Can We Really Go to Cuba Now?
Why Obama’s lift of the travel ban doesn’t bring us any closer to Cuba.
Why lifting the travel ban doesn't bring us closer to Cuba.
If you’re an American, don’t start packing your bag for Havana just yet.
The changes in Cuban policy announced by the Obama administration this week are modest—and aimed strictly at Cuban Americans.
The new laws effectively sweep away the stringent Bush rules which had made visits almost impossible. Now, Cuban Americans will be able to go to Cuba as often as we like and send as much money as we want to our relatives.
It’s mostly a symbolic change, since Cuban Americans had been getting around the Bush laws pretty much ever since they were enacted. Airlines have long offered short-layover itineraries in third countries en route to Havana. And a quick Internet search will list dozens of agencies, mostly in Canada, that have been handling remittances. (And just about everybody knows somebody who knows a mule.)
But it is an important gesture on the part of the Obama administration, which has made diplomacy a calling card, and which has, since early on in the campaign, signaled that it had a new vision for Cuba.
But if that view includes letting Americans laze about Varadero Beach, more has to be done. Sure, lifting the embargo—a worthless Cold War relic—should be the ultimate goal. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon, no matter what Obama does.
The truth of the matter is that Cuba simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to sustain unfettered American travel. According to a recent AP story, Cuba has about as many hotel rooms as Detroit. And in Cuba, because tourism is second only to family remittances from abroad as a source of income, hotels aren’t cheap: Right now, Hotel Villa in Los Pinos is $331 a night, Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana is $227, and the Habana Libre is $141. Rental cars are in short supply even now, fuel is outrageous (even with Venezuela’s patronage, it hovers around $4 a liter).
Moreover, service isn’t what Americans might expect. Simple amenities—Internet or coffee in the room—are difficult to find, sometimes even to explain. Plus, most Cubans were raised to imagine themselves as world leaders (“The New Man”), not to be serving others as wait staff and chauffeurs. And so there’s often a performance of extremes for outsiders: either insolence or obsequiousness, neither of which makes for a great vacation experience.
What the Obama administration’s move really does is much more subtle than open up touristic channels between our two countries. It provides an entryway to a larger discussion and reconsideration of our relationship.
At the top of the list, and very much the pink elephant in the room, is the Cuban Adjustment Act. Introduced by Teddy Kennedy (ironically, frequently a boogeyman in older Cuban-American circles) and passed in 1966, it’s the law that led us to today’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy. It’s also the law that creates unique immigration conditions for Cubans, granting us instant residency. It’s based on a presumption of asylum—that is, that we are persecuted for political reasons in our home country. But certainly, if so many of us are going back and forth, our bags overflowing with presents for family, this presumption is patently false.
The Cuban government blames this law for promoting illegal, often fatal, embarkations from the island. And although that may ignore conditions that are solely the government’s responsibility, there’s no question the law serves as a kind of siren call in times of distress. Since its enactment, the law has cost the U.S. billions.
But, perhaps more importantly, especially as we strive to redefine a new course for our two countries, the law creates an adversarial relationship between us.
Sure, there’s political persecution in Cuba, and—sorry, lefty pals, but truth is truth—there are human rights abuses. And of course, there are individuals who cannot go back because they will, in fact, be persecuted.
But for the U.S. to have leverage to talk about any of that, it’s not just legal visits and remittances by Cuban Americans that have to be on the table. In fact, what we need is a tabula rasa—to wipe the slate clean and start again—in which both countries treat each other with respect.
The next step in that process should be repealing the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. by boat in 1963. Since then she has returned to Cuba innumerable times.