My parents were buying a new car just as I got my first driver's license, so I had a vested interest in what model they would choose. I suggested a Volkswagen Beetle. "Never," my father said. "They're made in Germany."
To a Jewish World War II vet, that was reason enough. To my baby boomer ears, it sounded like he was living in the past.
I thought about that conversation as I read recent correspondence (I was cc'd) between Jack Guiteras, president of Lorraine Travel in Coral Gables, Fla., and ASTA executives and board members. The subject was Cuba.
Twenty years ago, I, too, had corresponded with Guiteras about Cuba after he subscribed to Weissmann Reports and discovered we had a profile on the island. His letter was long, passionate and indignant. He was in exile from Cuba -- his family had owned a travel agency there -- and he was furious that we would provide guidance to people who wanted to visit the island and, to his thinking, support a dictatorship.
I wrote back, explaining that we included every country in the world in our service, regardless of its political leadership. We did not ignore politics, however, and I pointed out examples where we were critical of the government.
I'm not unsympathetic to Guiteras. His position seems more understandable than my father's. After all, Nazis were no longer in power, and postwar Germans had confronted, explored and repudiated the activities of the Third Reich. Castro's regime, on the other hand, lives on.
Guiteras wrote to ASTA recently because last month the association reiterated support for opening Cuba to Americans. He was particularly critical of ASTA President Chris Russo's suggestion that U.S. tourists could act as ambassadors of freedom.
Guiteras responded that visitors from other countries "have not made a shred of difference, so please explain how Americans, herded by a repressive system in total control of their visits, are going to interface with and influence the real Cuban population."
I think Russo and Guiteras might both be coming at it from the wrong angle. I visited Cuba in 1992, and seven years ago I wrote about that visit:
"On my final day in Cuba, I visited a music store, and as the cashier was ringing up my purchases, I said I thought she lived in a beautiful country. Continuing my small talk, I spoke of some of my positive experiences and ended by saying how sorry I was that my visit was so short and that I had to be leaving so soon. 'Fine,' she said. 'You stay, I'll go.' She handed me my purchases without a trace of a smile."
That forever colored my impression of Cuba. Tourists might not influence Cubans, but a visit there might well influence Americans more powerfully than any written word could.
In the final exchange of email between Guiteras and ASTA, the association's CEO, Bill Maloney, reported, "We have disengaged on the Cuba travel issue." The board, he wrote, felt economic issues trumped involvement in promoting travel to Cuba.
Guiteras replied, "This is next-to-the-best news I could hope for. ... Thank you for being patient with my lifelong, restless mission."
I admire Guiteras' tenacity. But at the end of the day, it's the reality of Cuba that presents the strongest argument against its dictatorship. Americans should be allowed to see that for themselves.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/awtravelweekly.