THE CASE FOR NOT LIBERALIZING TRAVEL TO CUBA
THE CASE FOR NOT LIBERALIZING TRAVEL TO CUBA
Presented at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and
Cuban-American Studies Seminar
“U.S. Policy Towards Cuba: A Conversation with American Diplomats”
January 23, 2009
The Obama administration undoubtedly will soon begin a review of Latin
American policy and within that process will have to make some decisions
about what to do with the thorny Cuba issue. What works and should
remain policy, and what has failed and needs to be replaced? What is our
national interest and what is achievable? What are the prospects that
dialogue and engagement will achieve our objectives?
In the case of Cuba, is there any evidence that the Castro brothers are
prepared to seriously discuss what we are interested in and to make the
kind of changes in the political and economic arena for which most
Americans and Cubans yearn? Improving relations with Cuba should not be
a goal. That will come about when we see proof the Castros have decided
to put Cubans on a democratic path.
We must be careful in this review of Cuba policy not to be impatient,
not to change our policy just for change’s sake, and keep in the
forefront of our discussions what’s best for the Cuban people and not
just what’s best for us. The Cuban people have no voice and are not
represented by the regime, which has never allowed a free vote. Every
American President in recent years has made the Cuban people’s human
rights and basic freedoms a cornerstone of our policy, and President
Obama, I am sure, will do the same. The question is whether anything we
can do will promote greater freedoms in Cuba while the Castro brothers
live. Unfortunately, the answer may be: no, given the strength of the
security apparatus in Cuba and the Castro’s adamant refusal to improve
relations in a way that we can accept with dignity and in conformance
with our democratic principles. But we must be prepared to accept that
realization as we have our policy debates.
And the debate on Cuba has commenced again in earnest. Once again we
have begun to hear that more trade and travel with Cuba will bring
greater freedom to Cubans and that the more we engage with the Cuban
regime, the greater the likelihood democracy will flourish there. Some
urge outright abandonment of what remains of the embargo, but most
opponents are focusing on ending travel restrictions as the first step.
We typically hear four arguments for liberalizing travel and trade with
Cuba. The first assertion is that flooding Cuba with American tourists
will instill among Cubans a yearning for democracy. Secondly, tourist
spending, it is argued, will help average Cubans by improving their
living standards or wages. Third, some argue that our policy of
isolating the regime has failed, so we should try something different
and they hold the belief that engagement will promote positive change.
Finally, libertarians will assert Americans have a Constitutional right
to go wherever they choose, including Cuba.
These arguments are dead wrong and fundamentally reflect our inability
to understand what it’s like to live in a totalitarian society where all
aspects of peoples’ lives are controlled and where fear of state
security is pervasive. As most Americans have never experienced
totalitarianism, they make assumptions about what can be achieved in
such a state that are not grounded in reality.
Impact of Tourism
Let’s examine the four arguments one by one, starting with the “Let’s
flood them with tourist” proposal. Why won’t this work to bring
democracy to Cuba? Fundamentally because the Cuban authorities strictly
limit and harshly penalize the interaction of ordinary Cubans with
foreigners. The Law 80 of 1999 makes it a crime to take publications
from foreigners and a 2004 Ministry of Tourism internal memo to hotel
workers prohibits them from interacting with foreigners outside the
workplace or from accepting gifts. And about the only Cubans tourists
will meet are hotel workers.
Almost all tourists to Cuba stay in four or five star hotels. These 103
hotels catering to foreign tourists are located predominantly in
isolated areas where ordinary Cubans are denied access. About 67% of the
tourist hotels are located in the remote Cays like Cayo Coco or in
Varadero. Castro has allocated only 18.6% of his tourist hotel rooms to
Havana and vicinity. There are only 5632 rooms for some 10,000 tourists
in Havana, a city of 2.1 million plus. That works out to one tourist per
210 Cubans. Tourists are diluted in this sea of ordinary Cubans, and can
make no meaningful impact on society even if they wanted to or were
permitted access to Cubans.
Even though Raul Castro recently “allowed” Cubans at last to frequent
previously off-limit tourist hotels, this is a cosmetic measure designed
to convince foreigners that Cuba is liberalizing. In fact, it is not.
The regime charges average Cubans the highest rack rate to stay in
tourist hotels which are expensive to begin with, and a night’s stay
would require an average Cuban’s salary for a year. So a foreigner will
rarely encounter a regular Cuban in his or her hotel.
The vast majority of foreign tourists spend most of their time in
all-inclusive hotels where regime-sponsored entertainment is brought in
to amuse them. If they leave their isolated enclaves, well guided tours
to Potemkin villages where the guides control your experience and retain
their jobs by hoeing the regime line if asked inconvenient questions by
curious tourists. The Cubans the tourists are permitted to see and
question are trained to say the right thing and spontaneously hail Fidel
and his regime and joyously sing Guantanamera to show the foreigner how
they enjoy life without freedom. Castro has put in place a tourist
apartheid system that monopolizes tourism’s benefits for the state while
minimizing the potentially deleterious impact of rich, free tourists
mingling among poor, oppressed Cubans.
There’s another problem with the Flood argument. Few Americans at least
speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation on democracy or
anything else with the average Cuban, who also rarely speaks English.
The fact is that tourists go to Cuba for rum, sun, cigars, song and sex.
That is what Cuban government recruiting ads subliminally promise.
Tourists don’t go to Cuba to spread democracy. The rare, inquisitive
foreign tourist who speaks Spanish sufficiently and who encounters
somehow a Cuban to proselytize will notice the attention the
conversation attracts from nearby police. The unlucky Cuban will quickly
get a visit from the cop and be asked to show ID and explain what the
conversation entailed. He will be warned from talking with foreigners in
the future. Most likely the Cuban will not be interested in the
foreigner’s views of politics but will solicit money, toiletries or sex
or be asked if he can help get the person or a relative out of the
island, perhaps through marriage.
At any rate, most Cubans know well what democracy and freedom are from
their relatives abroad, from phone calls with them, smuggled-in
literature and surreptitious listening to foreign radio broadcasts and
from contact with on-island diplomatic missions like USINT. They don’t
need to be convinced to love or understand democracy. What they lack is
a way to influence regime behavior. The system does not solicit their
views or tolerate dissent and harshly punishes the few that stand up for
democracy. Their dreams for a better life can only be realized by
emigrating or becoming part of the elite, by conforming. Some two
million have chosen to flee rather than conform, and have chosen to live
under democracy. The vast majority, especially the youth, no longer
trust the so-called revolution to improve their lives. In the late
1990s, even before the regime opened up to controlled tourism, some
500,000 families in one month signed up for the “Bombo” lottery at USINT
for a chance to leave Cuba.
Tourism and trade have not brought down a totalitarian regime anywhere
in history. In Eastern Europe communism collapsed a decade after tourism
peaked. No study of Eastern Europe or the USSR alleges that tourism,
investment or trade had anything to do with the end of communism. Lech
Walesa and Vaclav Havel both have said that tourism and trade played a
negligible part in the downfall of communism—Radio Free Europe, Radio
Liberty and the steadfast commitment of the Reagan administration played
the essential role. It provided a voice at international for a for the
victim of communism and supplied dissidents with short-wave radios,
supplies, books, printers and funds that they needed in their fight for
freedom. Tourism did not bring freedom to Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s
Cuba, or to Duvalier’s Haiti. In South Africa, the tourist ban did play
a key role in convincing the apartheid government that its practices
were held in world contempt. Today Burma’s imprisoned leader of the
opposition asks the world not to travel as tourists to her country.
Dictators refuse to let tourism do its alleged subversive work. They are
not stupid. If dictators like Castro thought they could not control
tourism, they simply wouldn’t allow tourists in. And, by the way, the
tourists who are allowed in generally need visas, are screened against
huge state security data base and are monitored and often videoed while
on the island. If they misbehave they are expelled or never allowed in
In the last decade alone, over 15 million tourists from democracies have
visited the island, including several hundred thousand Americans who
snuck in or were given an OFAC license. So, where’s the beef, so to
speak? Cuba has not democratized or even liberalized, in fact, it’s gone
backwards. The wily Fidel captured the economic benefits of tourism
during the Special Period when he was floundering, controlled it, and
now that those billions have helped him recover, he has cracked down and
rescinded his liberalizing steps as he always does when things get
better. Now that he has Sugar Daddy Chavez supporting him, he need not
risk the regime by allowing economic or political half-step freedoms.
The case can be made then that travel has hardened the regime, increased
its staying power rather than opened up the island in any way.
Well, critics will argue, Americans are different from other tourists.
We are special. This implies that we have some magic democratic pixie
dust that will rub off on foreigners and that our bathing suited guests
have some unusual burning desire to teach democracy while on vacation.
NOT! If tourism had any value as a catalyst for democracy it would be
the polyglot Europeans who’d have a better chance at engaging Cubans.
Yet there is absolutely no evidence of any liberalizing impact of their
stays or imprint of their footprints on the regime’s behavior. It would
be more accurate to attribute a strengthening of the state security
apparatus to their expenditures since the Cuban military owns the hotels
they stay in and gets first crack at the cash flow.
What about Cuban American travel? Wouldn’t more of that make an impact?
They speak Spanish; have the trust of their relatives, and when they go
back as hundreds of thousands have in recent years, they show their
relatives what freedom and democracy allow. They may well have been a
key factor in spreading a desire for freedom and democracy on the
island, but the fact is that nothing has come of this. My experience in
Cuba is that returning Cuban Americans are very cautious in what they
bring with them and what they do and say while on island. They do not
want to jeopardize their chances of returning by carrying anything to
dissidents or by engaging in prohibited behavior. Cuba treats Cuban
Americans as Cuban citizens. It does not recognize dual citizenship. So
a Cuban American who gets into trouble will be denied access to USINT
and is on his/her own. So they stay out of trouble.
There may well be a humanitarian argument for more émigré travel, which
I support on that ground alone. But I challenge anyone to show how
émigré travel has led to anything positive on the freedom front. The
simple fact is that the regime is determined to and capable of
preventing any tourist flood from undercutting its control. If suddenly
ordinary bikini wearing Americans were allowed to flood Cuba, Fidel or
Raul would put an end to Cuban American travel, which is potentially
more subversive. Those who advocate travel as a liberalizing influence
would be better off urging Fidel to allow ordinary Cubans to have the
visas he denies them to travel to the US when USINT approves their
travel. In the US, ordinary Cubans could mingle with Americans and would
have none of the restrictions such interaction faces in Cuba.
A final thought on the let’s flood them proposal—even if we wanted to
flood Cuba, there would be no room at the inns. When tourists want to go
to Cuba, in our winter and during vacations, the island’s 30,338 4-5
star hotel rooms are booked solid with docile Canadians and Europeans.
And would Fidel oust them to make room for Americans? Would he want
again to be dependent on fickle Americans in this critical industry? I
doubt it. Castro will never allow development of an unhealthy dependence
on US tourism and will limit the numbers allowed in. Even if we
liberalize, he won’t. It stands to logic that if he thought he couldn’t
control tourism’s effects on society, he wouldn’t allow them in. And if
any US President really thought US tourism was the magic key to
promoting democracy in Cuba, he would have been all for it. He would
have used that tool to trick the naïve Castro into undermining his regime.
Is Tourism Helping the Cubans?
Ok, now to the argument that tourist expenditures will trickle down to
the average Cuban Jose, promoting capitalism , free enterprise and
better standards of living for Cubans? Well again, 15 million Europeans
have spent tens of billions of dollars there, but the benefits go almost
exclusively to the state. Poor Jose has seen none of it. That’s because
all Cuban economic life is controlled by the state for the state, not
its citizens. Castro is not interested in seeing Cubans live better. The
poorer they all are, and the more equally they live in poverty,
scrambling to make end meet daily, the less likely they will engage in
subversive activities. So on purpose, by design, the regime prevents
seepage or trickle down from tourist expenditures to enrich some Cubans
ant the expense of others.
Tourists stay at all-inclusive hotels by and large. No tips are
encouraged or permitted. Tips do wind up in the pockets of tourism
workers in urban settings, but that does not amount to much. In Cuba,
the state owns the hotels, bars, restaurants, clubs, cigar and rum shops
and souvenir stands. Artists can sell their art but must pay the state
exorbitant fees approaching $200 a month for permits. They make little
money. Tourists can buy very little from average Cubans except sex,
which is a main draw in some countries. A recent Johns Hopkins report on
child prostitution directly tied its increase in Cuba to increased
tourism, and there are no NGOs in Cuba to monitor and express outrage at
the practice and the blind eye of the authorities.
Hotel workers get to keep very little of what a tourist spends on
his/her stay. Joint venture partners with Cuba must pay the state a
fixed amount per hotel worker. The worker gets something like 5% (about
$16 a month) of what the company pays for his/her labor to the state.
The hotel workers cannot unionize, complain or fight back at this any
more than the average Cuban. Hundreds relish the chance at their jobs
given the high unemployment in Cuba.
As mentioned earlier, the Cuban military controls the tourism industry
and most productive enterprises in Cuba through firms like Gaviota and
Cubanacan. The hard currency runs through their hands for purposes they
alone choose. Back in February 2003 Castro closed or severely restricted
micro businesses when he learned Chavez would bankroll the regime. The
few paladars or semi-private restaurants catering to foreigners that
remain open must buy everything from the state and must pay
under-the-table bribes to all sorts of inspectors to remain open, unless
they are secretly owned by elites. They are limited to seating for 12
people or so. No great trickle down here. The regime will never allow
private room and board operators to siphon off their revenues. These few
bed and breakfast operators are strictly controlled and many are fronts
for sex workers to bring their clients.
Should the U.S. Try a Different Policy?
The third argument for a change in travel policy reflects exasperation
at the failure of any of our policies to induce Castro, the world’s most
successful and enduring tyrant, to morph into a democrat. So the cry
rings out—let’s just try something different!” This is indicative as a
people and culture for fast results and reflects our belief that we are
a special people. If we try it, it will work because somehow we are
different from all those other democrats around the world. We know better.
The fact is that it takes two to tango, and Fidel and Raul have made it
crystal clear that they want and need us as an enemy. They have all the
friends they need. Their profound enmity towards the US is genuine,
calculated and will never end regardless of what we do or say. As Fidel
told companion Celia Sanchez before taking power, “When this war is
over, I’ll start a longer and bigger war of my own, the war I’m going to
fight against them. I realize that will be my true destiny.” It’s clear
he always intended to have an adversarial relationship with the US. He
said “a revolution that does not have an enemy in front of it runs the
risk of falling asleep.”
Fidel and Raul have had many chances to engage with us. USINT is there
and available if they want to talk. But they refuse to engage with us or
let us dialogue on any topic with anyone in the regime. They hinder
contacts with ordinary Cubans and send them to jail for long sentences
on trumped-up charges. So it’s not a lack of channels of communication
that’s a problem. They simply don’t want to talk, period.
What would be “new” policy for us has already been tried and is policy
in just about every country in the world. And there has been no positive
impact on human or other fundamental rights in Cuba as a result.
Everyone but us talks, engages, invests, travels and trades freely with
the regime, giving it the wherewithal to survive with nothing in return
except profits for their companies and pleasure for their tourists. The
United States allows hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans to take
goods and cash into Cuba. We sell Cuba a good percentage of its food and
allow them to buy medicines if they choose (they don’t). Again, what
impact has this had on the regime? Have they released political
prisoners, allowed free elections, given labor rights, allowed families
to start businesses, Cubans the right to travel freely and live where
they want? No. Yet we focus on our right to travel to Cuba. How many of
those who advocate this have spoken ever about Cubans rights to travel,
trade, invest, prosper. None.
What Should be Done?
Lifting the travel ban now will amount to giving away future leverage
for nothing in return. We should hold this in reserve until the demise
of the brothers. An end to the travel ban should be used as leverage, as
a carrot, in support of those in a future transitional regime who will
have a voice in whether Cuba goes towards more or less freedoms. The
military owners of hotels will eventually want to privatize those hotels
in their own name. They will recognize that a violent outcome of a
post-Castro government will end tourism. A Tiananmen Square scenario
would be disastrous for their interests. They may end up on the side of
transition rather than succession someday and the reward of a stream of
US tourists could well prove decisive.
So, sorry to say, nobodies’ policies have been able to bring democracy,
prosperity or hope to the oppressed Cuban people. And changing ours now
to allow unlimited tourism won’t have any positive impact except to
discourage the opposition on the island and undermine the small
Caribbean democracies whose economies depend almost entirely on US
tourism and would be priced out of business by operators in Cuba with
big labor and wage advantages.
I think we need to focus more of our policy, think on how to support the
Cuban people and its peaceful, democratic and courageous opposition.
What more can we do to help them given the obstacles? How can we prepare
them and civil society to play a role once a transition is underway? We
should discuss how to help USINT support dissidents. We should insist on
reciprocity between USINT and CUBINT. The playing field is not level,
and the Cubans can mingle with Americans and operate largely unfettered
while our folks are harassed and hindered in Cuba. Our people cannot
participate in the battle of ideas, yet Cuban’s can in the US.
Let’s think less of how our corporations can make money off of sales
to Cuba (most of which are resold in dollar stores to support the regime
or go to the tourism sector) and less about our alleged rights as
Americans to go there no matter what to pursue pleasure and adventure.
Regarding those so-called rights of travel, the Supreme Court has ruled
that Americans do not have a Constitutional right to go where they want
if the government has a policy reason not to allow that travel.
Before we normalize relations with Cuba, the regime must engage in
dialogue with its own citizens. We can’t normalize with a totalitarian
regime or cast aside our longstanding focus on human rights in Cuba in a
quest to “do something different” or in our haste to end the Cuban
problem as a foreign policy issue. As we debate what our future Cuba
policy should be, let’s not cease our support for dissidents who want to
have a say in what’s best for the Cuban people. Many of those engage in
our policy debate have no interest whatsoever in human rights in Cuba
and have done or said nothing to advance those interests. They would
willingly sacrifice Cubans rights for our interests, private or corporate.
* Ambassador James Cason is a career Foreign Service Officer with
extensive experience in Latin America was Chief of Mission at the United
States Interests Section (USINT) Havana, Cuba, from 2002 to 2005.
Previously he worked in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs as
Director of Policy, Planning and Coordination. He previously served as
Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston and Tegucigalpa.
Amb. Cason also served at U.S. Missions in San Salvador, La Paz, Panama
City; Montevideo; Milan; Maracaibo and Lisbon, Portugal. His last post
was as Ambassador to Paraguay.