Travel

PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE: What Cubans can learn from Americans, and vice versa

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  • April 06, 2000

by Karen Feld

We hear so much about the politics of Cuba: the embargo, Elian Gonzalez, accused spy Jose Imperatorie and, of course, Fidel. We have fantasies about the forbidden island, images drawn from the tales of refugee ballplayers, Buena Vista Social Club and even “I Love Lucy.” Banned from visiting for 40 years, we know little about the Cuban people. But that’s changing.

In January, one year after the Pope’s historical Cuban visit, President Clinton announced new measures geared toward helping Cuban people prepare for the future. This includes People-to-People exchanges among athletes, journalists, scientists, doctors, religious groups, academics, artists and students.

“The purpose of People-to-People,” said Vicki Huddleston, an American ambassador based in Havana, “is not about encouraging tourism or business, but helping the Cuban people learn from their U.S. counterparts so they can prepare for their future.” Huddleston added, “If our program is a success, it will help Cubans determine how they want their nation governed in the 21st century.”

Last year, more than 85,000 Americans visited Cuba as part of People-to-People, and that’s expected to double this year. Visitors are met by Communist P.R. people who act as tour guides. If you follow the planned schedule, you’ll see only the inside of conference rooms and talk only to trusted party loyalists. “The government won’t let visitors see everything. They don’t want them to know about the way we live,” confided a 38-year-old museum guide.
I visited the offices of Granma, the sole English-language daily newspaper. Oddly, the editor did not speak English. There was only one computer with Internet access–they would not let me send an e-mail to the U.S.–and the pressroom was virtually empty. Parts of the building were gutted, and the reason given was the revolution that took place 40 years ago.

Cuba is obsessed with upholding the status quo. “Nevertheless,” said Huddleston, “the people are incredibly innovative about finding ways to generate funds. But they can only go so far,” with the economic system controlled by the government and military.

The younger generation, which had nothing to do with the revolution, wants change. “We see things differently from our leaders,” said a 19-year-old journalism student. “We know that the questions are not dangerous, but the answers are.” The state controls most aspects of daily life: where you live and work, and making sure you turn out for the daily demonstrations supporting Elian’s return.

So how do you see the real Cuba? Ditch your guides and stock up on gifts–one-dollar bills, soap, aspirin, candy, lipstick–to give as thank-yous. Then you’re off to explore the winding roads and sidewalk markets of Old Havana, to take in the bands playing makeshift instruments, to ride in ’50s-era Chrysler and Dodge taxicabs and sunbathe on glorious beaches.

“I think it’s good for Americans to visit,” said 30-year-old Ricardo Fernandez, of Cardenas. A friend and neighbor of Elian’s father, Fernandez sells T-shirts in a commercial center in Varaderes. As one of the 150,000 Cubans self-employed in the legal private sector, Fernandez will play a role in post-Castro Cuba. But Cuba’s problems are exacerbated by low wages (the average worker makes the equivalent of $10 a month), and this creates a division between those in the tourist dollar trade and the peso-earners outside of it.

The People-to-People program is a significant step toward re-establishing relations with one of America’s geographically closest neighbors. It expands on the growing trade from the West to Cuba via third parties (Coca-Cola makes its way to Cuba through Mexican subsidiaries) and U.S.-approved humanitarian aid (400 U.S. businessmen selling medical supplies visited earlier this year). It also encourages dialogue between people with similar career goals and cultural interests, despite language and ideological differences. But for People-to-People to truly be successful, Americans must venture beyond the set itinerary, and Cubans must have the courage to open up to them.

More information on travel to Cuba can be found from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (www.treas.gov/ofac) and Marazul Tours (www.marazultours.com).