Despite Embargo, Americans Flock to Cuba

From wide-eyed high school students to Wall Street bankers, Miami crocodile specialists to New Orleans jazz musicians, Arthur Miller to Jack Nicholson — it seems all of the United States is coming down to Cuba these days.

Still subject to a U.S. embargo barring normal tourism to the Communist-run island, Americans are nonetheless streaming into their Caribbean neighbor in unprecedented numbers via a proliferating variety of legal and not-so-legal means.

A record number of some 140,000 U.S. residents are expected to visit Cuba by the book this year, either to see relatives or on U.S. government-licensed travel for business, cultural, academic, sport and other “people-to-people” exchanges.

“It is easier than ever to travel to Cuba. Point at any American in the street and I’ll find a legitimate reason for a license to go to Cuba,” said Pamela Falk, a Cuba expert from the City University of New York who advises on licenses and has accompanied various U.S. groups to Cuba.

Many more Americans — estimates on both sides range from 20,000 to 50,000 a year — are sneaking into Cuba, in breach of the U.S. embargo’s ban on Americans’ spending money here, via third countries like Mexico, Canada, Jamaica or the Bahamas.

That means Americans are accounting for maybe 10 percent of the more than 1.6 million foreign visitors now coming annually to Cuba in a tourism boom that is throwing a lifeline to Cuba’s troubled economy. That enrages hard-line anti-Communist Cuban-Americans, who see the trend as helping prop up their nemesis, President Fidel Castro, in power for the last 41 years.

But with Washington legislators immersed in debate over moves to ease four-decade-old sanctions on Cuba, including an end to the travel ban, the U.S. “invasion” seems only likely to expand, analysts say. With the embargo lifted, Cuba estimates it would receive 5 million Americans per year.

‘Everyone Benefits,’ Say Some

“As an American, I resent my government telling me where and when I can travel. And I can assure you that most Americans think the same, regardless of what they also may think about the Cuban regime,” said Nicholas Robins, director of the Cuban Studies Institute at New Orleans’ Tulane University.

“I think the boom in U.S. travel to Cuba we are seeing is very beneficial for everyone involved,” added Robins, a regular visitor to Cuba and organizer of exchange visits such as a New Orleans jazz band to Havana and Cuban salsa groups in the opposite direction. “This is one of the few instances where the U.S. and Cuban governments agree — but for different reasons.”

Washington remains firmly opposed to Castro but believes people-to-people travel works against the Cuban leadership and in favor of ordinary people on the island’s of 11 million.

According to the logic of Washington policy makers, the influx of Americans should expose long-isolated Cubans to the values of a democratic, free-market society, thus making them question their own one-party Communist system.

“It is basically a policy of ‘citizen diplomacy,“‘ said John Kavulich, president of the New York City-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “The policy is now to push people into Cuba with the hope that they will be a vessel of U.S. government strategy, using people as conduits for change.”

Kavulich, whose group provides nonpartisan commercial information on Cuba and is a respected source on U.S. travel to the island, saw little chance of a policy rollback. “On the contrary, there is a feeling, whether rightly or wrongly, that pushing more Americans into Cuba is having a ‘disruptive effect’ that the U.S. government sees as positive,” he said.

Cuba also welcomes the growing number of Americans, but for exactly opposite reasons. Officials believe U.S. visitors, by seeing the “reality” of Cuba, realize how biased their own media and government are and generally return home convinced the U.S. embargo, or “blockade” as Havana calls it, is wrong.

No McDonald’s in Havana

“We defend U.S. citizens’ constitutional right to know the truth, to travel and to see Cuba up close with their own eyes,” the ruling Communist Party said in a recent statement.

For the travelers themselves, there seems to be universal enthusiasm, although often for less politicized reasons.

“It’s really cool to see a place that doesn’t have a McDonalds’s on every street corner!” enthused University of Pittsburgh student Chad Cribbens last year, after stepping off a “floating university” cruise at Havana port.

The highest-profile exchange to date was the home-and-away series Major League baseball team the Baltimore Orioles played in 1999 with a Cuban national team.

The same weekend the Orioles were playing in Havana, musicians from both nations were dancing the night away at an all-star concert in the Karl Marx Theater after a week long experiment in joint composing. “Cuba is way too cool! ... Big bad wolf, you look the fool!” belted out pointedly American singer Bonnie Raitt, one of a host of top U.S. names in Havana.

But it is some of the least-hyped moments that seem to have provided some of the most lasting experiences, such as the group of U.S. high school soccer players this year who stopped to chat to Cuban students during a political rally here, then struck up an impromptu game of beach soccer with local boys.

“Coming here was a life-changing experience for those boys,” said Cuba expert Falk, who helped organize their trip.

Exciting as it may be, that sort of experience is playing right into Castro’s hands, say his most extreme opponents in Florida’s large Cuban American community. Not only does U.S. travel to Cuba pump more dollars into the state-run economy, it also helps perpetuate the division between foreigners and locals at tourist installations, they argue.

“We feel that to expand travel right now would only strengthen Castro’s dictatorship,” said Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation.

‘Salespeople for Democracy’

But more moderate Cuban American voices have thrown their support behind the new travel boom. “The more people-to-people contact the better. ... The American people are the best salespeople for democracy,” said Elena Freyre, executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy.

Despite the recent rush to Cuba, the sort of beach-only holidays favored here by tourists of other nationalities is still officially off-limits for Americans traveling with government permission on specific projects.

Still, many of them do not pass up a chance for at least one afternoon on one of Cuba’s sun-kissed beaches. And the “illegal” U.S. travelers, of course, have no qualms about soaking up the sun as much as their European or Canadian counterparts.

“What we are trying to avoid is package holidays, where people go to the beaches only and don’t have any contact with real people,” one U.S. official said, referring to the “people-to-people” policy that President Clinton’s administration has been pushing in the last couple of years.

For many, however, the travel ban to Cuba is, in practice, already off, given the ease with which licenses are given. Some U.S. travel firms now openly advertise trips to Cuba, while direct flights go from Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

There is even an ex-CIA agent in Havana running an Internet service for U.S. tourism. Philip Agee, whose crusade to expose the agency made him a hero of the left in the 1970s, says his online tourism firm Cubalinda.com is a deliberate defiance of the embargo.

While the sense of “forbidden fruit” may decrease as Americans become more familiar with Cuba, the proximity of the island and its natural beauty will guarantee massive U.S. tourism interest for the future. And the recent boom in Cuban culture, sparked in part by the Buena Vista Social Club compact disc and film, has only further fueled that.

But Havana will be eager to prevent the island from returning to the status of a licentious backyard playground for Americans. Prior to the 1959 revolution, Cuba was sometimes disparagingly referred to as the “brothel of the Caribbean.”