STA president Richard Copland has
raised ire and drawn fire for his trip to Cuba and his dinner date
with the island's presidente, Fidel Castro. He has
particularly incensed south Florida's Cuban exile community that,
by and large, equates participation in Cuban tourism with
endorsement of the brutal excesses of Castro's regime.
Copland replied that he meant no offense by his visit and that
he empathizes with the suffering of Cuban-Americans. The
controversy begs a question that affects every travel agent: When
you sell a trip, are you de facto supporting the host
The tough truth is that you are.
Inbound tourism provides economic support to tinhorn tyrants,
entrenched party bosses, military strongmen and corrupt despots the
world over. In today's global economy, tourism is an important
source of revenue for democracy and dictatorship alike.
What are the benefits, if any, that could justify financial
support of a system of government that has a dismal human rights
ASTA's Copland defends his actions by saying "freedom to travel
enhances friendship and understanding among peoples."
He's right. But beyond that, freedom to travel exposes travelers
to very different forms of government and systems of belief unlike
their own. Just as importantly, it allows people to give eyewitness
reports back to their friends and families.
I've visited my share of totalitarian nations: Romania under
Ceaucescu, North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Zaire under Mubutu. And,
yes, Cuba under Castro.
I visited each of these countries knowing it was guilty of
abusing its own citizens, and knowing I was contributing dollars to
its national coffers.
Still, I'm glad I went and that I saw firsthand what life was
like in these lands. The lessons I learned affected me much more
deeply than if I had stayed at home and simply watched the evening
I met people in Romania whose homes were to be bulldozed simply
because they were ethnic Hungarians. I met a brave North Korean
monk who, despite the presence of a government official, complained
to me about the repression of religion in his country.
And I have never seen poverty as heart-rending as I witnessed in
Zaire, with full knowledge that the president became one of the
wealthiest men in the world by literally starving his people.
And what about Cuba? In 1992, I spent a couple of days in Havana
and around the Pinar del Rio region. It was clearly no communist
utopia -- there were few choices on restaurant menus, store shelves
were almost bare, roads were in dismal repair and Old Havana looked
much like a demolition zone.
I also saw some stunning countryside, enjoyed the wonderful
caramel scents of burning cane fields and listened to the haunting
sounds of wizened musicians who could easily have played at the
Buena Vista Social Club.
On my final day, I visited a music store to pick up some tapes,
and as the cashier was ringing up my purchases, I told her that I
thought she lived in a beautiful country. Continuing my small talk,
I told her about some of the positive experiences I had had and
ended my account 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 one exchange forever
colored my impressions of Cuba.
I think about it whenever I read about a boatload of Cubans
capsizing on its way to Florida, or when I hear people idealize the
accomplishments of Castro's government.
I don't think the U.S. travel ban to Cuba is right. Yes,
Castro's and other totalitarian governments are helped by visitors'
dollars. But they're not necessarily helped by the lessons that
travelers learn while they're there.