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.