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 government?

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 record?

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 news.

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.

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