HAVANA—Walking with an American on a busy boulevard was enough reason for a young actor to be stopped by police and threatened with jail.
The officer, wearing a gray and blue uniform, studied the identification card in his hand and asked what the man was saying about Cuba. They must go to the police station to discuss it, the officer said.
In Cuba, talking to an American—and especially a journalist—about politics and other subjects can be illegal under a broad law that carries prison terms ranging from three to 20 years.
During a tense five minutes, the actor explained he was only discussing the Cuban arts. The actor was good at his job. After being released, he ducked behind a tour bus.
“Every year it gets more and more like this,” he said, twisting his hands as if tightening a tourniquet.
Just before being stopped, he had placed most of the blame for Cuba’s poverty on the government of Fidel Castro. He said the U.S. government shouldn’t lift a travel ban and trade embargo against Cuba. “It’s a big business—a big business for them,” he said of U.S. industries with a northward wave of his a hand, “and a big business for the government.”
The actor said he risked talking to a reporter because he wanted to add his voice to the debate but would not allow his name to be used.
In a year when the Cuban government has withstood international criticism for cracking down on dissidents, jailing 75 earlier this year, U.S. policy toward the communist island is a subject of renewed debate. Last month, the Senate followed the House’s lead by voting to effectively lift travel restrictions that have kept most Americans from Cuba for 40 years.
GOP leaders removed the provision from a spending bill to spare President Bush from having to make good on a veto threat against the backdrop of 2004 elections for the White House and a Senate seat in Florida. But the vote reflected a broadening desire to loosen trade and travel restrictions.
“It was a signal that the U.S. policy on Cuba is increasingly being driven by commercial rather than democratic or human rights considerations,” said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.
The Bush administration not only is fighting to uphold existing sanctions, it’s tightening them.
The U.S. government is allowing hundreds of permits for legal cultural exchange trips to expire by Dec. 31 without being renewed and last month announced a crackdown on illegal tourism to Cuba. The moves have drawn accusations of pandering to the politically vital Cuban American vote in Florida.
The administration says legal cultural exchange trips through licensed schools, museums and other organizations include too many mojitos and salsa clubs. Americans are not allowed to interact freely with average Cubans anyway, which invalidates the cultural exchange rationale, the administration argues.
Bush, like every other president since President Kennedy, argues doing business with Cuba supports Castro.
“The government, in turn, pays the workers a pittance in worthless pesos and keeps the hard currency to prop up the dictator and his cronies,” Bush said in a Rose Garden address.
As a tour group boarded a bus in front of a posh hotel here, owned jointly by a Spanish chain and the Cuban government, the actor said tourism meant nothing to him and most people on the island of 11 million.
“You can spend and spend,” he said. “We never see this money.”
`AN EYE OPENER’
But several people who traveled legally to Cuba last month said the tips doled out in dollars are so valuable, there is an unmistakable benefit for many Cubans. And witnessing the poverty and totalitarianism has a value that the U.S. government might be missing, they said.
Ann Brownell of Sarasota last was in Havana on a rum-soaked three-day jaunt with her husband between Christmas and New Year’s of 1958. Back then, while pulling out of the legendary Tropicana nightclub, Brownell glanced out the taxi’s back window and was surprised to see a tank and troops gathering on the road behind them to defend the city from Castro’s revolutionaries.
On Jan. 1, 1959, President Fulgencio Batista fled and Castro assumed control.
This month, Brownell, now 78, returned to the Tropicana in a 1956 Ford. The show, like the car, resembled her memories. But little else was the same. Havana, where block after block of once stately buildings crumble elegantly, is receiving slow attention from the government as it diverts resources to restoring tourist areas.
“It looks like a bomb hit it,” said Brownell, who came to Cuba on a trip organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which holds one of the cultural licenses that expires next month. “It’s just falling apart.”
Brownell supports U.S. embargo policy and travel restrictions but said ending the cultural trips is a mistake. In her case, the tour included museums, concerts, architectural tours, an international art exhibition, visits to artists’ studios and a firsthand look at the conditions under Castro.
“It’s an eye opener,” she said.
An estimated two million people traveled to Cuba last year, mostly from Canada and Europe. The U.S. Treasury Department has estimated 160,000 Americans traveled legally to Cuba last year, about half of them Cuban Americans visiting family and the rest on cultural and educational trips. Other estimates, however, place the split at 100,000 Cuban Americans and 50,000 traveling for other legal reasons. Illegal U.S. tourists are consistently estimated at 25,000.
Visitors bring wads of dollars for tips and spending that has become Cuba’s primary source of hard currency since Castro emphasized tourism as a way to compensate for lost support from the collapsed Soviet Union. Cuban Americans also legally sent $1.1 billion in cash remittances to family members last year.
The government owns all but a few of the smallest restaurants and businesses. Foreign companies can build and operate hotels, but only in partnership with the government.
A critic of U.S. policy on Cuba, Herb Franklin, a 70-year-old retiree from Washington, said the trip helped him understand the fierceness of Florida’s Cuban Americans.
“It’s one thing intellectually to be aware of the fact that Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship, and it’s another thing to actually feel it and see it,” he said. “And so I came away just more disgusted with it than I had expected to be. It’s terribly oppressive. It’s a bunch of thugs essentially, and so I understand better the rage of the exile community in Florida than I did before.”
Nevertheless, Franklin said he still favors lifting the trade embargo and travel restrictions. He said the sanctions have failed to topple Castro’s regime, deprive ordinary Cubans of much needed cash and are incongruent with U.S. policies toward other communist countries, such as China.
“There’s a need for Americans to understand the reality down there,” he said. “There’s no easy answer.”
Camila Ruiz, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said those observations are the exception on such trips. Most people, she said, get a skewed view because they treat their trips as vacations and because the Cuban government does not select tour guides for their candor.
“Their argument is always that somehow jeans and Coca Cola are going to bring democracy to Cuba, which makes no sense,” Ruiz said.
Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican who voted with all but two of his state’s delegation against easing the travel ban, said he sees Florida increasingly isolated on the subject and feels sentiment shifting at home.
“It’s to the point now where I hear more from people who do want to go than those who want to maintain the embargo,” he said.
The House has voted at least four times to lift the travel restrictions. Agriculture and business groups have lobbied for years to lift the travel ban and ease the trade embargo. Putnam and others said many of those interests think the Cuban government would use tourist dollars to buy more American goods, and the pressure would increase to lift the trade embargo. One tourism official estimated 2 million Americans would eventually travel to Cuba each year.
U.S. companies are allowed to sell food and medicine to Cuba under a 2000 law, but that is limited by U.S. rules as well as Cuba’s ability to pay.
Florida could benefit from such trade, which adds to the political equation. Several shipments of agricultural products have been sent from Florida ports in the last few years, including a shipment of cattle from Port Manatee this month.
On the balmy streets of Havana, American dollars are worth some risk for those officially barred from earning them.
“The American government is very bad,” said the driver of an illegal taxi. As he navigated his 20-year-old Russian Lada through the streets, he dodged potholes and the police—who would stop him for working without a permit—with equal care. He said he hoped Bush would lose in 2004.
“Americans,” said the father of three, “bring a lot of money.”