Obama Halts American Trips to Cuba


Until recently, Americans could travel to Cuba as part of academic, religious or research groups. But according to travel writers for USA Today and other major newspapers, government approval for such trips has come to a halt. This is despite a program authorized last year by President Obama that encouraged “people-to-people” visits to Cuba by Americans. (That brings up the question, Who is really in charge? But, that’s another issue.)

The half-century embargo of Cuba has not worked — if anything, it has solidified support of Fidel Castro by the Cuban people. It is time to begin normalizing relations. I’m not interested in politics or commerce, but rather I like Afro-Cuban music and I would like to visit Cuba to learn how much of that tradition remains before it is infected by pop music from elsewhere in the world.

The Detroit Free Press reports that almost no organizations with previous people-to-people licenses from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) have received renewals for visits to Cuba. Advertised trips have been scrapped and organizations “are left to wait without any updates or information.”

Here’s one example of how silly the embargo of Cuba is. Late in life, Cuban musician and singer Ibrahim Ferrer became a member of the internationally successful Buena Vista Social Club, formed as a result of a documentary film by Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders. In 2004, Ferrer won a Grammy, but was denied permission by the U.S. government to receive his award in person under a U.S. law that prohibits entry by “terrorists, drug dealers and dangerous criminals.” Ferrer, who was then 77-years-old and quite harmless, had previously performed in concert in the U.S.

Ferrer was dumbfounded by the decision, saying, “I don’t understand because I don’t feel I’m a terrorist. I am not, I can’t be.”

In 2004, the year before Ferrer died, I saw him in concert in Juan-les-Pins, France. It was an extraordinarily good show. As Ferrer came on stage, the French crowd of several thousand became reverentially silent. As he began to sing, the audience would recognize the song within the first few notes, and applaud. The concert was more than two hours long, and yet the 77-year old Ferrer appeared to have even more energy the longer he was on stage. Incredibly great music. Most of the 20-member orchestra were over 60 years old.

Americans are missing much with the embargo of Cuba. In addition to great music, what else are we not allowed to see and hear?

Last year, UNESCO added Mexico’s mariachi music to the list “intangible cultural heritage” in need of preservation, and rightfully so. I have been to the mariachi festival in Cocula, about 35 miles (60km) west of Guadalajara. Cocula is famous for being the birthplace of mariachi and the annual festival attracts Mexico’s top bands. Afro-Cuban music deserves the same UNESCO recognition.

If the American political leaders fear that visitors to Cuba will be impressed by and then embrace communism, an embargo is the wrong answer. The best way to expel any positive thoughts might be to encourage visits to communist countries.

In 1989, I was visiting friends in Würzburg, Germany. During this visit, it was announced that the Berlin Wall was coming down and that Germans would be allowed to travel to the East and West. My friends had cousins they had never met in Meiningen on the East German side, about a 90-minute drive from Würzburg on the West side. We decided to go.

At the border, I was surprised to see a tall wire fence. This was far south of Berlin and there was no wall. But, the gate was wide open and there were no guards, nobody, not even other tourists joining us on the drive. There was a guard tower, made of wood, that looked something like the U.S. Forest Service fire watch towers. The East German guards did not even shut the door of the tower as they left.

It was a sad scene in the plaza of Meiningen, a town that now has a population of 20,000, but was much less then. The river running through the town was obviously polluted with garbage and a thick cover of oil streaks (“gasoline rainbows” was how J. D. Salinger described such things, but that makes it sound too benign). Buildings were covered with industrial soot. Nothing had been painted in decades. It looked like a movie set for a World War Two movie, and this was 44 years after the end of the war during which Meiningen was greatly damaged by bombing raids.

This visit was two days after the border was opened. The plaza was filled with local East Germans and street peddlers, including many Vietnamese, selling such things as Madonna T-shirts for US$20. How did the peddlers get there so quickly? How did the East Germans get so many American dollars? In addition to the T-shirts, there was other junk being sold and the East Germans were clearly unsophisticated about the prices of such consumer items.

My German friend angrily spoke to a dozen or more peddlers, saying, ”Das ist nicht richtig”. Meaning, it is not right to take advantage of these people by selling junk at such inflated prices.

Then, two Soviet army troops walked into the plaza. They had Asian facial features and were likely from the eastern part of the Soviet Union. I was told the East German government would use Soviet guards from other parts of the communist bloc because they would be less likely to become friendly with the local Germans.

The Soviet guards wore dirty, cream-colored uniforms. They held their AK-47s with a finger near the trigger guard. They looked like mean and stupid bullies and my German friends were clearly intimidated.

One German friend whispered to me, “Sie sprechen kein Englisch”, don’t speak English (difficult because I don’t speak German). I wanted to stay, but my German friends insisted that we leave immediately and get back to West Germany.

I do ramble. My point here is that a visit to authoritarian Cuba might convince most people to avoid that system of government. Further, Cubans and Americans meeting each other would likely do some good. So, I recommend (not that anybody asked) full and open travel by Americans to Cuba. I’ve heard that some Americans are visiting Cuba and that Cuban immigration officers oblige these Americans by not stamping their passports. But, that would not work for me because I would want to write about a visit to Cuba.

Ken Smith is a semi-retired American living in Mexico for the past five years, after four years in France, two years in Denmark, and another year bouncing around Europe. He recently edited and wrote an introduction for a book of essays by his friend Joe Bageant, Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: the Best of Joe Bageant. Smith’s blog is at http://kvsmith.com.



Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?