Protestors who condemned the recent performance of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as pro-Castro propaganda might be better served by picketing the White House instead. They should demonstrate against the President's recent crackdown on educational "people to people" travel to Cuba and demand that all Americans be allowed to visit the island so they can see for themselves the glory Castro has wrought there.
Before I went to Cuba in November of 2000, I viewed the pugilistic anti-Castro Cuban exiles as right-wing thugs who were angry because Castro had ended their pillaging of Cuba under U.S.-backed puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista. That perception was partly due to my own ideology and anger with the U.S. government for our part in victimizing the Cuban people. But it was also due to the violence and inflammatory rhetoric of extremist right-wing groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation.
Visiting Cuba opened my eyes and changed my mind about so many things. Whatever Fidel Castro once represented, however many good things he has done in the name of egalitarianism and socialism — and he has done many positive and progressive things in Cuba — the grip of his iron fist is evident everywhere. For anyone with an ounce of awareness, Castro's stranglehold on that island is impossible to ignore.
The other fact that's impossible to overlook when you visit the island is the devastating effect of our irrational economic embargo on the people of Cuba.
That's the second-best argument I can think of to allow educational travel to Cuba: because all of us — regardless of our political orientation — could learn some things we need to know about what's really going on there and this country's part in it.
The best argument I can think of to allow educational travel to Cuba is this: We have a right as citizens of a self-righteously self-proclaimed free country to travel anywhere, to speak to anyone we please, and to form our own opinions.
Our government attempts to justify abridging our rights by saying that if we spend money in Cuba, we're supporting Castro's dictatorship. No rational person truly believes that the economic embargo is working. We have more than four decades of evidence to the contrary. And if forbidding all trade hasn't toppled the regime, then denying them my $2 for a mojito isn't likely to do the trick.
It is true that many licenses for travel to Cuba are used to promote tourism — although most of it is truly educational or cultural in nature (albeit with plenty of rum, cigars and dancing thrown in). License holders have become downright blatant about recruiting travelers — advertising trips on the internet and in newsletters, newspapers and magazines.
In response to monthly JazzTimes-sponsored trips to Cuba, columnist Nat Hentoff quotes the magazine's ad: "You'll get an inside look at Cuban society by interacting with the local people." He then informs readers about the people they aren't likely to meet — the jailed librarians, artists and journalists who may well spend the rest of their lives behind bars for their dissident activities.
But you don't have to meet those particular people to hear first-hand accounts of the chilling effect of such crackdowns on everyone. People will tell you things you might never imagine, things you will not read in newspapers or see on television here or in Cuba. And you will — as Hentoff says — need to be very careful about protecting those people and not sharing information that could implicate or endanger them in any way, even with people who present themselves as dissidents.
But if you do go, you will at least know the truth unfiltered by political agendas and the limitations of mass media.
Cuba is a remarkable place of tremendous historical significance to the entire Western Hemisphere. It was the New World base for Europe's invasion of the Americas and the nexus of the slave trade. That makes it a very important part of our heritage — a part we have been denied for more than 40 years.
Among the first wave of travelers to post-Soviet Cuba were scholars, activists, artists, musicians and writers. Their enthusiasm for the culture they found there resulted in a spate of films, classes, books, articles, photographs, CDs and live performances that have stirred further interest in and desire to travel to Cuba. (TBPAC Executive Director Judith Lisi visited Cuba on an educational tour. One result was her gutsy move in bringing one of the world's finest ballet companies to Tampa, despite the certainty that there would be protests.)
Free exchange of information and ideas is always threatening to rulers who govern through ignorance and fear; that's why it's so important to encourage it in a free society. U.S. Congressman Jim Davis, who has visited Cuba, introduced an amendment (H.R. 2989) to block Bush's move to deny educational travel permits. It has passed the House and might pass the Senate if you let your Senator know you support it.
Maura Barrios, assistant director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at University of South Florida, is one of many people who have led educational trips to Cuba. "So many Americans have gone to Cuba now and come back and debunked the myths," she says. "They come back, and they're angry about how information has been blockaded — even by the press. They're angry that they've been denied access, travel and information, and they've become activists."
There is nothing to be gained — for this country nor against Castro — and much to be lost by limiting contact between Cuban and American people. We should not allow the macho rhetoric and posturing of our own dubiously elected leader and theirs to keep us apart.
Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.