As Americans, we often think of ourselves as the “land of the free.” Indeed, we have many freedoms that other countries can only dream about, such as the right to openly protest against the government; the right to practice any religion you want; and the right to bear arms. But there is one freedom that has been conspicuously denied to Americans for almost 50 years: the freedom to travel to Cuba.
During the Cold War, Cuba’s close ties to the Soviet Union worried President John F. Kennedy. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Treasury Department passed the Cuban Asset Control Regulations and the Trading with the Enemy Act, which froze Cuban assets in the US and made it illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. The travel ban lapsed in 1977 under the Carter Administration but was re-instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1982. In 2004 the regulations were changed so that it’s not technically illegal to travel to Cuba, but it is illegal to spend money there.
I wanted to see a Communist country first hand, and knowing that Cuba was off limits made it the natural choice for me. The travel restrictions meant that I couldn’t get there via direct flight from the US, so I first had to go through a country that permitted travel to Cuba (every country but the US). Since I happened to be near Cancun, Mexico, I booked a flight with Cubana Airlines on Nov 2, 2010 (election day). The one flight a day from Cancun to La Habana was aboard a decommissioned Russian military plane that had military grade (read: uncomfortable) accommodations and warning labels in Russian.
Once I stepped off the plane in La Habana, I knew I was in a Communist country. The airport was in an embarrassing state of disrepair that you wouldn’t expect from a country’s main airport; it looked like part of it had caved in and there was a big pile of debris sitting right where I walked into the terminal. When I got to Immigration an agent was there randomly choosing people to harass, and decided I was in need of an interrogation.
“Where are you from?”
“Los Estados Unidos.”
“What are you doing here?!”
He was intimidating and made me feel very unwelcome in his country. After nervously answering his questions, he allowed me to pass, and I continued on to the immigration booth. Because Cuba doesn’t want its revenue stream to dry up, they don’t stamp passports at the airport–American or otherwise–and I didn’t have any trouble when I went back to the US.
In a country where there is some semblance of private property and free exchange, your vision will be filled with people trying to sell you goods and services from the comfort of their clean, well maintained shops with proudly displayed advertisements. Driving from the airport to my Casa Particular in La Habana Vieja, I kept waiting to see signs of commercialization. I saw a few shops there and they were all very small; only a few had signs outside advertising what they were selling, and the signs that were present were small, dirty and beaten up. The city is filled with dull-colors and faded out buildings. Paints and colorful signs are something that are used by businesses who want to attract customers and stand out, but since everything is owned by the state, there is no incentive for anyone to stand out.
One of the few entrepreneurial ventures that the Cuban government allows its citizens to engage in is the operation of a Casa Particular. A Casa Particular is basically a bed that you rent in someone’s house for 20-40 CUC (22-44 USD) a night. In order to run a Casa Particular, Cubans have to be approved by the government and they have to pay 200 CUC (220 USD) a month in order to keep their license, and they are limited to renting out 2 bedrooms. At 20 CUC a night, a family would have to have guests staying at their house 10 nights per month in order to break even.
After checking in, I left the Casa Particular to go explore the city. I walked about half a block before a man smoking a cigar asked me where I was from. At first I didn’t respond because he was walking in front of me, and I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me. In free countries, people generally look at you when they’re talking to you, but in Cuba it’s illegal for Cubans to talk to foreigners. Not realizing this, I caught up with him and tried to talk to him face to face. When I got closer to him we walked faster so that he wouldn’t be seen talking to me directly. As we walked with 10 feet of distance between us, he again asked me where I was from. Then he tried to sell me cigars, and he walked off when I told him I wasn’t interested.
Nighttime in Cuba was eerie and I never got used to the experience. There are no streetlamps, bright signs, illuminated shops, or other sources of artificial lighting; not even the main tourist area with the big hotels had any lighting. However, the darkness doesn’t slow anybody down and the city is very lively and loud. It’s amazing how loud it is since all of the noise comes from people talking. The characteristic sound of cars whizzing by in the US is replaced by the sound of children playing games, people yelling at each other, and televisions on full volume. Walking down a pitch-black street, not seeing anybody but hearing a hundred people gave me the feeling of voices in my head having a dozen conversations with each other.
It was interesting that whenever I had a conversation with someone and I told them that I was from California every one of them replied, “Oh California, the old state of Mexico?” The fact that 4 people had this as the first thing to say about California suggests that this was taught to them in their “free”, government-run schools.
Cuba is one of the strangest places in the world to visit, ranking alongside North Korea. The government uses policies to control its people, and attempts to create the “socialist” man. This socialist ideal, from what I experienced, creates an environment where the people are scared of their government; where individuals lie to your face, pretending to be your friend, in order to scam any amount of money from you;; and those who must become either a pimp, prostitute, or bootlegger in order to make enough money to support their family.
All over Cuba there are signs loudly denouncing the US Embargo, saying things like, “Every 8 hours of the Embargo equals the materials to repair 40 day-care centers,” and, “3 days of the Embargo equals the printing of all the textbooks for one school year.” This is one point where the Cuban government is correct; the actions taken by the US government against Cuba have done nothing to bring about a change in government, and the only people that are hurt by the Embargo are the Cuban people. If the Cuban Embargo were ended, the Cuban government would lose its stronghold on the people; they wouldn’t have a strong case uniting its people behind anti-American rheteric. If the Embargo were ended then Cuba would be opened up to a new market of tourists whose dollars would help increase the quality of life of the average Cuban. Eventually, the Castro regime would collapse under its own weight and there would be a chance for a new democratic government in Cuba.
The status quo is not acceptable. For the sake of the Cuban people, we need to end the Cuban Embargo NOW!
Josh is a guest contributor to the California Review and a world traveler. He is currently in Columbia promoting the cause of liberty. You can keep up with his current travels at: http://morganjp.wordpress.com/