WOW! What a day for us Cubanophiles! I have been in Media Overload mode all day. It started for me this morning as I happened to catch the “Breaking News” announcement on CNN that there had been a “Prisoner Swap” between Cuba and the U.S., and that President Obama would be making an announcement at 12noon, Eastern Time. (I’ve learned to not get too excited about CNN “Breaking News” announcements ever since last spring, when CNN had “Breaking News” announcements every hour of every day for an entire month, informing us that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was still missing.)
But this announcement was different—it was actually BREAKING NEWS! Something was in the works between Cuba and the U.S.! It didn’t come as a surprise to those of us following the complicated relationship between the governments of Cuba and the United States. There have been many hints of some type of a breakthrough for several months. Last summer, I emailed travelers who had signed up for my November and December expeditions that there was a good possibility something significant would happen right after our November elections. I was hoping that this might happen when we were in Cuba, but President Obama delayed his announcement until Congress had adjourned for Christmas.
As soon as I heard the first announcements about the prisoner swap this morning, I began emailing friends in Cuba to tell them the news. So they knew about it more than 2 hours before the announcement was made by President Raul Castro, who spoke at the same time President Obama was providing additional details to the earlier breaking news. A few of my Cuban friends thought I was joking. They later told me that church bells began ringing all over Havana right after the announcement on Cuban television.
After President Obama’s noontime announcement, Cuban-American Congressmen expressed outrage and shock because they weren’t informed about the “prisoner” swap and other negotiations. In my opinion, either they were not paying attention, or else not being truthful. For them, today is their “Day of Infamy.” If they had their way, prisoners would continue to rot away in prisons in both the U.S. and Cuba. If they had their way, the people of Cuba would continue to live far below their potential with little hope for the future. They claim all those who want Cuba to progress are “communists” and “socialists” and “naive” and “uninformed.” They say this, because they really have few rational arguments to support their positions. Of course there are still some unrepentant leftists who believe things are just fine in Cuba, and are seriously worried about McDonald’s opening a restaurant in Old Havana. But most of the rational Cuba-watchers I know (and read) believe that the Embargo has empowered the Castros and helped keep then in power.
This not only applies to middle-of-the road Independents like myself. These first steps towards normalization have been and will be supported by many conservatives, such as Republican Senators Rand Paul (KY) and Jeff Flake (AZ). There are many Republican Governors who support increased trade and travel. There are numerous retired admirals and generals—formerly with the military’s Southern Command—who have advocated improved relations with Cuba. Some have postulated that it is in the national security interests of the United States to normalize relations as soon as possible.
As I spent today watching CNN and Fox, listening to relevant radio talk shows, and surfing the internet for information about Cuba, it became apparent that there a lot of TV/radio hosts and writers analyzing the latest news and discussing Cuba who know very little about the country. I heard and read numerous errors of geography, history, leadership, and timelines. Perhaps these journalists simply aren’t doing a good job of fact-checking, or maybe they are just repeating errors made by others.
One reason could be what I call an “inverted information verification stream.” Diplomats, who should know most about Cuba, are prohibited from traveling (without special permission) more than 40 km (25 miles) from our non-embassy “embassy” in Havana. Before you jump to the conclusion that Cuba is repressing them, please understand that the U.S. imposed this restriction first on Cuban diplomatic staff in Washington D.C. at their non-embassay “embassy.”
Two years ago, one of my fellow expedition travelers asked me to dinner in Havana with her friend’s daughter and husband, who worked in security at the “embassy” (more commonly called the United States Interests Section). It was an interesting evening, but the one thing she said that stuck with me was that, although they had lived in Havana for several months, they didn’t have any Cuban friends. I found her comments surprising and hard to believe. Considering Cuban culture, I just don’t know how a reasonable person could live in an apartment in Havana, shop in local stores, hire local baby-sitters, and not have friends in Cuba. But then I thought about how different the perspectives must be of “embassy” staff, who probably feel they are constantly watched by an “unfriendly” government.
Journalists who visit Cuba are less restricted, but they must apply for “true” visas through the Cuban “embassy” in D.C. If revoked, they would not be welcome in Cuba. Journalists who do not apply for a visa can claim they are visiting for other purposes, such as research or even tourism (keeping in mind that the U.S. does not allow tourism). They have much more latitude in what they can see and do without being closely monitored, but if they later write about Cuba as journalists, they probably won’t be welcomed back.
In stark contrast, those of us who travel on people-to-people research programs are virtually unrestricted, in my experience. I’ve driven the 740-mile long country in rental cars from tip-to-tip. I’ve driven past military bases and driven through military checkpoints (after stopping, of course). I have used binoculars to look down from the mountains on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo from the Cuban side. I have spoken with dissidents who do not approve of the Cuban government. I have stayed in the homes of friends, who have told me about “real life” in Cuba. I could go on and on about what I’ve been “allowed” to do. With due respect and common sense, any American can do what I’ve done.
This is why I feel it is so important for Americans to visit Cuba, so they can observe, talk with locals, make up their own minds, and return home to tell their friends, hopefully with an open mind and a middle-of-the-road perspective.
So getting back to today’s announcements—I don’t believe the Embargo will end for many years. It is up to Congress to do so, and we all know how dysfunctional and destructive our Congress has been (I blame both parties more-or-less equally). But the process of normalization should accelerate from now on, with more travel and trade allowed under the vast “Exceptions to the Embargo” category. Even before today, the U.S. has been the 4th largest provider of goods to Cuba, mostly food. Even before today, Americans could openly and legally visit with General Licenses and without permission by the U.S. government. I have been doing it for 15 years. I have been a guide for others for almost three years. Travel is legal NOW under federal regulations and laws. And yet, I’m watching one TV announcer after another tell us that “it will be a while before Americans will be able to travel to Cuba without special permission from our government.”
So while discouraging travel to Cuba, our government has paradoxically provided laws and regulations for us to do so. My fellow Americans–now is your chance to visit a beautiful, safe and friendly country, while doing your small but important part to influence American foreign policy. The more of you who visit Cuba, the quicker things will change for the better. NOW is the time!