By Christian Kallen
Castro is the devil," said the baggage handler at Miami International Airport when I told him where we were going. "He is ruining my country." The baggage handler looked to be about 40, which means he had probably never been to "his country," where Castro came to power in 1959. So how could he know? For that matter, how can any of us know if we cannot see for ourselves?
That's why I went, and that's probably why anyone travels to Cuba, legally or otherwise. For despite what you may have heard, it is legal to visit Cuba--but not as a tourist. If you follow all the rules--engage in sponsored people-to-people exchange; are involved in educational, religious, or humanitarian projects; work as a journalist or athlete; or fall into any one of a handful of categories--you can get permission from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to enter Cuba. Just stick to your itinerary and don't spend too much money. You can even fly out of Miami, LAX, or JFK--Continental jets are chartered daily to take legal travelers to Havana, perhaps a foretaste of things to come.
Last month I traveled to Cuba as one of these legal visitors, attending a conference on sustainable tourism co-sponsored by the city of Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. The buildings of Old Havana are architectural curiosities, many dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, in some cases falling apart and in many cases being renovated to preserve the qualities that led UNESCO to declare Habana Vieja a World Heritage site in 1982.
Our trip lasted five days, and we saw what we were supposed to: renovation projects in Habana Vieja, the historic forts of Havana Bay, and the pervasive musical energy that saturates the atmosphere in this most musical of islands. After all, Cuba is the birthplace of the mambo, the rumba, and the cha-cha, making the senior citizens of the Buena Vista Social Club relative latecomers.
We also saw tired, undernourished men selling 50-cent newspapers for a dollar, old women posing for photos by smoking cigars, and beautiful, young women available al fresco. It's a country with a literacy rate of well over 99 percent, with the highest doctor-to-population ratio in Latin America, with 55 universities, of which 11 are in Havana--where the broken city streets often smell like sewage. But it sure didn't feel like a police state--the uniformed officers we saw were young, easy-going, and unarmed.
These contrasts are as much a part of Cuba as syncopation is of its music. The busy street in front of our hotel was filled with Chevies, Fords, and Oldsmobiles from the pre-Revolutionary 1950s. They circulated smoggily around the Parque Central, the green square half a block from the opulent Capitolio, former home of Cuba's legislature. Within the park, all paths converged on the statue of José Martí, the original Cuban revolutionary, who seemed to helpfully point out Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar, the Floridita.
Many in our group were U.S. travel agents, and we arrived a couple weeks after Richard Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, put out a statement critical of the official ban on tourism to Cuba. "We believe it is a constitutional right of Americans to have freedom to travel anywhere in the world. . . . [T]ravel promotes peace and understanding among peoples," he said. Not surprisingly, what most of the group was really interested in was learning how to navigate the bureaucracies and legalities in order to bring their clients to Cuba legally, now and in the future.
Of course, it's not just travel that's banned, but doing business as well--"trading with the enemy," in the official terms of the 1917 act that set up these outdated restrictions. Our rice farmers cannot sell rice to Cuba, our pharmaceutical companies cannot sell medicine to Cuba, and obviously our car companies cannot sell the latest models.
These and other industries are calling for an end to the embargo, seeing in Cuba a lucrative market and willing trading partner. Even U.S. legislators are increasingly frustrated with being held hostage by a small group of anti-Castro Cuban nationals in Miami. A bill to end the Department of the Treasury's stranglehold on visitation to Cuba easily passed the House last year, only to disappear in the avalanche of jingoism following Sept. 11.
We left just a week before Jimmy Carter visited Cuba at Fidel Castro's personal invitation. It was a visit that set off a public debate about our Cuba policy, which resulted only in President Bush hardening his commitment to the embargo--possibly, just possibly, to solidify his brother's base of support among Florida's anti-Castro minority.
It remains an irony, if not a puzzlement, that the United States allows travel to former Cold War enemies such as China, Vietnam, and even North Korea, all of which are still Communist states. Why not Cuba?
From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.