Last week, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) issued a press release that read, in part, "It is irresponsible and reckless ... to act as a travel agent for a brutal dictatorship."
Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, was talking about tour operators who send U.S. citizens to Cuba on "people-to-people" cultural programs. She was incensed that Smithsonian Journeys, a for-profit arm of the government-subsidized Smithsonian Institution, was participating, and as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she initiated a congressional investigation into the Smithsonian tours.
Smithsonian Journeys says it has done nothing wrong and that it is among a group of tour operators that has applied for, and received, legitimate licenses to bring Americans to Cuba for cultural exchanges.
Ros-Lehtinen derided the programs as "little more than a tropical vacation."
On the same day that Ros-Lehtinen issued her press release, Dan Sullivan Jr., CEO of Collette Vacations, returned from a three-day trip to Cuba -- his first -- where he previewed aspects of Collette's 18 people-to-people departures in 2012.
He visited an international school of medicine that trains and provides doctors for developing countries. He was taken in one of the vintage American cars that still serve as taxis (in his case, a 1959 Ford Fairlane) to a dinner at a private home. He stayed at the once-grand (and still "solid four-star") Hotel Nacional, where a photo on the wall shows Fidel Castro at the 1959 ASTA World Congress.
Sullivan spoke of the cultural pride that's shared by both Cubans and Cuban-Americans, and he said his understanding of the people and the country was deepened during his visit.
He disputed the characterization of the experience as "little more than a tropical vacation."
"The focus truly is on people," he said.
And what he found was that "Cubans are very warm, friendly, hospitable and extremely engaging. They want many of the things we do: that their kids do well, get married, have a family, get a job."
He did see evidence of propaganda in bookstores and museums, and photos of Castro and Che Guevara were ubiquitous.
He also saw, amidst charming examples of colonial architecture, the outward signs of poverty. Overall, he felt "very, very safe" in the areas he visited. He did not feel his tour was structured to only emphasize the positive. "They don't just take you where they want you to go; you can walk around Havana."
Sullivan said he came away with insight into daily life on the island. "They all have food; they get rations every month. Milk is subsidized to 3 cents a gallon. There are no taxes, and medical care is free. But housing is a challenge. Housing was the biggest complaint I heard about. You pick which in-laws you like best, because that's who you're going to live with."
Economic opportunity, he said, often is found in tourism-related jobs that provide tips, making it possible for a bellman to earn more than a doctor.
He said most hotels in the Collette programs would be comparable to three- or four-star properties. Service was accommodating but "a little slower-paced" than most Americans are accustomed to, and maintenance was not what travelers might expect in more-developed countries. Nonetheless, the overall experience was "comfortable."
In the end, Sullivan said his "expectations were exceeded." Listening to his descriptions of Cuba as "unbelievable," "fascinating" and "amazing," I also better understood the sense of loss Cubans in diaspora must feel.
To Ros-Lehtinen's point: It's true, tourism provides economic support to tinhorn tyrants, entrenched party bosses, military strongmen and corrupt despots across the globe. The overarching question, however, is not only whether Americans should go to Cuba, but whether cross-cultural exposure among the world's people is more inherently positive than the negative implications of providing hard currency to governments with whom we have disputes.
Cross-cultural exchanges are a two-way street. They're not about sending "pockets of freedom" abroad, to use the Obama administration's rationale for allowing people-to-people programs to Cuba. It's also about what travelers learn.
I've been to my share of repressed societies, from Mobutu's Zaire to Ceausescu's Romania to Kim Il Sung's North Korea. I make no apologies. Travel adds dimension to one's understanding of the world.
Through a political lens, it's easy to categorize countries as simply good or bad, but as Sullivan observed, "A country is made up of people. You don't want to lose sight of that."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.