Americans who visit Cuba struggle with conflicting feelings
By Kari Paul
Published: Jan 30, 2017 4:36 p.m. ET
Recently, I took one of the first commercial flights from the U.S. to
Cuba to spend a week in Havana and Cienfuegos, taking in the sights and
sounds of a country relatively few Americans had been able to explore
over the past 50 years because of an American trade embargo.
I reveled in the experience of a place unlike any other I'd seen, with
amazing waterfalls and beaches, beautiful, brightly-painted homes and
friendly residents eager to speak to us, many of whom had never met
Americans before. But while I treasured the trip — the knowledge I
gained, the people I met and the country's colorful cars, cigars, music,
happy people and mojitos — I also saw up close an undercurrent of
sadness I couldn't quite shake, making it difficult now to answer other
Americans asking me if they should visit, too.
This disquieting reality reared its head when our government-approved
tour guide told us Cubans are very happy, have plenty of food and access
to internet, and have old cars because "it's a point of pride" there to
collect them (not because there is a longstanding trade embargo
preventing them from getting new vehicles). It was evident when a friend
I met there, an emerging musician, showed me music videos he made that
existed only on his computer; he was unable to upload and share them
without reliable access to the internet. The same friend later told me
to speak quietly when passing government officials because he feared he
would get in trouble for talking to tourists without a license. One day,
I stood with locals in Havana at an underground internet hot spot
provided by a black market Wi-Fi dealer at a lower price than the
government's access points, who fled on a motorcycle when the police
arrived. The oppressive atmosphere was impossible to ignore when I
offhandedly told people I met to visit me in New York sometime, and
watched them shake their heads, "No," one said. "I will never get off
this island." (Going to the U.S. as a Cuban is costly and requires a
difficult approval process)
A record number — 4 million — visited Cuba last year, up 13% from 2015.
The surge was largely due to U.S. travelers as the first commercial
flights in more than 50 years were approved between the two countries in
2016. To visit, tourists still have to fall under one of 12 approved
categories, which include religious activities, humanitarian projects
and journalistic activities. Many people choose another reason," support
for the Cuban people," a broad category that allows the average
Americanvacationer to travel to the country with little questioning.
With six airlines now carrying Americans to Cuba, it is easier than it
has been in decades to make the trip — but does that mean you should go?
Aaron Harnick, a Broadway theater producer who visited the country two
years ago, said while he encourages anyone considering traveling to Cuba
to try it, they should be aware of what they are getting into.
"Certainly people should go visit if they can, but I am not dying to go
back any time soon," he said. "There is a party culture there, and it
was a great place to visit, but when you speak to the local people there
is a stifling, invisible wall keeping them there. To me, it just reeked
A recent report from the New York Times found the influx of tourists is
causing major food shortages for locals, who under the socialist
government are given a book of rations each month that allows for rice,
sugar, eggs and meat while supplies last. Demand from tourists has sent
prices for basic goods like tomatoes, onions and peppers soaring as
restaurants scoop them up in bulk and leave locals with empty plates.
Tourists have also overwhelmed local hotel capacity and put a general
strain on local infrastructure, nonprofit free trade forum Americas
Society/Council of the Americas reported.
When José Portela returned home to Havana in December to research a
dissertation he is writing on LGBTQ culture in the country, he saw the
country already being quickly transformed by tourism. "Tourists are
going to be tourists — they're going to go and drink their mojitos, and
listen to salsa, and eat their nice food — and the ethics of that are
questionable," Portela, 27, says. "There is part of me, and it's a very
emotional part, that feels disgusted by how people go to Havana and stay
in these fancy places and eat nice food and have an experience that is
manufactured for them. You're riding in old cars and taking photos of
people's homes that are literally crumbling around them."
This is the Catch-22 of visiting Cuba, said Jeff Greenwald, executive
director of Ethical Traveler, a community website dedicated to traveling
responsibly. Only when the trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba fully
ends, allowing supplies to arrive freely for locals and visitors, will
these problems cease, he said. "More tourists will ultimately mean more
prosperity for many Cubans, but there will be huge short-term hurdles,
like the food shortages, in the interim," Greenwald said. "If tourists
stop coming there may be short-term relief in food supplies, but it will
be far more difficult for the country to equalize salaries, raise taxes
and reward entrepreneurship."
However, President Donald Trump has said he would reverse actions taken
by the Obama administration toward thawing relations with Cuba, casting
doubt over the outlook of such a change.
Even Portela sees the upside of a growing tourism industry, with members
of his family who rent out rooms in their homes to tourists benefiting
from the influx. The government has allowed citizens to rent out rooms
of their homes since 1997 through a program called 'casas particulares,'
in which homeowners pay a tax to the government to operate a kind of
bed-and-breakfast for visitors. Airbnb co-opted this program when it
came to Cuba in 2016, and the country has since become the startup's
Other locals who drive taxis, conduct tours or otherwise participate in
the tourist economy benefit largely from being paid and tipped in CUCs,
the tourist currency that is pegged at the equivalent to the dollar (the
local peso is at $0.04 to the dollar). With the average monthly salary
$25 in the country, many Cubans rely on tourism-related side jobs to get
by (the average taxi ride at $5 to $6 in CUCs, for example, is 25% of an
average salary for a short trip).
But this emerging tourism economy too frequently benefits only Cubans
who already have the resources to participate in it, Portela said, many
of whom are white, live in gentrified parts of Havana, and have family
in the U.S. who can send them information and supplies. Others who don't
have a home they can rent out to foreigners or skills applicable to
tourism are getting left behind, often pushed into the black market and
"Many Cubans have become third class citizens in their own country,"
Portela said. "The influx of tourism is calcifying an even greater
difference between classes and between black and white Cubans and,
ironically, perpetuating a lot of the same situations the revolution
stood against in its early years."
Also see: How losing my phone in Cuba helped me reconnect with the world
For people who do choose to travel to Cuba, Sarah Faith, a spokeswoman
from Responsible Travel, an online travel agency that focuses on ethical
tourism, suggests avoiding forms of travel like the cruise industry,
which she said in many cases can exploit the environments of different
destinations and offer very little economic benefit to local communities.
Instead, she suggests staying at local homes like an Airbnb or the
"casas particulares." Cuba also has a form of restaurant called
"paladares" a special kind of food spot run out of a local's home that
offers a unique and authentic experience and ensures more of the profit
sticks with the family selling the meal.
"Traveling with respect earns respect," Faith said. "We believe that if
you treat people and places fairly and with respect it pays back by the
bucket load because well cared for locals let you get closer to their
culture, their people and their nature, which is good for them and good
Another way to travel ethically: Bring as many supplies as possible to
share with the Cuban people, especially school supplies for children,
paper products, and over-the-counter medication like aspirin, Portela
says. Even paint supplies and other mundane items make a world of
difference, he said, citing one artist who hadn't been able to get
access to new paintbrushes in five years and was instead using a tuft of
dog hair affixed to a rusty nail. "Some of the most mundane things that
you think people have everywhere are a luxury in Cuba," he said.
There are a number of other ways visiting Americans can support the
Cuban people, Portela said, including leveraging the privilege they have
as Americans to intervene in situations of injustice. For example,
stepping in if an official or police officer is harassing a local or
asking honest questions of people in power there to "reveal what is
underneath this nostalgic image America has of Havana," he said. Many
guide books suggest avoiding talking about politics with Cubans but
Portela said in most cases he would err on the side of challenging the
For Harnick, connections he made with the people of Cuba were the
greatest part of the trip. "That was the best part for me — more
memorable than the cigars, the bad food, the experience of being in Cuba
— was the look on a child's face when he got a box of crayons. That will
always stick with me."
Portela suggested Americans form and maintain relationships with locals
while visiting and keep in touch after leaving, as usually only affluent
people maintain connections in the U.S. and other countries. This is
something I tried to do on my trip, recognizing that the Cubans who
shared their homes and their stories with me were what made the
experience so unforgettable: the local who took me on a motorcycle tour
of the city, the woman at the small house on our street corner who sold
us beer and coffee from her window, and our taxi driver who spoke few
words to us but invited us to his home to share a meal with his wife,
daughter, and granddaughter on our last day in Cienfuegos.
"If people are going to visit, I would encourage them to dig deeper and
really talk to people as honestly as they possibly can — and above all
to listen," he said. "Cubans are so willing to engage. Don't be afraid
to get off the beaten path — listen, look, and observe."
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