"Visit Cuba, Before It Changes!"

As relations with Cuba move toward normalization, the transformation of “people-to-people” travel into an element of U.S.-Cuba policy revives old racialized representations of the island and its people.

August 17, 2016

Over the course of 55 years, the United States has pursued change in Cuba with implacable tenacity and almost single-minded resolve: one armed invasion, scores of assassination plots, years of covert operations, and decades of punitive economic sanctions.  An embargo—“harsher than on any other countries in the world,” as Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson acknowledged in 2015—was designed with malice of forethought: to inflict adversity upon the Cuban people and deepen Cuban discontent through economic privation, in the hope that hardship would bestir the island’s people to rise up and, in one fell swoop, precipitate the overthrow of the Castro government.

Starting in 2014, the Obama administration introduced a new lucidity to U.S. policy—one informed with a more nuanced appreciation of the perils attending political change obtained through economic collapse. The United States’ 55-year-old policy had not worked, the President affirmed outright on December 17, 2014:  “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”    

In principle, Obama’s words represented a remarkable paradigm shift. However, in practice, the President’s actions have thus far been less a change of ends than a change in means. That is to say, a reset of U.S. strategies for change: if not change of regime, in the short run, then change in the regime, in the long run. For 55 years, the United States had insisted upon political change in Cuba as the precondition to normal diplomatic relations. Under the Obama administration, that policy has been turned on its head, establishing that normal diplomatic relations are the condition to obtain political change. “Through engagement,” President Obama explained, “we have a better chance of bringing out change than we would have otherwise.” He elaborated on this when speaking with CNN’s Candy Crowley later in December 2014: “If we engage,” Obama said, “we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there’s going to be some generational change in that country… I think we should seize it, and I intend to do so.”

The new policy of “engagement” contemplates political change induced from within, not imposed from without, and is a strategy intended to “empower” the Cuban people themselves to act as agents of change.  According to Assistant Secretary Jacobson, “We would hope to bring about change in the regime. And simultaneously, we would hope to empower the Cuban people to be able to make that change.”

People-to-People’s Subversive Intent

Few “change-in-the-regime” strategies have attracted as much policy interest and public attention as the expansion of “people-to-people” travel initiatives. Originally conceived during the 1990s, the idea of people-to-people was informed with subversive intent, as the United States was persuaded that an expanded U.S. presence in Cuba would serve to diffuse American values among the Cuban people, and thereupon to hasten political change. As Fidel Castro warned in 1995, “They seek to penetrate us... weakening us… and destabilizing the country.”

In 2007, then Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) called American travelers the U.S.’s “most potent weapon.” (In October 2000, Dodd maintained that “There is no better way… to communicate America’s values…than by unleashing the average American men and women to demonstrate, by daily living, what our great country stands for, and the contrasts between what we stand for and what exists in Cuba today.”) Americans “will take new ideas, new values and real change for Cuba,” predicted Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) in January 2015. “We’ll see a dramatic change in Cuba if there is more travel.” Indeed, American travel to Cuba has today assumed something of a strategic imperative.  As Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, affirmed in her 2010 book Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations (co-authored with Cuban-American diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual), “People-to-people contacts… are a fundamental tool serving a new strategic perspective: change in Cuba must come from within.”

In recent years, the Obama administration has revived people-to-people initiatives and acted quickly to expand authorized travel Cuba. Throughout 2015, the Treasury Department implemented new measures to facilitate licensed travel to Cuba. In early 2016, a U.S.-Cuba civil aviation agreement authorized as many as 110 daily flights between the United States and Cuba, potentially increasing the 4,000 charter flights annually to as many as 45,000 scheduled flights, a “key element” within the President’s broader policy of normalizing relations. U.S. travelers were thus enlisted as agents of change, whose very authorizations to travel to Cuba were granted in function of U.S. policy. 

People-to-people programs are licensed by the Treasury Department, and authorization is based on whether the tour itinerary “is structured to enable participants to have direct and individual people-to-people dialogues with the Cuban people and how the trip will allow for such dialogues.”  Until March 2016, people-to-people programs were limited to group tours organized by travel agencies and tour operators, offered under the auspice— per Treasury Department regulations— of “an organization that sponsors and organizes educational exchanges,” including college alumni associations, local chambers of commerce, museums, and educational groups, among others.  In March 2016, the Treasury Department expanded licensed travel to allow “individual people-to-people travel,” with the proviso that the “traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

Selling Cuba

Changing U.S. policy has propelled Cuba travel into a growth industry.  Scores of licensed tour providers, travel agencies, and tour consultants compete for institutional clients and individual customers in an increasingly crowded, but highly lucrative, market environment.  “Selling Cuba” has become a subject of expanding interest among travel agents and marketers at travel conventions and in trade publications—often for exorbitant prices. In fact, a host of survey companies are presently engaged in ascertaining the demographics of prospective American travel to Cuba.

The fiction that the people-to-people program is a form of “cultural engagement” and not “tourism” is assiduously maintained. In fact, something of a colonial anthropology, as if taken from tourist ethnographies of the nineteenth century, informs the discourse of people-to-people engagement, with Cubans presented as a people with exotic charm who are eager to please American visitors.  “The natives welcome Americans with open arms,” one travel writer has assured visitors to the islands. The Cultural-Explorations tour has promised travelers “a local perspective” through “interactions with welcoming natives.” According to a tour offered by Arizona State University, Cubans are a “warm and friendly people,” who approach life with “an ability to dance and sing even in the most difficult times.”

The most commonplace facets of everyday life, ordinary people—boys and girls, the elderly and the ill, farmers and fishermen—going about their daily lives in ordinary ways, have been incorporated into the sightseeing itinerary of many people-to-people tour operators. The Friendly Planet tour includes a visit to a Havana primary school for travelers “to interact with children in their classroom.” InsightCuba has promised the opportunity to “indulge and laugh and play with Cuban school children” and the Travel Experts tour visits a Cuban daycare center and holds out the promise that “the children may even delight you with a song or two.” A Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce tour includes a visit to Pinar del Río, “where you will get to know an authentic tobacco farmer [and] enjoy a visit inside the farmer’s home,” which is touted as an “exciting encounter” and “a superb opportunity to witness up-close how Cuban families live in a rural setting.” The Travel Experts tour of Pinar del Río notes:  “Before you know it, you’ll be part of the family and will be made to feel very special.” A recent tour offered by Arizona State promotes a visit to a daycare center where “children can share stories with you and you can relate through stories of your children or grandchildren,” while the Road Scholar tour offers multiple opportunities to engage in people-to-people interactions.  In Havana: the opportunity to “meet members of either a Senior Center or Down’s Syndrome community center to share conversation and perhaps exchange a song or two.” In Cienfuegos: “At the Farmers Market, try making purchases with Cuban Pesos to understand the cost of living for Cubans and learn how much basic necessities cost.” In rural Camagüey: “Meet the teachers and students of the two room schoolhouse and discuss how education works in this remote village.  Visit the humble homes and meet the village families.  Try a few words of Spanish and perhaps share a few moments of true intercultural exchange.”

Cuba’s “locals” are represented as a curious lot, for whom the traveler is asked in advance to exercise benign forbearance.  “Some locals dress outrageously,” a tour with the University of Arizona tour alerted travelers, “[They] pose eagerly for camera-ladened tourists.  Of course, after a click, they eagerly reach their hand for a peso.”

In all of these descriptions of Cuba that are offered by people-to-people travel programs, Cuba appears as a place of the mysterious Other—at once a post-colonial and post-revolutionary destination, a country previously prohibited and proscribed to which Americans suddenly have access, and a “long-forbidden island” with “forbidden shores.” The prospective traveler is asked to contemplate Cuba variously as “a mystery to most Americans;” “a mystical place;” an “exotic location,” and “one of the world’s most enigmatic countries.

The Cuban Time Warp Trope

To visit Cuba is to experience changelessness, to move among a people in the throes of hard times, contemplating the prospects of better times and improved circumstances, to be sure, the very imminence of which threatens to spoil Cuba as a sightseeing experience. Time is of the essence. “Want a chance to see Cuba before it changes forever?” the tour operator InsightCuba, recently asked its prospective customers.  “Better run!” Meanwhile, the GeoEx tour predicted in 2015 that Cuba’s “culture will inevitably change,” and emphasized that “the time to go is now!” Similarly the words used by Cuba Explore tours are almost rhapsodic: “Imagine a nation still pristine and innocent—where strip malls, billboards, neon lights, McDonald’s and Starbucks are absent.  One-in-ten cars are more than 60 years old.  Cuba’s like a time machine with the dial set to the 1950s…There’s a real feeling that everyone wants to get there before it changes too much…”

The narrative of changelessness allows too the inclusion of arrested economic development as a reasonable sightseeing attraction: Cuba as a “time warp” in which to delight in the sensation of time having stood still in a neo-colonial past. Havana “looks firmly stuck in the 1950s,” CNN has marveled.  “Vintage cars roam the streets, the landscape is absent of strip malls and global chains, and the buildings—though crumbling—hark back to a grander time.  It is these throwbacks that lend Havana, the country’s capital, an undeniable charm.  A charm that, some worry, is in peril once the U.S. embargo lifts.” To visit Cuba is to enter a time capsule, to experience life as it was lived a half century ago.

The implication is that to visit Cuba is to time travel, an opportunity to see a people actually living real life in the past, making do and getting by as they did more than a half-century ago. Not a few contemplate the future of Cuba preserved in the past as a living and lived-in museum, to be experienced as a way of life on the cusp of extinction. Perhaps the promise of Cuban resurrection is to be fulfilled with Cuba as a parody of itself, preserved in the cinematography of the American imagination as an “atmospheric” condition, all of course to the deepening dismay of many Cubans—circumstances that, as Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez (writing for the New York Times) indicated, produce among Cubans “the annoying experience of being viewed as something like an exotic species.”

A Havana gift shop (Dainis Matison/Flickr)

The “frozen-in-time” metaphor serves as the narrative logic through which to delight in Cuban adversity— “crumbling and captivating,” is how one exulted traveler put it recently. The University of North Carolina tour of Old Havana has promised “a step back in time, to observe the neglect.” Rough Guides offers a tour to Centro Habana, “full of broken sewage systems, potholed roads and piles of rubbish,” and adds that the city “It isn’t for the faint-hearted.” Meanwhile, a program run by Bryant University describes the island as a place of “faded glamour,” that is “now a shadow of its former prestige,” and “a world where time is held captive.”

This is Cuba mired in circumstances of adversity as a photogenic object of the sightseer gaze, and an island living under impoverished material circumstances whose plight as a historical condition offers a visitors’ attraction. An exultant Steven Rattner, writing for the New York Times, traveled to Cuba to bear witness to an “economy crumbling,” and discerned in Cuban prostration a cautionary tale that he wanted his own children to witness up-close: “I wanted my children to see firsthand the ineffectiveness of socialism at creating prosperity.”

Therein lays the supposed promise of U.S. capitalism: to rescue the island from the follies of Cuban socialism. The traveler is expected to offer words of wisdom, to point out to Cubans the error of their ways and tout the virtues of capitalist system. This is not to suggest insidious intent or mischievous purpose.  On the contrary, Americans—mostly—of good will, eager to be helpful during times of adversity, will offer counsel about this and make suggestions about that, all with the best of intentions: something of a “people-to-people” capitalist exchange. All in all, the moral of their story is simple: capitalism works while socialism does not.  At the “people-to-people” level, this is seductive stuff, particularly in an era of cuentapropismo—that is, a time when small Cuban entrepreneurs are launching their own new businesses and making a go of it in an emerging market environment, with a little bit of help from their new-found friends.

Adversity serves as an opportunity for Americans to understand “the very real challenges [Cubans] face every day,” a tour operated by Penn State has suggested. Classic Journeys has satisfied the voyeurist impulse by enabling travelers the opportunity to “shop in the local [Havana] markets on a typical Cuban’s budget for food;” and Friendly Planet’s tours visit “a local ration store,” where the Cuban host “will explain the system of rationing.” Travelers on the Arizona State tour visited a small farm, an experience to provide insight into “the challenges” faced due to the “lack of modern equipment.”

Beyond depicting the Cuban economy as stuck in a ruinous past, tour itineraries have also prepared Americans to anticipate Cubans as needy recipients of Americans largess, thereby discharging the humanitarian purpose for which the Treasury Department authorized travel.  Penn State has provided numerous sightseeing occasions in which to enact the humanitarian exchange and encourage donations: a visit to a maternity center, a primary school, and a senior citizen center. An environment-friendly Cornell tour to Pinar del Río provides the occasion to “plant a tree with your fellow travelers.”

What is sinister about these efforts is not the donations themselves, but the auspices under which they are presented. These voyeuristic experiences of adversity provide an opportunity to further a U.S.-centric narrative that disseminates U.S. values. These are, it bears repeating, the very function of the visits, and while it would be facile to suggest that these “dialogues” occur on every occasion, of course, there is no doubt that these interactions do occur. People-to-people travel, International Expeditions explains to prospective travelers, requires participation “in cultural experiences and direct contact with the Cuban people to learn more about them and their culture, while they [Cubans] learn about the American way of life.” Bloomberg News recently reported on U.S. contact with ordinary Cubans by contending that “Fueling [Cubans’] rising expectations is a powerful subversive act.”

These are threshold moments, a time in which peoples of both countries are in the process of renewing familiarities.  It would be an extraordinary turn of events indeed if, after 60 years, Americans presume to renew their relationship with Cubans with a combination of the arrogance and ignorance that informed their attitudes during the pre-Revolution period of 1950s. But to date, that has largely been the case as people-to-people tourism revives the tropes reminiscent of “First World meets Third World” narratives. Only now, to such narratives is added a triumphalist claim: that a change of U.S. policy will rescue Cubans from the straits into which they have plunged themselves.  These are the early formative moments of the next phase of an evolving and complex Cuba-U.S. history, but they represent an inauspicious beginning indeed.     

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in the Cuban magazine, Temas.

Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of, among others, Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (UNC Press 2011) and The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purposes of the Past (UNC Press 2013), which has just been reissued in paperback. 

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