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Posted December 05, 2003 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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Thomas Kohnstamm | Guerrilla News Network

This fall, the decades-long American travel ban to Cuba, came perilously close to extinction. Only at the last minute - under immense pressure from a White House that is itself under immense pressure to carry the South Florida Anti-Castro vote in the 2004 presidential election - did it evade the chopping block. Although the ban will remain intact for the time being, the controversy showed major schisms among those who formerly maintained the policy of isolation toward Cuba. With little continuing support beyond symbolic election year gestures, the ban should fall sometime during the next presidential administration or shortly thereafter. This will have both positive and negative implications for Cuba and its people.

The movement to abolish the ban was headed by a surprising group of supporters: conservative Republicans. In the House of Representatives the amendment was led by Representative Jeff Flake (Republican of Arizona) and in the Senate it was championed by Senator Mike Enzi (Republican of Wyoming). These men are hardly sympathizers of the socialist state. They are pro-business, pro-free trade and believe in the American right to free travel (principles that the President also claims to uphold, but has completely muddled when it comes to Cuba policy).

The amendment was attached to a transportation bill that passed the House and the Senate, both by a significant margin. President Bush, surely feeling the heat from Miami, threatened to veto the entire bill. The amendment was then mysteriously stripped during a late night committee session to reconcile the wording of the House and Senate versions of the bill. “Not very democratic, huh?,” a legislative assistant to Senator Enzi dryly remarked.

It was nice when the Legislative and Executive branches functioned within an explicit system of checks and balances and it was not the Congress’ job to simply send Bush his pre-approved legislation to sign for photo opportunities. Then again we must remember that President Bush is a “uniter not a divider” and he has yet to veto a single bill during his administration.

Some of the quicker studies in Congress are starting to realize that the Cold War is, in fact, over and that it behooves the United States to do business with the largest of all the Caribbean islands, especially one that is only 90 miles from Key West. Although financial incentives may be the driving force behind the change in attitudes, much of the travel ban debate is framed in terms of the best way to topple Castro and expedite the “transition” of the Cuban nation - the controversy lies in isolation versus engagement.

Will U.S. tourism help to flood the closed authoritarian state with fresh ideas and new perspectives or does an influx of American dollars only serve to financially buttress the Castro regime? The question is really moot as the Castro regime is moribund, but tourism is already creating a grassroots capitalist (and possibly democratic) groundswell and is likely to expedite the process.

On principle, there should be a change of policy because no matter if one believes that Castro is the incorruptible leader of the Developing World or a dangerous Stalinist megalomaniac, the real losers of the travel ban (and the entire embargo for that matter) are the Cuban people. The ban also violates the American right to free travel in a surprisingly authoritarian fashion. Open season for American travelers would both help and reshape (in an arguably negative manner) Cuban society.

It is true that the hard currency can support the hapless socialist state for a while, but the Cuban government has lost the hearts and minds of the younger generation. American flag bandanas are ubiquitous on the heads of Cuban youth (as are garish $100 bill bandanas) and many children invest more time playing Grand Theft Auto on their Sony Playstation 2’s than espousing the ideas of Che Guevera’s “New Man.” For better or for worse, change is already on the horizon.

Beyond the unfortunate effects of the impending cultural homogenization, a higher level of personal interaction between American and Cuban citizens will help to move past political misinformation and open people’s minds on both sides of the Florida Straights. As Mark Twain penned in an 1867 letter, “nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”

Bush claims that the hard currency generated by tourism goes straight into Castro’s coffers while he pays the people in worthless pesos. The truth is that the Cuban government capitalist economy and underground capitalist economy are growing hand in hand - spurred by the international tourism onslaught. State-controlled tourism has spawned thousands of legal, semi-legal and illicit micro-enterprises: from bed & breakfasts to front porch pizzerias to the back alley sex trade. A tourism hustler makes more from two or three tips than a normal state employee earns in a month. Those who are unable to get government licenses to run a B&B from their home or apartment, do it anyways and dodge the crippling taxes.

Even though Castro supposedly welcomes this change to the travel ban it will probably hasten the end of the socialist regime in Cuba. Some see his recent crackdown on political opposition and journalists simply as a ploy to slow the normalization of relations with the US in order to continue to pin the blame for economic failures on the imperialist neighbor. Either way, when given the green light, American tourism will bring more money into Cuba and, in turn, will help the Cuban people to earn more hard currency and have more opportunities. However, it will also create a tidal wave of American cultural influence that will irrevocably change the fabric of Cuban society and rechart the future of the island nation.

The barbarians are at the gate and they are no longer Cuban exiles backed by the CIA, they are the Joneses from Chicago who want to have a mojito on the beach.

Thomas Kohnstamm is Travel Editor for Rough Guides. This is first article for GNN.

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