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Downtown Havana City, Cuba. Photo: Getty Images
Downtown Havana City, Cuba. Photo: Getty Images

Stop romanticizing Cuba’s pain

All politics are personal, says Elizabeth "Lisi" Cocina — and the debate on Americans' travel to and from Cuba and an overly-romanticized vision of the…

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Last week the Treasury Department put the kibosh on the most common “category of travel” used by American visitors to Cuba.  As part of the implementation of President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin removed the authorization for any “people to people” travel planned after June 5. He stated that “Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere,” saying that the island’s dictatorial government “props up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes.”

The question of whether Cuba possesses this level of political and social influence on neighboring Latin American countries notwithstanding, the feeling of many Cuban exiles — even those with an instinctive distrust of Trump’s erratic, frequently alarming foreign policy declarations — is that casual holiday tourist travel to Cuba can only be undertaken by those with either an insensitivity to suffering or an ignorance of history.  Or perhaps both.

In 1997, Cuba opened its doors to tourism.  After 38 years of ignoring tourism as a source of hard currency, the Cuban Economic Resolution abruptly became the regime’s answer to the collapse of Soviet-era patronage. The Resolution, coupled later with former President Obama’s interest in thawing relations with Cuba in 2016, provided the synergy that inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to visit. On May 6, CubaNews reported that two million visitors had visited the island in 2019; Canadians were the largest group, with U.S. visitors coming in second.

All politics are personal.  For me, on the level of first-hand experience, the effects of Obama’s attempts to defrost relations with Cuba were immediate. From 2016 onward, when a new acquaintance would realize that I am Cuban-American, the conversation would turn pointed.  “Oh, I so want to go to Cuba,” they said. “I want to see the vintage cars and colonial Old Havana. I want to dance salsa, and set up my umbrella on the Varadero, the way it is now, before it is ruined.” This seemed to occur with regularity with those who fancy themselves travel connoisseurs, hipsters, trail-blazing cognoscenti.

My new acquaintances are often surprised to learn that I have never been to Cuba, that I was gratefully born in Coral Gables, Florida and that my grandparents, as well as my parents, died homesick and heartbroken, never having set foot on Cuban soil after their flight from the island in 1960.

Before it is ruined?  This seems to suggest that the present state of Cuba, a broken Communist police state with a well-documented history of horrific human-rights abuses, the denial of fundamental political and expressive rights, ongoing misery including shortages of the most basic food staples and medicine, systematic abuses of the LGBTQ community, as well as a sixty-year-old virtually untouched infrastructure, is somehow pristine.  It further suggests that once diplomatic and trade relations are fully normalized with the US — generally accepted as an inevitability in spite of Trump’s occasionally frightening bombast — that the influx of crass American tourists will render the sepia-toned, picturesque Cuban fantasy tasteless and vulgar.

For second-generation Cubans, whose forebears fled Cuba leaving their families, friends, properties, and life’s work behind, Cuba was ruined when Fidel Castro and his henchmen grabbed power on New Year’s Eve of 1959.  For exiles, those 1957 Chevrolet cars aren’t quaint theme-park props. They are evidence of a crippling economic isolation. When we see the snapshots of tourists in front of the crumbling colonial facade of a once-stately home, what we see is the home our families saved and cared for, and, under threat of violence or kangaroo court imprisonment, were forced to leave behind.

Do travelers understand that when they are staying in Cuba they are staying in what was once private property, nationalized by Communists, in an act of brazen theft?  Do these travelers not think that as they are enjoying a bistec a la palomilla while the majority of Cubans living on the island, could only have such a meal perhaps once a year?  Do they not consider that if those in exile — whether they came in the early waves in the late 1950s, in the Mariel boatlift of the 1980s, those that floated in precarious makeshift rafts, or even those that walked through the U.S.-Mexico border last week — could stay in Cuba that they would?

What is the charm of such tourism?

Go to Cuba. While the “people to people” category was abolished, there are still other classifications of travel that may allow you to visit, including the “support for the Cuban people” category. Celebrate the Cuban spirit, the culture, the music, which has continued in spite of almost sixty years of despotism. But please don’t fancy yourselves explorers making contact with a primitive, unsophisticated people, living in a pastel-colored fog of antiquated innocence, enjoying the gains of a romanticized Che Guevara socialism, untouched by vulgar American consumerism.

If you go, travel with a full cognizance of the suffering of Cubans as well as the exiles, torment created by the untenable political regime. Affirm that with your dollars you are supporting a system that has welcomed you in a cynical scheme to line the pockets of a rarified Communist Party elite. When you book your stay in a casa particular, understand that this very well may have been a home ripped from hard-working people who may be your neighbors today. When you eat at the paladar, remember that Cubans stand in line for four hours and feel lucky to get a wretched loaf of bread or half dozen eggs. Know that Cubans largely rely on an exorbitant black market for their food. Many go hungry. Cubans have endured these types of isolation, deprivation, and fear devised by a rapacious, murderous government since 1959.

And please don’t send me a postcard.

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