by Joseph Klein
Observations from a “people-to-people” tour.
I recently traveled to Cuba on what is called a “people-to-people” tour – the only legal way at present for a U.S. citizen to spend any time on Castro’s island as a casual visitor. The idea, according to the U.S. Cuban Assets Control Regulations, is not for U.S. citizens to flit around Cuba simply as self-directed tourists with guidebooks in hand. We are expected by the federal government, as a condition of travel to Cuba, to engage in a full-time schedule of organized educational exchange activities “intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”
Air transportation to and from Cuba for U.S. citizens is currently via a charter flight. After dealing with bureaucracy and long waits on multiple lines before the flight took off from Miami, we arrived at the Havana airport only to encounter total disarray in retrieving checked luggage. Despite plans announced recently to allow American air carriers to offer 20 flights per day to Havana, Cuba’s infrastructure is nowhere near ready for prime time.
Once emerging from the chaotic scene at the Havana airport, our tour group of 28 Americans was met outside the airport by our local guide, a young enthusiastic woman proud of her Cuban homeland but also curious about the United States and the American people.
When visiting Cuba you realize right away that you are truly stepping back in time. Internet and cellular telephone services are spotty. Cash is still king, requiring Americans to exchange U.S. dollars for what are called Cuban Convertible pesos (CUCs for short) and lose about 13% of value in the process. Old American cars pop up all over Havana. Horse and buggies travel side by side with automobiles in the countryside. Consumer goods we take for granted are mostly non-existent. Railroad tracks look like something out of an old Western movie.
However, there are some development projects underway or in the planning stages. They include not only the refurbishing of Cuba’s many fine historic buildings in Havana and smaller cities, but also new hotels and office towers financed with foreign investment. The tourism industry is Cuba’s number one priority for foreign investment.
It won’t be too long before U.S. businesses, including hotel chains, begin to invest in Cuba, as restrictions continue to be loosened by the Obama administration. Until then, however, the “people-to-people” tours are the primary means for American citizens, who want to beat the crowds that mass tourism will produce, to visit the island.
Each day of our tour was organized to show Cuba in its best light, featuring its rich history and beautiful architecture, lively music and dance, and a vibrant art scene. While we generally stayed together as a group, we were free to walk around the city streets ourselves. I did not sense any government minders following us to make sure that we only spoke to the “right” people. Overall, I had a positive experience on the tour, with the exception of having to endure some over-the-top pro-revolution rhetoric along the way, highlighted by a visit to a shrine built for the blood-thirsty revolutionary Che Guevara.
In fact, our first stop after gathering our bags at the very chaotic Havana airport was the Museum of the Revolution. Our guide, with an amused smile on her face, made sure to steer us towards large wall murals with unflattering caricatures of Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Captions under each of the presidential “portraits” thanked the “cretin” for contributing to the success of the Cuban revolution.
The tour’s bookends were stops to see a huge mural of Che Guevara in Revolutionary Square the first day of the tour and, on the last day, a huge statue of Che Guevara outside of a mausoleum in Santa Clara where his remains are kept. Che Guevara is still treated like a god in Cuba. One sees his image virtually everywhere you look, including emblazoned on souvenirs. Although he was born in Argentina, and left Cuba after winning a decisive battle against the deposed Batista’s forces in Santa Clara to fight other wars in the Congo and Bolivia, Cubans, including our guide, consider Che Guevara one of the “most beloved” heroes of Cuba. Fidel Castro and his brother, the current President Raoul Castro, do not come anywhere close.
Before discussing other aspects of the tour, I have to pause on Che Guevara since one could feel his spirit everywhere. The Cuban people, particularly the younger generation, need to come to grips with the crimes against humanity that Che Guevara and his fellow guerilla soldiers committed against Cuban civilians to achieve victory and secure authoritarian rule under the Castro brothers. Learning the truth will debunk the mythology the regime uses to indoctrinate the Cuban people and hold them back from asserting their human rights.
Che was a cold-hearted killer, who, even before his revolutionary days in Cuba, revealed to his parents his psychopathic personality. He wrote his father that he had discovered he loved to kill. He wrote his mother that “I am all the contrary of a Christ.”
In “Notas de Viaje,” Che wrote the following: “…and I know, because I see it printed in the night, that I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like possessed, will assault the barricades or trenches, will stain in blood my weapon and, mad of fury, will slit the throats of any defeated who fall into my hands…’
The Cuban revolution provided Che an outlet and pretext for acting on his psychosis. He boasted, for example: “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
Che was prepared to use the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as an excuse to wreak vengeance on the United States by launching lethal nuclear attacks on U.S. cities. He wrote: “If the missiles had remained, we would have used them against the very heart of America including New York…We must walk the path of liberation even if it costs millions of atomic victims.”
Needless to say, I could have done without the glorification of Che Guevara. But trying to challenge our hosts on their version of Che’s legacy would have elicited nothing more than defensive responses or stony silence. Thus, I decided that it wasn’t worth going there, and I concentrated instead on the demonstrations we witnessed of the Cuban peoples’ creative spirit even while still living under authoritarian rule.
Besides, the best rebuke to Che’s legacy has been the failure of Cuba’s socialist experiment. After the subsidies from the Soviet Union and Venezuela, which had kept the Cuban economy afloat, dried up and the Cuban economy cratered, the Cuban regime put its toes into the waters of capitalism. We saw evidence of small-scale capitalism taking root. There are some privately owned small farms and housing. There are family-run and owned restaurants, art galleries, music groups and tourist businesses that we visited. I got a particular kick out of seeing a privately owned hotel, close to the Bay of Pigs Museum honoring Cuban resistance to the U.S.-supported “imperialistic invasion,” which now welcomes American visitors.
The regime still runs Cuba’s major industries, to be sure. Most Cuban workers live on low government salaries, supplemented by subsidized food ration coupons. Schools and health care services and facilities, examples of which we had an opportunity to visit, are run reasonably well by the government. Cuba’s literacy rate is over 99 percent, and its health system has received praise by Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization.
That said, however, the Cuban people we encountered did not seem content to live the kind of bland, conformist lifestyle that characterized the people living in the old Soviet Union. The creative arts in Cuba are flourishing.
The tour, for example, included a visit to the home of artist José Antonio Rodríguez Fuster, which contains a myriad of vibrantly colorful sculptures, paintings and ceramics that reminded me of Gaudi’s and Picasso’s artwork. And, just as Gaudi’s art appears in various places around Barcelona, Fuster has installed his work in neighboring streets and houses. Paintings at another art gallery we visited presented examples of truly imaginative individual expression. We did not see any overtly political art that might be interpreted as anti-regime, but nor was there any emphasis on so-called socialist realism art, used in the former Soviet Union to depict the purported “virtues” of socialist values.
Music and dance are passions for the Cuban people that the regime does not appear to try to suppress today. Aside from live salsa music being played everywhere on the streets and in so many bars, Cuba now has highly professional self-sustaining choral and dance groups. We attended a performance of the Compas Dance Group, who embraced Cuba’s Spanish heritage with flamenco dancing, as well as performing dances reflecting Afro-Cuban traditions. But Cubans do not only look back to the past for their music. Cubans, particularly Cuban youth, are hungry for rock and roll. The regime, which once banned the Beatles from Cuba’s airwaves, is actually welcoming rock groups to perform in Cuba, including the Rolling Stones and even some American bands. The unintended consequence may be to stimulate the growth of homegrown bands and gradually wean the younger generation away from the officially sanctioned mass thought they are learning in Cuba’s public schools.
We also visited Catholic churches, which now welcome worshippers, decades after Fidel Castro’s regime had confiscated church property, nationalized Catholic schools and drove priests into exile. Pope Francis’s visit last September to Cuba was well-received. However, the Cuban regime still sets strict limits on freedom of conscience and public protest. Prior to Pope Francis’s visit, the regime arrested at least 50 Catholic dissidents.
Cuba is at a crossroads. It is still clinging to its myth of revolutionary glory, symbolized by its deification of Che Guevara. Public dissent from government policies is still not tolerated. However, driven by the recognition that it must eschew its rigid socialist orthodoxy in order to save its economy, the regime is going through its own version of Perestroika. Seeds of capitalism are beginning to bear fruit. The regime is also showing more openness to removing some restrictions on artistic and musical expression as well as worship. When President Obama visits Cuba later this month, he needs to encourage such positive behavior. At the same time, he should insist on meeting with political dissidents. And he needs to forcefully urge the Cuban leaders he meets with to release the regime’s political prisoners and end their suppression of the Cuban peoples' fundamental political rights to freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. The Cuban leaders should be made to understand that further loosening of economic restrictions will be conditional on the regime’s concrete progress on human rights for their people.
Joseph Klein is a Harvard-trained lawyer and the author of Global Deception: The UN’s Stealth Assault on America’s Freedom and Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations & Radical Islam.
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