Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 | 2 a.m.
I believe in Americans’ right to travel anywhere in the globe we wish.
But, at a time when hundreds of Cubans are in prison for voicing dissent and hundreds more are fleeing the island in record numbers — some dying at sea and during multi-country treks to the U.S.-Mexico border — the glossy American travel brochures peddling travel to Cuba sicken me.
How does one reconcile the images of rickety rafts washing ashore in South Florida with the Instagram-like images and descriptions of a paradise that doesn’t exist?
The worst of what I’ve seen among the 2023 travel brochures is the two-page Cuba spread in the luxury, small-group Classic Journeys catalog.
It sells an extravaganza of clueless tourism camouflaged as a cultural undertaking.
Pastel-filtered scenes of Havana depict pristine colonial buildings, shiny-old-car kitsch and happy Americans strolling as if they were in the Virgin Islands, not a ruthless totalitarian state where children have been killed in crumbling structures.
Snorkel at the Bay of Pigs
It touts a lunchtime snorkeling stop on the way to a salsa lesson in Trinidad at the historic Bay of Pigs site where 114 young Cubans were killed and 1,100 were taken prisoner during the U.S.-organized invasion.
“Walk along the infamous Bay of Pigs, then see it from a totally different vantage point as you snorkel on its pristine coral reef,” beckons the text.
This frivolity, on the heels of the recent death in exile of Santiago Morales, a courageous Brigade 2506 veteran, one of the first Cubans recruited by the CIA to join the failed 1961 invasion, is a punch to the gut.
We used to chat often, and I learned so much from him. He was captured and spent 18 years in prison. Most recently, in Miami, where he was a successful businessman, he championed democratic values, courageously standing up to Donald Trump and GOP excesses, despite his beloved fellow brigadistas’ support of them.
He was an extraordinary man, but American tourists will never hear that in Cuba.
“Cook with a Cuban chef, then chat with a photojournalist who documented (Fidel) Castro’s life,” travelers are promised in Havana.
Let me rewrite that: Have fun basking in the glow of America’s favorite tyrant when Cubans queue up for hours to buy meager food rations; when the regime only invests resources in building more hotels for tourists like us; and the ruling class, plus two generations of their progeny, are often photographed rolling in riches, at home and abroad.
Casting a “post-revolution Cuba” as if it were a normal tourist destination ignores crucial facts and sanitizes the island’s 64-year dictatorship.
But the widely praised company’s co-founder Edward Piegza, who wrote the text and took the photos, told me in an extensive conversation Friday that’s far from his intent, which is to provide an immersive experience for “an engaged, interested America.”
“I don’t have a solution for everything that has taken place in Cuba, but what I do believe I can do is make a difference for the people who are most directly affected by the dictatorship: the tiny entrepreneurs,” Piegza said. “If I can hire them for two to four hours and get currency directly into their hands, tipping more than multiple months of somebody’s public wage, I feel good about that.”
Ralph de la Portilla, a Cuban-American Miami-based travel guide under contract with Classic Journeys, told me that the company worked hard to operate “in a responsible way” by skipping government establishments and staying in home rentals and eating at paladares.
“We don’t want to give one red cent to that repressive regime,” he said. “The idea is to help the Cuban people.”
But he hasn’t returned since the pandemic lockdown.
“I’m hesitant to go back,” he said after the violent take-down of protesters during the historic island-wide protests on July 11, 2021.
Plus, the local experts are hard to find in Cuba these days.
“Who’s left?” he said. “It seems they’re all here!”
Another tour operator taking American tourists to the island despite the humanitarian crisis, the nonprofit educational travel operator Road Scholar, has sold out tour dates through spring for its seven-night Havana and Cienfuegos tour at a cost of $3,339.
Its sales pitch sounds like recycled Obama-era talking points.
“Discover the unique social and cultural changes taking place in Cuba today as you enjoy a musical performance, converse with locals and embark on a walking adventure of historic Havana,” they tease.
Change and small reforms were a thing when President Barack Obama officially re-established relations with Cuba on July 20, 2015.
But it’s so tone-deaf to the island’s 2023 reality.
Here’s a Cuban reality tour
Some of the “unique” social change American tourists won’t be shown:
Dictator du jour Miguel Díaz-Canel, hand-picked to replace Raúl Castro as president, codified censorship into law in ways Americans can only imagine.
He started with the arts, making it a crime to create works critical of the government. Artists formed the San Isidro Movement to oppose him. Leaders were routinely detained and jailed.
During the July 11 protests, he ordered the beating and arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, who were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years. The imprisoned include Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, an artist honored by Time magazine, and Maykel Osorbo, who shared a Grammy for the wildly popular song “Patria y Vida.”
I bet the travel itineraries don’t include prison visits.
After the protests, Díaz-Canel criminalized criticizing the regime in every sphere of society, including social media. And he extended the reach of what constitutes a Cuban citizen who can be prosecuted for criticism to the diaspora.
In other words, if I — a U.S. citizen born in Cuba who has lived all but 10 years of her life in the United States — were to travel to Cuba, I could be prosecuted for what I’m writing here. Or — get this — if I land in a country with extradition agreements with Cuba.
It’s not an empty threat.
Recently, an exiled human-rights activist, whose daily postings on Twitter reveal acts of repression and mismanagement in Cuba, accused the regime of orchestrating a sudden order of expulsion against him from left-leaning Bolivia. He was there legally with residency papers.
Is that a government Americans want to support with tourism dollars?
No travel prohibition
This isn’t, however, a case for the prohibition of travel to Cuba, as so many who claim to support democracy but have failed to learn to practice it, will surely propose.
Isolation serves no purpose. I believe in engagement with the Cuban people and in openings that benefit them. But that’s not what the Cuban regime allows, as we often saw during the Obama years.
Yes, President Joe Biden relaxed Cuba travel regulations, opening the people-to-people support category that makes tour travel legal.
But Americans should reflect on the ethical issues. No matter how well meaning, all travel inevitably entails leaving hard cash in the hands of the unyielding and ruthless regime.
The release of the imprisoned should come first, then the return of U.S. tourist dollars to Cuba — not the other way around.
The lesson should be that repression is bad for business. But now, there’s no cobblestone quaintness to explore in the Cuban tragedy.
Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.