By ALFREDO PRIETO*
HAVANA TIMES, March 5 – The winds of a new change have begun to blow from Washington. The phrase does not mean the dismantlement of the US political framework that has been in place up to now, but rather the adaptation to an alternative logic when fighting its “closest of enemies.”
The Foreign Affairs Commission of the US Congress has introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, a proposal that -if approved- would imply the re-linking of US citizens to an island that they have been prohibited from visiting without prior governmental licensing. With that preclusion, they have been largely robbed of a constitutional right that otherwise prevails in American culture.
Necessarily, this move goes against the hardcore isolationist tendencies of the political spectrum, especially the rightwing of the Cuban-American community. This group has a powerful lobbying capability whose reach cannot be underestimated, even in today’s unfavorable circumstances marked by a Democratic majority in Congress.
The underlying reasoning for a change in policy is that the logic of contact played a leading role in the deconstruction of socialism in Eastern Europe, where the Cold War was won “without firing a single shot.”
However, this has the small problem of ignoring the socio-cultural peculiarities of Cuba, where, for example, there has not been the need to knock down any wall to exhibit and enjoy cartoons featuring Donald Duck or the Warner Brother’s Roadrunner.
No special actions have been made to promote widely popular US brands and products that arrive in Cuba by routes as diverse as trips to Europe and Latin America, travel directly from Miami, or by the growing purchases of American food that the Cuban State has been making for some time.
This logic lacks sense because it ignores this truth: Cuba has always been part of Western culture and has never been behind an iron curtain-not even during the Quinquenio Gris (the five-year gray period) of 1971-1976.
This correlation has a bearing on the concept of US tourism as the next Armageddon – like another one, keeping in mind the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The root of the idea lies ultimately in a belief in the civilizing superiority of US culture and values, from which it is assumed that a flood of tourists (calculated at about three million visitors in the first year) would become a factor in the internal destabilization of a society that is supposedly self-sufficient and closed.
Although US tourism is infamous for its debasing and overbearing character (with travelers wanting to experience abroad what they are unable to do in their own land), I cannot find sufficiently strong arguments that sustain the role of this exterminator angel.
Firstly, at its core, US tourism is not so very different from European tourism, which Cuba opened up to in the early 90s. The consequences were racialized sexuality and stereotypes that reduced the idea of what is “local” to three or four simple perceptions – particular notions about Cuba that are distinct from the typical characteristics in the influx of visitors from the First to the Third World.
Secondly, contrary to what is often presumed, experience suggests that frequently Americans alter or tone down what they think of Cuba and Cubans after having collided with the reality of what was previously unknown to them. This is true provided that, as it has been said, they come to the country with at least one eye open. Even then they tend to see the island as either a paradise or hell (depending on if they are on the left or the right)- and they almost always miss the nuances.
It seems unnecessary to underline that what is now called the “new dose of realism” is nothing new; it is only pouring the same old wine into new bottles. A classic 1940s US advertisement promoting trips to Cuba had the laconic wording “So close and yet so far.” The geography has not changed. I fear that neither has the distance.
*Alfredo Prieto. Essayist and Cuban editor. He resides in Havana.