An episode of Conan O’Brien’s show which was filmed in Cuba will broadcast tonight on TBS at 11pm Eastern time (8pm Pacific) and repeated at 12:20am Eastern/9:20pm Pacific.
I can just hear some of my more politically-astute friends lamenting that this represents a new low point in the “struggle” for political justice for Cuba. I have already received many comments and phone calls about how poor, innocent Cuba will soon be “Americanized” with a McDonald’s on every corner.
To be sure—Cuba is a very serious topic. The amount of unnecessary pain many generations of Cubans have endured is incomprehensible to most outsiders. Vocal, divisive, and destructive comments about Cuba are continuing to be made by idealogs at both political extremes.
However, I believe that us rational, practical, middle-of-the-roadsters in both countries will eventually prove to be the most important factor in bringing normalcy to Cuba. So, while some embittered Cuban-Americans in south Florida still continue to make ridiculous or exaggerated claims about their homeland, almost 80% of Cuban-Americans in Miami under 30 years of age have indicated (through polls) that they want unrestricted travel and trade with THEIR ancestral homeland. Along with most of the rest of the world, they realize that this is the best way to implement change.
On the other side, equally ridiculous and exaggerated statements have been made indicating a belief by some that normalization of relations will ruin Cuba by “Americanizing” it! So when you visit Cuba, just ask the locals if they want a Home Depot, and if they want more American visitors spending more money. You will hear a resounding “YES” by those who speak openly and honestly.
I think it is terrific that Conan quickly jumped at the chance to film in Cuba. He consciously chose to make fun of himself, rather than mocking locals and their habits. But it sounds like he didn’t have a knowledgeable travel professional plan his trip—he decided to just go, and later ask for forgiveness, rather than seeking permission. (Check out his appearance on John Stewart’s Daily Show.) Instead of just showing up with the “wrong document,” he could have simply downloaded the correct one from the Internet.
He has also fallen into a very common pattern of otherwise intelligent, first-time visitors. He misinterpreted some observations and made general statements that were seriously incorrect. For example, as you will see on the video, he said that when he arrived in customs in Havana unprepared, he tried to address a misunderstanding by using his cell phone. It didn’t work. (Americans need to buy a different SIM card or rent a Cuban cell phone). His response: “There is no Internet—they do not want people freely exchanging information.” In reality—there is access to the Internet through-out the country, but it costs money! It is expensive for Cubans, but it’s available.
First-time American visitors often expect to find Cubans isolated and restricted from learning anything about the States. Cubans are actually quite “Americanized” already. They listen to radio broadcast in Spanish on stations from Miami. They view American television on illegal but widespread DirecTV satellite systems. They watch American movies and TV series on Cuban broadcast television stations. They attend film festivals that show current American movies. They closely follow American major league baseball. They call and email their relatives in the States as often as they can afford. Many have relatives who frequently return for visits. In the last 2 years, there has been a big increase in Cubans visiting the U.S. (and returning home afterwards). Cubans are very familiar with American musicians, movies, movie stars, and athletes. Yet, somehow, this image persists of a nation with no knowledge of the outside world, even though Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates anywhere.
So please keep this in mind while you view Conan’s show this evening. Click here to read an article about Conan’s adventure.