When it Comes to Cuba: It’s an Upside Down World

Fernando Ravsberg*

A group of tourists on an excursion in Varadero, Cuba. Photo: Raquel Pérez

HAVANA TIMES — Miami has been in an uproar ever since the US Treasury Department´s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) resumed granting licenses to American citizens who want to visit Cuba in compliance with the policies of the “People to People Contacts Program”.

According to protests by some spokespeople of the exile community, those trips blend tourism with indoctrination. Nevertheless they don’t explain what the consequences of such ideological penetration by Cuban communists would be for the national security of the USA.

Among the most serious proof they mention were the presence of a group of US citizens who took part in a concert for Fidel’s birthday and a meeting between Americans and Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, a known a defender of the rights of the LGBT community in Cuba.

It’s curious that they fear the indoctrination of their tourists and at the same time assure people that Cuba is sunk in the most miserable quagmire and that most Cubans are discontent. Those who come from a country with opportunities and freedom shouldn’t have anything to fear.

What’s happens is that the problems of the island are exaggerated so much that when one comes into contact with reality, people discover they’ve been deceived. Cuba isn’t the paradise on earth that its national press paints for us, but nor is it the nightmarish hell those in Miami describe it to be either.

If the media and political activists in exile really believed what they tell us about the island, they themselves would promote trips from the US to Cuba so people could see with their own eyes what is happening there and then spread this information across the entire United States.

Also, there are barely 10,000 Americans who travel to the island every year with special licenses approved by their government. Although they lose themselves among the 2.5 million other tourists who visit Cuba yearly, I occasionally run into some of these people walking through Old Havana.

Picking them out isn’t difficult; they’re the only travelers who move through the city in groups and with their credentials hanging from their necks, like we journalists do when we work. I sometimes wonder what they do with those things when they go swimming at the beach.

But those restrictions aren’t imposed on them by the “Cuban indoctrinators.” According to John McAuliff, from the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, OFAC is the one that insists on full-time structured programs instead of trusting the Americans to go, explore and see things for themselves.

The US Interests Section office in Havana. Photo: Raquel Pérez

In the end, with so many regulations from Washington, these Americans who visit Cuba greatly resemble the stereotyped image of Japanese tourists wandering the streets in groups, weighed down with cameras and snapping photos in all directions.

In Miami they criticize American tourists to Cuba because they drink mojitos and dance salsa, but I really haven’t been able to come up with a better way to come into contact with the Cuban people, relating to folks in the streets, in bars, discos and even in tourist hotels – where 400,000 Cubans who live in Cuba spend their vacations each year.

The People to People Contact Program was approved by the US Congress in the 1990s to foment “significant interactions” with Cubans; in other words, it was aimed at politically influencing the citizens of the island by promoting the “American lifestyle.”

That was the plan, but I don’t imagine that these tourists — with their clueless looks, flowered shirts, Panama hats and sandals, and who walk along with sunburnt skin languishing under the heat — are engaged in very much political proselytizing, through their translators, trying to get Cubans to reverse the revolution.

It seems that George W. Bush realized the limits of that strategy and put an end to licenses for US citizens. He even cut the mojitos and salsa enjoyed by the Cubans from Miami, reducing their trips to the island from once every year down to once every three years. He had to demonstrate that they were politically persecuted.

The US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — advised by Senator Marco Rubio and Congress members Mario Diaz Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros — promises that if he’s elected president, he will prohibit trips to the island and suspend the sending of family remittances.

But since he has yet to be elected, hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans continue traveling to the island every year, with them now having become the second largest group of visitors, behind the one million Canadian vacationers who go their annually.

Many of the Cuban-Americans even have their airfare paid in exchange for bringing merchandise to sell in Cuba.

The Cuban American congress members are pressuring Washington to maintain the embargo while those who emigrated send more than one billion dollars in remittances to Cuba annually. Similarly, these legislators lobby against trips by US citizens to the island while exiles visit the island in mass. It’s truly an upside down world!
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.

7 thoughts on “When it Comes to Cuba: It’s an Upside Down World

  • Lawrence W, those who are literate, well informed, and historically aware of Cuban chronology know very well without having to redundantly spell it out, or noted by you that Castro and the honeymoon of 1948 happened well before the “Revolution” whether in Miami or New York. The intentional meaning of Hubert Gieschen’s comment not understood by your youth is that Cubans traveled to Miami or to anywhere in the U.S.A. without a passport and that Castro, although a tourist to the USA once, changed all that by restricting travel abroad and finally opposing travel to the U.S.A. thereby curtailing the freedom of Cuban citizens to travel and by labeling those who did manage to reach U.S. soil as undesirable “worms.”

  • John,

    Just a perspective on the government discouraging overseas visitors from going to paladares and casas particulares. I like to remind people of the nature of tourism anywhere. It is to make money, especially foreign currency money. Tourists don’t like to think of it this way, but no one appreciates foreigners traipsing around their country unless it has financial benefits.

    When I travel as a tourist, as opposed to being a resident, I remind myself that I’m just a ‘cash crop’, to be harvested by natives in an as efficient manner as possible. This takes some of the sting out of feeling you’ve been fleeced when you pay above the going price for something.

    The Cuban government opened up the country to tourism reluctantly. Let’s face it, tourism before the Revolution, under Batista, would make anyone averse to it. It was done out of necessity and has been a success – now the largest industry in Cuba – albeit with the usual prices that have to be paid for tourism.

    Paladares and casas particulares, as you are probably aware, were accepted reluctantly, out of necessity, as Cuba could not build tourist facilities fast enough to accommodate the burgeoning tourist industry. They are small private businesses that the government makes money from but not as much as the hotels that it owns percentages of and that state restaurants bring in.

    There was also the question of security. The US has subjected Cuba to a state of war for more than 50 years, requiring abnormal security concerns. It’s much easier keeping track of foreigners if they are concentrated in tourist enclaves and not spread throughout the country. Yet Cuba does allow it.

    But it’s mainly a question of maximising what you get for the price you have to pay. One wonders if government policy towards these private operations will change now that it is promoting small private businesses. One expects it will.

    If you are not travelling in a group, there is no problem patronising these facilities so this is a problem that your government could address if it changed its travel regulations. There are also many ‘unofficial’ paladares and casas particulares that you can enjoy. They are the mainstay for many Canadians like myself.

    A side benefit for Cubans to tourism is that people see that Cuba is not as bad as US media and the Cuban-American faction make it out to be. Fernando pointed this out. I would add another demonising element he didn’t mention, Yoani Sanchez, writing from inside Cuba, only paints a one-sided negative picture of Cuba that media in your country laps up.

    The Opera de la Calle closing has been reported in HT. Again it was related to them running a private restaurant. I think it has been re-opened but HT hasn’t reported it, at least on the English side.

    I look forward to meeting you in Cuba outside of a group some day. Please keep working to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, joining the one million Canadians who go each year. I have to admit, Canadians have mixed feelings about it, however. It will still be a bargain but prices are bound to go up. But it will be for the good of the Cuban people – as long as you don’t send the ‘ugly American’ kind! [smiling]

  • Just for the record, you seem to be unaware of the recent travel reforms that address your concerns about Cubans travel rights.

    It should also be noted, Fidel honeymooned in New York in 1948, well before the Revolution and the US effort to reverse it, necessitating travel restrictions.

  • RE: the nature of the US policy toward Cuba.

    In response to a comment you wrote two days after this one, I noted in response that ” US ‘goalposts’ are notoriously movable,” that “your country makes excuses up to suit its oppressive behaviour”. Until the break-up of the USSR, the excuse was anti-Communism, then it morphed into needing Cuban-American support in a key electoral state and now that this excuse is becoming more and more absurd as the demographics change, it has morphed again, to ‘promoting democracy’ as you subsequently wrote.

    Occasionally you drop your guard, or someone does, like in this comment, and we get a glimpse of the REAL reason that has always been in place since before the Bay of Pigs fiasco, why the US has persecuted Cuba for more than 50 years.

    You write, “There is NO reason to discuss lifting the [blockade], eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act or eliminating travel restrictions as long as powerful anticastristas continue to hold political sway.”

    It’s always been about power – Yankee imperialist power working to get the government IT wants.

    Continuing your simile, kissing your sister can mean a number of things, including sibling affection. Patterns of behaviour determine what it really means, however. The US pattern is quite clear, and sinister. It has nothing to do with ‘sibling affection’.

  • Thanks, Mr. Ravsberg, for including me in your significant story.

    The Cuban American ultras are cut from the same cloth as the Cuban bureaucrats who discourage American groups from going to paladares and casas particulares and have attacked Opera de la Calle.

    Hopefully President Obama will be reelected and will finally sit down with President Castro, as promised four years ago, so they can overturn the dysfunctional state of war relationship.

    More here in our latest newsletter http://app.e2ma.net/app2/campaigns/archived/1408694/3f051b6e026d01fc72e61616b9731619/

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • There are those among the HT readership who think Mr Ravsberg to be an agent of British imperialism.
    Leaving that nonsense aside, I have another issue with this otherwise fine article.
    While he exposes quite rightly the nonsense in the US travel policy he omits the remaining nonsense in the Cuban travel policy There was a time when Cubans could travel to Miami. In fact the eternal leader of the revolution spent his honeymoon there as well as in New York. Half a century later nobody can do what the leader did before he took power. If Cubans could travel freely and couldafford to travel to Miami and elsewhere in the USA, they would not have to flee Cuba.They could simply take their time and make up their own mind where they like it best. They would simply be exercising the rights their leader once took for granted before he took it away from everyone else.

  • US-Cuban policy as it is formulted out of Florida has not really been about Cuba since the break-up of the USSR. The battles continues to rage (at least until next Tuesday, election day) over the electoral votes up for grabs in Florida. There is NO reason to discuss lifting the embargo, eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act or eliminating travel restrictions as long as powerful anticastristas continue to hold political sway. Supporting Cuban interests benefits very few democrats and pays very little in political slag. Enlightened intellectual debates about the virtues or lack thereof regarding US policy towards Cuba is like kissing your sister…looks nice but doesn´t mean a thing.

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