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Cuba: Travel Orders From a Gringa

I want to take up a collection (not tax deductible—sorry!) to send several (okay—just two) of our notable leaders to Cuba. Travel sharpens the mind. Places offer more than what meets the eye. There is, of course, what you saw and what you did. And then, upon coming home, there is your interaction with the experience and how it may have reordered your thinking.. To quote Aldous Huxley, “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

I spent a full two years searching for a “people to people tour” once the Obama detente policy was in place. Tours were instantly sold out! I am so glad I went. I am more of a traveller than a tourist. A tourist has a very prescribed experience while a traveller seeks out knowledge and adventure. Despite the limitations of our “tour”, I nonetheless spoke to cab drivers, cooks, bike riders, waitresses, teachers, psychologists, nuns, kids, musicians, artists, merchants, vendors, private home owners. I took photographs on the side streets. I found Cubans to be very curious people. They like Americans. They seem happy for our visits. They ask questions. Many young Cubans under the age of 30 own cell phones, use the internet, and have very little concern for the old revolutionary past of Fidel Castro, though they know the history. They are proud to be Cuban.  How nice to talk with young singers and musicians whose life work is making music. They are paid a state provided salary to do this, and they sell their CD’s as part of the entrepreneurial private sector. ( I came home with three which I enjoy regularly!) The restrictions on their travel is very debilitating for them, however.

Had our leaders been with me in Cuba, they would have seen numerous AirBnB’s. They would have seen examples of entrepreneurship in small private inns and newly constructed restaurants. They would have seen dynamic building restoration. They would have met our tour guides who spoke four languages, and were not talking heads for a regime. They would have met independent cab drivers. They would have talked to hotel workers who say tourism is the best industry to work in due to available foodstuffs and tips.

As much of a state run economy as Cuba is—and it is, the Brookings Institute estimates that 1/3 of the Cuban workforce is involved in the emerging private sector economy. U.S. business interests are beneficiaries, too. Think Airbnb and Google, AAirlines, hotels and the cruise ship industry. Future U.S. business opportunities could include agricultural products (they need food) and the infrastructure building industry (they need steel). True, there are many state controlled hotels and restaurants. But all of our meals out were hosted in paladares, private home restaurants. (One friend freaked out when I told her we would be eating in people’s private dining rooms. She packed a series of health bars in response. After our first experience where a fabulous meal was served, and we discussed baseball with a knowledgable waiter, her fears abated.)

As a citizen, I am unhappy that future travel will be restricted again, and I will be limited to being a tourist. Back to a Cold War? Why? Travel, please. You will see and meet real people, many of whom are already independent of the military.

No one would argue that Fidel Castro’s Cuba had been a bastion of freedom and human rights. Raul Castro, however, is a slightly different Castro, and in announcing his retirement in one year, change is possible. I asked a cab driver who inherited his grandfather’s 1949 Chevy and drives independently what was his hope for Cuba in the next year? With some hesitation he told me that he does not know what to expect, but that change comes very slowly in Cuba. The U.S. needn’t retard the pace of change even further.

President Trump talks about making a better deal. What deal has there been?

A blockade is not a deal. It is a sanction. Has it paid off? Not for either side, and certainly not for the Cuban people. U.S. policy toward Cuba has continued a baneful dynamic.  But Cuban people are open to us. To lift and end the embargo is not in any way a concession to an oppressive government, but rather an opportunity for Cuban citizens to be more prosperous and perhaps more importantly, for the American people to learn about other cultures which would add profundity to our own lives.

It is clear to me that neither President Trump, nor Marco Rubio have been to Cuba. Marco Rubio has called Cuba a place that “exists in your imagination.”

The notion that Cuba is stuck in time, cut off from the outside world, generally lacking curiosity—these are common stereotypes. Such descriptors fit better our own leaders. So please, go on a trip. (Cuba is very near to Florida, you know.)

(And just to show that some Cubans have a sense of humor about our policies, here is artwork from a Havana graphic artist.)

Barbara Kantz, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a professor or Human Services at SUNY Empire State College. She is an award-winning photographer.

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