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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

Preparing for a Mass Exodus ... into Cuba

Posted December 20, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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By TIM PADGETT | Time Magazine

Despite Bush’s roadblock, the island is bracing for an invasion of U.S. tourists

John says he doesn’t feel guilty about being at Havana’s sensual Tropicana stage show, especially since he’s there with his wife. All the same, he would rather not give his last name. A former State Department analyst from Virginia, John, 57, often leads U.S. tourists on licensed exchange visits to communist Cuba. But the trips are supposed to be for educational purposes only, so John figures it’s best not to let the U.S. government know he’s enjoying a Las Vegas — style show whose scantily clad dancers cast nearly enough heat to relight his Cohiba cigar. When a Tropicana photographer offers John a complimentary shot of him smooching his wife, he declines, saying, “Better not let U.S. Customs see that.”

John and Fidel Castro too are betting that the customs hassles and permits required for travel to Cuba will become a thing of the past, perhaps as early as 2005, a change Cuban tourism officials believe will bring more than 1 million U.S. turistas to the island each year. This confidence is based on the burgeoning bipartisan support Congress has shown this fall for lifting altogether the ban on travel to Cuba. The Bush Administration has been able to stall that effort for now and as of Jan. 1 will outlaw exchange tours like John’s in order to tighten the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. The U.S. clampdown could initially cost Cuba 50,000 American visitors each year, the number now traveling there legally on visas like John’s. But the 30,000 who go to Cuba illegally through third countries will probably continue to travel there, as will the 200,000 Cuban Americans who are allowed to visit relatives. And even Cuban exiles in Miami, the strongest backers of the 41-year-old embargo, say they don’t expect the travel ban to survive much beyond next year’s presidential election that is, once George W. Bush no longer needs Florida votes.

What effect would millions of visitors from the citadel of capitalism have on a communist state of 11 million people? Those in Congress who want to dump the travel ban argue that exposing Cubans more to Americans would promote change on the island. Oswaldo Paya, Cuba’s leading dissident, finds that view naive. “I’m all for the right of Americans to travel here,” he says, “but please don’t think Cuba will be democratized by people coming to dance salsa and smoke cigars.”

Nor are Cuban officials concerned that an American influx would mean a quick end to the Castro era. Says Rafael Dausa, head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s U.S. relations office: “An invasion of Americans will not destroy our revolution. We’re here because of the strength of our ideas.” If anyone’s views are changed by the meeting of the two peoples, he believes, it will be the Americans’. “They’ll find out we don’t have horns or eat children,” he says.

Cuba’s reliance on tourism is a somewhat humbling turn for the revolution, which has long prided itself on producing topflight doctors and teachers not concierges. But the island state had few other options once it lost its huge Soviet subsidies in 1990. Since then, it has built a $2 billion-a-year tourism industry that accounts for 41% of the country’s hard-currency reserves. The annual tally of visitors has quintupled in the past decade, to 1.9 million. The island, roughly the size of Florida, has 11 international airports. With its appeal to mambo-era nostalgia and its pristine scuba-diving sites, Cuba was voted the best destination in the Caribbean by readers of Travel & Leisure magazine this year. Castro’s dictatorship isn’t exactly the stuff of tourist brochures, but the torrid cold war history shared by Cuba and the U.S. may be part of the attraction.

Island officials estimate that if the travel ban is abolished, 1 million or more Americans would enter Cuba in the first year; absorbing them is not a problem, says Tourism Ministry adviser Miguel Figueras, because most Americans travel from May to August, Cuba’s low seasons. But what about the 2.5 million to 3 million the Cubans expect in Year Five? “I can assure you, for that we are not ready,” Figueras says. But judging by the mood in Congress, Americans are.

From the Dec. 22, 2003 issue of TIME magazine

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