Cuba Visitors Wear Horse Blinders

Thursday, September 2, 2010
By columnist and journalism professor Miguel PĂ©rez:

Whenever fellow Americans tell me, "I just came back from Cuba" or "I'm planning a vacation in Cuba soon," they obviously think they are paying me some kind of compliment. Because I was born on that precious Caribbean island, they think such statements would lead to some sort of bonding. They don't know it makes me lose respect for them.

"Oh, really?" I usually reply, straining to be polite.

As they proceed to tell me about all the places they visited and the people they met, I usually am thinking about all the places they weren't allowed to see and all the people they were not allowed to meet.

Cuba's dungeons for political prisoners and chats with constantly harassed Cuban dissidents surely were not on their tourist itineraries.

People who try to talk to me about their visits to Cuba usually fall into three categories: Latino Americans who travel to Cuba by way of their own native homelands, Americans who go there (mostly illegally) through a third country or Cuban-Americans who visit their homeland more often than ever, thanks to an Obama administration relaxation of travel restrictions last year.

Obviously, I'm not impressed by their tours of my native homeland, because I know it required wearing moral horse blinders.

In my book, only Cuban-Americans who go home for emergency visits to sick or dying relatives are justified in going back there. All others are helping to subsidize one of the oldest repressive dictatorships in history.

When I go beyond asking my diplomatic question — "Oh, really?" — just to be clear, I tell my Cuba-visiting friends that there is no place I rather would see but that I rather would hold out until the island is free.

I tell my non-Cuban friends that I probably have much better reasons for wanting to go there. But sarcastically, I also explain that I've managed to resist the temptation because I suffer from an illness called "principles" and that traveling to my country under the hideous regime from which I fled is bad for my health. Until Cuba is truly free, I'm not going to be traveling with them.

Non-Cubans who visit my country are generally either U.S. liberals who go on their revolutionary vacations because they think it's simply "a cool thing to do" or unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who tend to be Christian conservatives but would cut deals with Lucifer himself. When these leftists and capitalists are there — drinking mojitos, dancing to Cuban salsa and making strange bedfellows — they have no time to worry about the hardships of the Cuban people.

Perhaps their insensitivity can be blamed on ignorance. You really don't know what it's like to live under a communist tyranny until you have experienced it for longer than a couple of weeks, outside of a beach resort, enduring the choking grip of an iron fist.

But Cuban-Americans who go home for vacation should know better! They usually claim they go there to help their relatives, but they know that by subsidizing the regime, they are prolonging the suffering of all Cubans.

Most Cubans in the United States were granted U.S. political asylum because they claimed they had a "well-founded fear of persecution" upon returning to their homeland. Unless they already have become American citizens, I say that if they go back — proving they no longer have that fear — they should have their political asylum revoked and be forced to stay in Cuba. And if they have become naturalized Americans, they should be forced to abide by the same travel restrictions imposed on all Americans, who are mostly forbidden from traveling to Cuba.

Unfortunately, at least some of those restrictions are reportedly close to being loosened by the Obama administration, which seems ready to open a floodgate of horse blinder-wearing Americans traveling to my still-subjugated homeland. Some of them are so naive that they actually believe that American tourists are going to liberate the Cuban people from the government's repression machine, when in fact they will be providing a lifesaving cash transfusion to a dying regime.

Tourists from all over the world have been going to Cuba for many years without putting a dent on the repression machine. What makes anyone think that Americans could do better?

Although Obama's move would be limited — easing travel restrictions only for academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams to travel to Cuba — it would send a clear signal to Congress to begin lifting the U.S. economic embargo against the communist regime in Havana. And in Congress, there are many lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — who have been waiting for such a signal from the White House.

But why such a dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuba policy? What have Fidel and Raul Castro done to show they are willing to ease their repression? It couldn't be because they recently agreed to release 52 prisoners of conscience — not when the whole world knows that it took the hunger strike death of one such prisoner, not when some of the released prisoners look like the survivors of Nazi concentration camps, not when it took international condemnation and many defiant and courageous marches by the prisoners' wives, mothers and daughters, not when everyone has seen how these women have been verbally and physically abused.

Doesn't it matter that Cuba's only "concession" illustrates just how vicious the Castro regime can be?

Apparently not if you are wearing horse blinders! And unfortunately, the Obama administration is getting ready to issue them to Cuba-bound travelers.

Oh, yes, there was one time when my "Oh, really?" reply didn't suffice.

"I just came back from a great vacation in Cuba," a former friend told me at a cocktail party, where the beverages had made me much more honest than normal.

"Oh, really?" I told her. "Shame on you!"