Fabiola Santiago: Free American travel puts the burden of opening up on the Cuban government
BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO FSANTIAGO@MIAMIHERALD.COM
01/30/2015 6:26 PM 01/30/2015 9:39 PM
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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