The proposition seems intuitively reasonable: American tourists will help bring democracy to Cuba. But, it is also demonstrably false.
The idea that American tourists, innately imbued with democratic values and norms, will proudly reflect and share those values while traveling abroad is an authentic premise. Thus, we view American tourists as ambassadors for democracy, and a powerful force in communicating the virtues of democratic governance. Though this indeed may be the case, it does not follow with syllogistic certainty that such ambassadorship can empower of the citizens of a totalitarian regime.
In the case of Cuba, for decades 2 million tourists from Canada, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere have traveled yearly to the island with no impact whatsoever on the Cuban regime. The more empirically valid argument is that expenditures by tourists add to the longevity of the regime, since the monies flow into enterprises controlled by the Cuban military. Moreover, tourist dollars allow the regime to avoid meaningful economic and political reforms.
In any case, international tourism has not brought about political reforms in Cuba, or in the remaining universe of totalitarian regimes. For example, China and Vietnam welcome 130 million and 8 million tourists respectively each year with no impact on their form of government.
Advocates of tourism as a means to democratic governance counter-argue that Cuba is different and suggest that it’s not the total number of visitors that counts, but American tourism. Yet, the logic behind this chauvinistic view of Americans as the only effective couriers of democratic values is never explained. It is only offered that American tourists, by some vague cultural and historic affinity, are better endowed to convey the values of democratic governance to the Cuban people.
But if such cultural and historical kinship does exist, it applies much more to Spanish-speaking tourists from Latin America and Spain. In fact, American tourists have only limited contact with the Cuban population. Most tourist resorts are in isolated areas, controlled by the security apparatus and off limits to the average Cuban. Most Americans encounter a language barrier, and it is not clear that they consider their vacation time as an opportunity to subvert the Cuban regime.
Most likely, Americans, as with most tourists, prefer to relax with mojitos in the beautiful beaches of Cuba. In the case of cruise-ship tourism, passengers will disembark for a few hours to purchase rum and cigars, then return to the ship. Again, it is not clear how this helps to usher in democratic governance, unless the argument relies on some mysterious osmotic process.
Nonetheless, rather than rejecting the “American tourists” arguments only on its lack of logical merits, I looked for statistical proxies to test the hypothesis.
American tourists represent only 1.6 percent of inbound tourism in China. In Cuba, tourists from the United States account for 3.3 percent of total tourism. In other words, Cuba’s tourism is twice as “American intensive” as China’s. Neither country has engaged in political reforms, but it is only fair to ask: What percentage of tourists must be American in order to validate the “American tourists will bring democracy” thesis? Answer: unknown.
Another revealing comparison is to relate the number of American tourists to the population of the host countries. China, with a population of 1.3 billion, receives 2 million American tourists each year. Cuba, with a population of 11.2 million, welcomes 90,000 Americans. Thus, on a per-capita basis, Cuba welcomes an American visitor for every 124 Cubans, while China receives an American tourist for every 650 Chinese citizens. In theory, at least, this means that the per-capita concentration of American tourists in Cuba is five times greater than that of Americans in China, and yet no democratic reforms are visible in either country.
The point of all this is simply to show that the proposition that democracy in Cuba relies on American tourists, a tenet of the Obama administration’s new U.S.-Cuba policy, fails to pass the most basic tests of logical coherence. We deserve more critical and rigorous thinking from our policymakers.
José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book “Mañana in Cuba.”