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Posted April 10, 2009 by Dovalpage in Legal Travel to Cuba

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Traveling to Cuba: between good intentions and poor taste

People who say: “I’d like to go to Cuba before it changes” do not mean to be insulting. They may even have good intentions. They only want to see 50’s Buicks and Fords that seem right out of a Twilight Zone episode, as a retired professor who wore a black beret à la Che Guevara told me. They want to swim in (allegedly) unpolluted waters. And in most cases, they are willing to help the natives. I have sent my mother, who still lives in Havana, numerous packages with Americans friends. Sweet, well-meaning Americans who wouldn’t dream of saying things like:

“I’d like to go to Gitmo before it closes down.”

“Wish I had gone to Auswitch before the liberation.”

Indeed, I am exaggerating. One can’t rightly compare a whole country, no matter how repressive its government, to a prison or a concentration camp. And yet Cuba, prisons and concentration camps have some characteristics in common: their residents can’t leave the place without authorization, eat their food of choice, speak their minds or practice their religion freely, to mention only a few.

When my American friends tell me they are visiting Cuba—illegally in most cases—I say, “Fine, go and see how things really are.” I hope that, while enjoying their rides in archaic cars, they will also notice the decrepit buildings, the crowded buses called camels, the empty grocery stores and the monotone travesty of the official discourse.
But will they? It’s not easy to peek through the sanitized curtain that envelops foreign tourists as soon as they set foot on the island. Tourists stay in hotels where until 2008 Cubans were not allowed to spend a night. (Now they are, supposing they can pay for their stay with hard currency.) Tourists travel in air-conditioned buses instead of smelly camels. They dine at El Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio and other dollar-only restaurants where most Cubans fear to tread. And they have no way to know that, for example, Cuban children lose their right to buy a liter of fresh milk when they turn seven years old.

Of course, the same happens when foreigners travel to Haiti, Jamaica and even to some areas in Brazil. They don’t stay at Port-au-Prince huts on in Brazilian favelas like those featured in City of Gods. Right, but I have never heard any of these globetrotters say: “I want to go to Haiti (Jamaica, Brazil) before it changes.” That is, before the above-mentioned huts and favelas disappear. It wouldn’t sound nice, would it? It would be politically incorrect and no doubt in poor taste.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on April 13, 2009 by JuiceClark with 2 total posts

    Perhaps, whomever said such wasn’t communicating their actual thought well enough for interpretation.  They meant: I’d like to see Cuba while I can still afford to travel there.
      As we endure our own little communist revolution here in the States, most of us realize our real wealth and standard of living will continue to drop for many decades.  Our massive government is growing out of control and it has mortgaged our future to the point where economic malaise is inevitable.
      While Americans still have a few extra dollars to enjoy a straw hat and a big cigar, we’d like to see Cuba.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on April 13, 2009 by grant

    Camels a thing of the past with the new buses in use, nothing like a miami cuban with a mind set in concrete!

  3. Follow up post #3 added on April 14, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    No Camels anymore, no problem but still…..” is not easy to peek through the sanitized curtain that envelops foreign tourists as soon as they set foot on the island “. Or that has also changed lately?

    Thanks to Teresa Dovalpage, excellent article.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on April 17, 2009 by Pac McLaurin

    I think you make a judgment that is not necessarily accurate. I used to take student workshops to Cuba until our university lost its academic travel permit (along with about 300 other institutions of higher learning). We always stayed in private homes in Habana Centro. Since we were there for a month, it was enough time to get to know the people who lived there. Once we took a road trip to Cienfuegoes and several students actually roomed in the neighborhood CDR! This gave a reasonably decent perspective on the failures of the economic system, the mutual suspicions of the Cuban people and their government, as well as some of the things many Cubans actually liked or appreciated about the government. The conservative response of our previous administration, mainly in response to pressure from Cuban Americans who undeniably suffered from the
    revolution, but whose rhetoric suggests their anger and pain cloud their judgment, was counterproductive. Many Universities and their students were disenfranchised by this decision, a decision that reeked of totalitarianism in a political pay-off. The current overtures by both sides should be welcomed as a hint of reason finally visiting this issue. The Cold War that put Cuba and the US at loggerheads is over. In the battle of the embargo, Fidel won. He’s outlasted ten presidents and is working on the 11th. Either way, it would help my state if we could have more trade with the Cubans, they are not far away and many of my friends need new markets and jobs, even if the jobs are in agriculture or something not so flashy. We would like to visit Cuba anytime—before, during, or after “it changes.”

  5. Follow up post #5 added on April 27, 2009 by Dovalpage with 1 total posts

    Thanks for all the comments. I am not against people traveling to Cuba, I just wish they were a little more sensitive toward the feelings of expats… or exiles.. or whatever we Cuban emigrants want to be called. And I am sure that the students learned a lot from their experience, particularly if they stay in private homes. I teach at UNM Taos and I believe that our main campus in Albuquerque also has (or maybe used to have, I am not sure) a class there.
    So camels have disappeared? De verdad? Well, I will ask my mother next Saturday, I will be happy if that is true, though I’d like to know what people are using now for transportation. Are guaguas (buses) back?
    Gracias again!

  6. Follow up post #6 added on April 27, 2009 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    in Havana in Jan I still saw a camel or two, but they’re very rare there now - been replaced by newer Chinese buses.
    However in 2008 when down by Trinidad, I still saw a few as well as trucks with benches along the sides being used as buses (aslso saw this in the Vinales valley)

    Might also add that I saw fewer 30 year old Canadian or European buses in Havana, again being replaced by modern Chinese buses.

    Transportation is not going to change overnight, but it definitely is changing for the better.

  7. Follow up post #7 added on April 27, 2009 by Sean Herlihy

    By comparing Cuba to Auschwitz, the author has violated Godwin’s law “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Corollary: “There is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically ‘lost’ whatever debate was in progress. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin’s_law)

    I have traveled in Cuba for 8 months over four visits - legally, for research on a Ph.D dissertation. I find that the Cuban tourism establishment is about as successful at keeping the real Cuba from seeping through to foreign visitors as “abstinance only education” is at preventing teen sex. Hustlers, ginoteras, money changers, and blackmarketeers barrage tourists with offers and demands within hours or even minutes of arrival. I found that Cubans are outspoken, expressive people, who may look over their shoulder and try to hold back, but are mostly unable to restrain their predisposition to complain loudly when given half a chance. They complain about the buses, the the government, the stores, and yes, the Yankees. For Cubans complaining is a refined and practiced art. And though they complain, many of them love Cuba and are even proud of their special status as the little island that stood up to “Tio Sam”. When people say they want to see Cuba before it changes, part of the message is that they want to see the little rebel before it gives up and goes along with the Colassus to the North. They want to see what a world could look like where the pervasive, homogenized Yankee culture has been held at bay for 50 years. They want to see a poor country that guarantees milk for kids up to age seven, that has a higher literacy rate than the US, and where Salsa rolls off the roofs tops and everyone knows how to dance. Many Latin Americans have a special affection for Cuba, even if they do not want to immitate it. A Mexican computer executive told me with admiration that Cubans have their dignity. I asked a Cuban woman whether she would get fired if she got pregnant and could not go to work. She got angry at me. She said, “You don’t understand! Cuba’s not like the United States! Here workers have rights!” Then there was the taxi driver who told me “Cuba is a mess. Look at it. Everywhere its a mess. But the Yankees can’t clean up the mess. And those people in Miami, they can’t clean up the mess. No. Only Fidel can clean up the mess. Only Fidel, because he is the one who made the mess!”

    Cuba is a poor country, and like many poor countries people leave it for rich countries, and find their lives have improved so much that they cannot believe the hardships they endured back home. Millions more people have left the hardships of Central America to come to the US and reached similar conclusions. Life is far better in the center of the empire than in one of the conquered vassel states. And yet there is clearly something wonderful about the fact that someplace exists beyond the reach of the empire, someplace with many problems, but with its own way of doing things, including some ways that are truly wonderful. That is why so many people want to “see Cuba before it changes”. That is why I am grateful for having had the chance to see it myself when I did.

  8. Follow up post #8 added on May 29, 2009 by Adrian

    The government of Cuba is a piece of SHIT I am Cuban I was born there raised there educated there, I studied in every kind of school they had. I lfet Cuba not for political reasons, but now I see the truth, How would you feel if being a US citizen and going to live in a different country you had to ask for permission to travel to the US pay 160 dollars every two years to keep your passport up to date, and a thousand more crappy bureaucracy papers. The thing is if you are from Jupiter or March You can travel to Cuba without restrictions but if you are Cuban you have to pay fees to get out and pay to get in, Castro and it’s government is %&#! UP

  9. Follow up post #9 added on May 30, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    Good to see somebody telling the true about the hard Cuban reality. I feel sad with so many people trying to say that they know what is going on in Cuba because they have been there 2, 3 or 10 times in studies, vacations, you name it. No matter how many times you have been there, you would never learn the reality better than a Cuban that has spent their whole life in Cuba living like an average Cuban.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on May 30, 2009 by grant with 48 total posts

    They cost of leaving legally and returning is high($160.) but the cost of leaving without papers is $10,000. Which is better? Those who work in the USA can afford the first cost.Now how much did you pay for your cuban education?Adrian?

  11. Follow up post #11 added on May 30, 2009 by tc

    Hey Adrian,
      Let me guess at your answer.  Your education cost….everything?  Your freedom of self determination, any future wealth from above average hard work brilliance and your freedom to become who you want to be.  Was that roughly the cost of your education in Cuba?

  12. Follow up post #12 added on May 30, 2009 by Adrian

    What matters the cost my education,(which was free) when my parents are professionals(professors) working on their fields for more than twenty years and you can not just own, but you can not even rent an apartment. When you have two and three generations of people living in the same household. When the average wage is proximately 15 US dollars a month and the price of any item in Cuba compares to the price of those in big cities in the developed world, that means that you get enough food for one person to barely eat. Think of this now,  there is a man(let’s say a doctor) that has a 2 year old a pregnant wife,  a father that is to old to work and is trying to build his house on the roof of his parents house because there are too many people in the bottom floor. It could take these doctor 20 years to finish the house. Did you know that because the dictatorship of the Castro brothers want to say that they are socialist having combined all the forms of political dominion; “from primitive community where cooking with bark and bathing in rivers, slavery, feudalism, communism, colonialism(in this case the country is a colony of the government)this means that if the majority of the country is against the government they can not change it at all unless there is a war, or a decision from the government or someone kills the dictator, capitalism, liberalism, new liberalism, the most modern forms of globalization of politics and economy. What is the difference between the highly hypocritical Castrist propaganda of yes we can when he is forcing a the virginity of a country into prostitution and Ohhh!!bama saying that he is a Christian and supporting abortion. In Cuba education is “not free” my reason: I was a kid and didn’t pay for it money didn’t come straight form my parents pockets but the money of my education came from stilling peoples freedom, i can never be proud of that. If you pay attention to what they tell you at school and to all the propaganda, you have to do so much wrong in the country to your fellow compatriots, that in the end is just going to drive you crazy. In Cuba You have the government in the block at school at your work place, in the bus there are 11,000,000 Cubans that are under dressed under fed, 8,000,000Cubans that are waiting for the first oportunity to leave the country. Did you know that there is more prostitution in Cuba that in the state of Nevada USA. Did you know that you can not buy a car in Cuba unless the government thinks that you are good enough for it. Did you Know that,  if just they would stop prostituting themselves by saying i want you here only if you have money, I am disgusted of my government that changed me, and my country into a monster, but if you go to Cuba you won’t see it. I wish , down there we were like Socrates that he was seventy years old before he was sentenced and had the opportunity to scape Athens. In Cuba there is no opportunity. it is you do it or you do it

  13. Follow up post #13 added on May 30, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    Grant would not understand that because he spend his afternoons with his Cuban Minister friend, enjoying the niceties of the system while being brainwashed.

    There is nothing free in Cuba, no free education, no free health system, Cubans pay for it every day when they work as slaves for miserable salaries.

  14. Follow up post #14 added on June 08, 2009 by Sean Herlihy

    I did not travel in Cuba without restrictions. The Americans would not let me enter as a tourist and the Cubans would not let me enter as a researcher. Somehow I got past both of them. The US Treasury Department required a long statement explaining my research plans. I asked Treasury to let me go study for six months. They told me I could only go for five. They have to have something to do. Don’t let anyone tell you Cuba has more bureaucracy than the US. The Cuban Ministry of Interior (secret police) interrogated me for 45 minutes. US Customs interrogated me for 25 (the difference between dictatorship and democracy?)

    I did my best to stay on proper terms with both sets of officials, but I got into unofficial places all over the island. Didn’t stay at any comfortable government ministry or ride in a tourist car. Slept in tents and “guajira” homes and rode the same kind of $25 Chinese bike that a million Cubans ride. Snuck into a sugar cane cooperative, with the help of someone who hated the government. This was no official Cuban sponsored visit.

    The problem was not that people were slaves or that they worked 16 hour days. It was that there was not enough work to keep them busy and that they were not very busy with what work there was. I took (forbidden) photographs of cane workers playing parcheesi, killing time on the edge of a field, climbing a tree for a coconut, partying - just fooling around. A coop mechanic said he skipped out on work for days at a time every time he met a new girl. In many ways they had more freedom than American workers. One lady factory worker said that her boss wanted to fire a worker who had gotten drunk on the job. The boss had to ask the workers’ assembly to approve the firing. The lady spoke against it and the assembly voted to let him keep his job. This is a voting power and a freedom to oppose the boss that American workers do not have. They were poor, and they were not particularly happy with the regime, but they were not slaves.

    Someone says that noone has a right to say anything about Cuba who does not live there. But I have seen these Miami party line types even trash dissident Cubans who do not give the politically correct official Miami position.

    I met Cubans in Cuba who complained, but who praised their country. When I mention these first hand observations in this kind of forum, anti-regime folks say I do not even have the right to quote ordinary Cubans who have anything positive to say. All reasoned debate becomes impossible. The anti-regime bloggers often resort to profanity, name calling and capital letter flames. If they had something sensible to say, they would say it. The shrillness of their attacks betrays the weakness of their arguments.

  15. Follow up post #15 added on June 09, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    I basically agree with some of your post; however I cannot understand why you feel that “the anti-regime bloggers” do not praise Cuba.

    If, when you say Cuba you mean the Castro government, we certainly do not praise and would not praise that. However if when you say Cuba you are referring to the Cuban Nation, our motherland, then we have no other feelings than love and pride for it.

    Let me keep it very clear, we are against the dictatorial regime that oppresses our country, not against the country. We are against the Castro Government not against the Cuban people or our Nationality which we love and are proud of.

  16. Follow up post #16 added on June 09, 2009 by Sean Herlihy

    The polarized hostility of the two camps makes it very hard to offer balanced critiques of Cuba. There are positive and negative things about both the Cuban and American regimes. Cubans who I met, in times and places beyond the notice of the police, the bosses or the CDR (neighborhood watch), had both good and bad things to say about the government. If you read this thread you will see an example of the rude intolerance, which is all too common in the official Miami line. Thank you, Yeyo for your response. You seem to be searching for a civil, open minded critique of the system, which is completely appropriate. This should include recognition of some of the positive feelings many people in Cuba have about the system, notably the health care, the education, and preventing loss of life during last year’s hurricanes. Haiti, the US Gulf Coast, and Cuba, all got hit by the storms. Poor, strife-ridden Haiti, lost thousands of people. The US, the wealthiest country in the world, lost about 270. How many did Cuba lose, which got hit far harder than the US? Under ten. Very few governments whether democratic or authoritarian can claim such a heroic success in the face of a natural disaster.

  17. Follow up post #17 added on June 09, 2009 by paul

    That “rude intolerance” comes from people who suffered. When did you or your family suffer or face real persecution? my guess is never. Find someone who’s suffered and has exiled, and you’ll get a very polarized point of view.

    Those social rights that Cubans have, can happen without authoritarianism. If liberals would praise those social rights and condemn authoritarianism at the same time, they wouldn’t seem like such blatant hypocrites.

  18. Follow up post #18 added on June 09, 2009 by Sean Herlihy

    “Reg: If you want to join the People’s Front of Judea, you have to really hate the Romans.
    Brian: I do!
    Reg: Oh yeah, how much?
    Brian: A lot!
    Reg: Right, you’re in.”
    - Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”

    The people who made the Revolution in Cuba faced more than persecution. Batista tortured, mutilated, and killed thousands of them. Then the revolutionaries saw how the US and the anti-Castro Cubans resorted to these same measures with Contra terror in Nicaragua, the Dirty War in Argentina, the genocide killings of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala. Many members of the Cuban government felt that rude intolerance was entirely justified for the Yankees, Batistianos Omega 7 terrorists, and anyone deemed counterrevolutionary. Having been persecuted does not justify shutting down opposing ideas.

    Rude intolerance is the enemy of democracy and freedom. You close people out of the discussion because they don’t “really hate the Romans” enough. If the only permissable expressions are dishonest, one sided, propaganda, while drowning out your critics with profanity and invective, you disqualify yourself in the eyes of any, but the members of your inner circle. The Miami folks discovered this, when they appeared so hostile in the Elian Gonzalez affair. People around America and the world looked on and said wow, these people are mean, and stopped taking them seriously.

  19. Follow up post #19 added on June 09, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    Hi Sean, I agree with most of your post 16 but disagree with post 18, I have many family members that fought against Machado and Batista, some of them were prosecuted and or thrown in jail for that, others had to emigrate to the US (before 1959). However what most people do not know is that the tactics used by Castro and his regime are not far from the ones used by Batista, prosecution, torture (physical and mental), extrajudicial killings, a completely sided judiciary where the accused many times know the results of the case before the court render the verdict. Remember that even when you have been in Cuba in an unconventional manner, the fact is that a large amount of the information you received was processed and guided by the Castro propaganda machine.  I lived in Cuba many years and did not realize that until many years after leaving, because even while living outside of the country I was still suffering the effects of the continuous propaganda.
    I do not approve the contra killings or some terrorist acts that had been associated with some Cuban émigrés; however I also understand the points of view and strong feelings of lot of people that had been directly affected by the Castro regime.
    Elian Gonzalez case is a good example of the well oiled Castro propaganda machine, he used very effectively the international press to turn the whole episode to his own gain, it was very well know among Cubans that Elian Gonzalez’ father had agreed with his mother to her taking Elian first and he joining them later in the US. Furthermore even when Elian was rescued at sea after losing his mom, his father asked his family in the US to look after Elian and that he would look for every single way to get there to reunite with Elian. Obviously the history that you and most people know is other.

  20. Follow up post #20 added on June 09, 2009 by Sean Herlihy

    The curious argument is that noone here can understand Cuba who has not lived there. But noone in Cuba can understand Cuba until they leave and live here. That conveniently leaves only the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami who could possibly understand Cuba. Noone else should speak out because they cannot understand.

    Yeye, you are being civil, which I respect. But, again, having been persecuted does not justify shutting down debate. People on both sides have been persecuted. Neither serves democracy or truth by vicious attacks that shut down debate.

    It’s easy to say ‘we were misunderstood because of the other side’s propaganda.’ But The Cuban American National Foundation has its own propaganda machine supported by the richest, most powerful, and most media-savvy, operation in the world - the US government. Both sides have propaganda machines, and that is the problem. Anyone trying to make a fair, reasoned analysis is shouted down by both sides. One result is a circle of solipsistic thinking that goes: ‘Only our way of looking at this matters. Noone else can really understand, every one else is brainwashed.’ So everyone else, shut up. Then we shout louder so we can only hear ourselves, which confirms that only our way of thinking matters, and so on.

  21. Follow up post #21 added on June 09, 2009 by paul

    You have the privilege of looking from the outside,in.

    Both sides are propaganda machines. There’s no civility in Cuban politics, involved parties know this, but hilarious outsiders think that they can inject that into the equation.

    “Miami Cubans” are not some sort of caricature, monolith demographic. Left of center folks always peg them as this lot of intolerant folks, but that’s a politicized tactic to smear people.

    It goes both ways, but I laugh knowing that the same liberal who hates the US military and militarism in general, is so quick to defend a military monarchy in Cuba, with little to no blacks or mulattos in government, who keeps the population pacified with strongman rule.

    You guys that quickly defend the Cuban government are the equivalent of those Americans who admonish the US military of all wrongdoing because it’s for the country. You basically behave like a Republican, but for the wrong team.

    Most of you that gush over Cuba would be great bureaucrats there. Loyal, lapdog-like obedience, ready to punish critics, everything for the pyramid structure.

  22. Follow up post #22 added on June 09, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    I respect your point of view and the fact that you spent time in Cuba not as a tourist or a government sponsored investigation but on the streets with the average Cubans. Personally I favor the free speech no matter where it comes from, which is one of the bases of the democracy.
    I feel that it is difficult to understand any country better than their nationals; I have been living in Canada for a number of years now and still some times have difficulties understanding few things around.
    I have to add that most Cubans living out of Cuba are anti-Castro and most of them are very civil, very passionate but civil, some are not so civil but I guess you can find them in any country.
    I agree that there are some sort of propaganda from the Cuban-American Lobby in Miami, however I have to say that in my opinion it would never compare to the Castro all media goverment controlled machine. Also the Cuban American Lobby machine has lost lots of oil since Mas Canosa died few years ago. Even there you would find that the Cuban American National Foundation is no longer right wing but is now more in line with the Democrats (one of his executives actually run for Congress for the Democratic Party).
    I feel that Castro achieved few good things during the first years of the “revolution” (free health and education).  I keep it on quotation marks because you know that it is no longer a revolution and it has not been for many years now. 
    The problem is that while they did few good things they have eclipse them all since them, so badly that we have now hard time remembering them.

  23. Follow up post #23 added on June 10, 2009 by briana

    I want to visit Cuba before McDonald’s takes over.  That’s what I mean when I say, I want to visit Cuba before it changes.  I fully support eradicating the dictatorship but I also wonder what that will bring.  More material goods and services?

  24. Follow up post #24 added on June 10, 2009 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Let’s hope so.

    Maybe the Cuban people would like to eat a hamburger.

    Cuba consulting services

  25. Follow up post #25 added on June 10, 2009 by paul

    Yeah briana, go there and sample some ration food before it changes into the standards that we take for granted.

  26. Follow up post #26 added on June 11, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    More material things and services are good. Nobody have the right to determine what the Cuban people needs or do not need. The Cuban people is smart and they should be able to choose whether they want to go to McDonald’s or to the government hamburger store, I would love to see what they would choose.
    The country is in so devastating conditions because during the last 50 years a bearded guy have been determining what is good and what is not good for Cuba and its people like a supreme god.  Let the people choose their destiny.

  27. Follow up post #27 added on June 13, 2009 by briana

    McDonald’s is not exactly what I would call a standard.  and I use it as the cliched example of corporate power. 

    of course, fair elections for all.  But I would love to see a country that had a high standard of living without turning into a cookie cutter of those I see around me.  I think Cuba has that potential.  I also think that corporate power often times crushes the will of the people.  Not always, but it’s hard to overcome their wealth and resources.  And I’m thinking of many other Latin American countries that are suffering under this capitalistic regime.  I understand Cuba is in a dire situation.  I also wonder what lies ahead for them.

  28. Follow up post #28 added on June 15, 2009 by paul

    “And I’m thinking of many other Latin American countries that are suffering under this capitalistic regime.”

    My head just exploded.

    Anyways…you make “material goods and services” sound bad. I may like to go hiking and spend some time in nature, but I definitely like my car, my electronic devices and a whole foods or trader joe’s in the vicinity.

    The future of Cuba will begin when the two main fossils die. After they do so, subsequent governments will be more realistic, rather than operating an authoritarian regime molded around aspects of the USSR.

    I’m happy knowing that I’ve never had any compassion for Cuba’s government, because I know that you can offer social rights without resorting to authoritarianism. Examples? Canada and Western European countries. Of course pipefitter will say that Canada is a fascist country, but not apply the term fascism to Cuban leadership and governance approach.

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