It's time to rethink our Cuba policy

By Tom Rockne
Tom RockneThose of us in the travel industry know the hunger and thirst that many of our clients have for something new and different -- a chance to start to learn and practice a new language or an opportunity to cultivate a passion for food or art or history.

Travel opens eyes and minds, promotes critical thinking, challenges old ideas and invites questions. From St. Paul to Marco Polo. From Stanley to Roald Amundsen. And from you to me. It underscores the common goals and aspirations we humans share across the globe, and it enables us to see, and better understand, the differences, as well.

Even where those differences have led to disagreements, it can offer the chance to begin a discussion to try to resolve them. That alone helps, as miscommunication and misunderstanding lead only to miscalculation and mistrust.

It's the great moveable classroom, from New York to Delhi to Beijing, and even to Havana. Sort of.

While we Americans are free to visit Russia, China and Vietnam, not to mention countries led by the vilest of dictatorships -- from the hereditary hermits of North Korea to Zimbabwe under Mugabe and even Iran, despite that nation's belligerence toward us and our ongoing trade embargo -- we are greatly restricted in our right to travel to Cuba.

[Editor's note: Shortly after this column was accepted for publication, the government of Cuba announced it would grant passports to Cuban citizens wishing to visit the U.S.]

Except for Cuban-Americans visiting family, only licensed and limited groups currently can travel to Cuba and only via people-to-people itineraries. And even this limited access is now threatened.

Although the people-to-people visits were only recently reauthorized, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) already wants to tighten the rules. An Associated Press report on Sept. 16 quoted him as calling the people-to-people visits a "charade" that "borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials."

He went on to assert, "This is nothing more than tourism. This is tourism for Americans that, at best, are curious about Cuba and, at worst, sympathize with the Cuban regime."

I appreciate that the senator's parents left Cuba as Fidel Castro and his cohorts were gathering strength in the Sierra Maestra. But that was more than six decades ago. We have managed to get beyond our anger over the British burning the White House in 1814, the abuse of our soldiers by the Japanese army in 1942 on the Bataan Death March and ambushes by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s.

Being one of the curious, I checked out a people-to-people visit to Cuba myself.

As I anticipated, it was a great experience, with an itinerary built not around beaches and sun but around daily contact with the Cuban people. I met them where they worked in their communities and also in their homes.

If those were Cuban government officials dancing ballet for us at a community center in Havana, they sure were cute. If they were the bronzed and sweaty guys repairing the roof at the small tobacco farm we visited near Vinales, they are the hardest-working officials on the planet. If they were the artists recycling trash into art at Caibarien, their pride in sharing their work left no room to spout a single criticism of the U.S.

I'm left trying to identify what strategic threat Cuba poses to us right now in the 21st century.

Einstein once defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Our embargo on trade with and travel to Cuba has been in place since the early 1960s. Yet, a half century of embargo intended to cripple the revolution seems only to have provided a rallying cry for Castro and a handy excuse for all manner of failures by the government Senator Rubio wants to expunge.

In addition to our embargo, Cuba has faced devastating economic challenges, from the decline of the international sugar market to a tobacco crop laid waste by hurricanes to the collapse of their Soviet and socialist bloc allies and trade partners.

These economic challenges have dwarfed our own. Yet they have persevered. They find ways to look beyond the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903 that ceded to us a base at Guantanamo in perpetuity. They have gotten over the Bay of Pigs invasion. And because they are able to differentiate Americans from the actions of our government, they greeted us warmly and were clearly looking with hope to the future.

It's time to move on and end the embargo. Open every possible door and window and let the fresh air of personal freedom flow across the Straits of Florida. Let us visit them, and let them see at every turn the promise and prosperity that we epitomize.

Changes in Cuba already include expanding property rights and the beginnings of free-market initiatives like the thriving private restaurants known as paladars, and as more American tourists visit, these openings are going to grow. Tourism directly increases opportunity for the Cuban people, and it pries open the restrictions of the Cuban government.

With its current policy, the U.S. is not exhibiting any long-range global strategic thinking. While the Cubans persevere, Latin Americans and others see a U.S. that bullies its neighbor while using Guantanamo as a convenient offshore prison. At this point, our embargo is little more than a petty grudge.

The U.S. has long championed "open door" and "transparency" policies. We tear down walls and build bridges. It's time to apply those traditions to our Cuba policy.

We in the travel industry should be encouraging our government to welcome more visitors and to encourage our citizens to travel as they wish, reaching out to welcome and reaching out to learn. No exceptions.

Tom Rockne is a 37-year veteran of the travel industry and principal at Tom Rockne Travel Resources. He can be reached at tomrockne@gmail.com. 
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