to exchange points of view — not to remain silent. You can explain crucial aspects of democracy and remain respectful at the same time. It’s not either-or. Not to discount the successes of engagement, but the tales I heard were short on meaningful interaction.
Americans like Webb also forget that they still cannot simply be tourists in Cuba. Shallow interests such as chasing a girl don’t fall under any of the 12 categories of travel allowed by the U.S. government.
Not surprisingly, Webb didn’t get the girl — and he didn’t learn much of value other than that “no real man will pass up a good Cuban cigar” and, oh, Cuba might be “a great place to have a bachelor party” but you’ve got to negotiate good rates and get there quick before it all changes!
There is, however, at least one thing to be grateful for.
If it weren’t for Brandon Webb’s public display of crassness, we might not ever had access to the buffoon’s point of view on travel to Cuba. And who knows? It might help his idol, President Trump, formulate his new Cuba policy.