Published on Thursday, July 1, 2004 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
How Sad to Close the Doors on Cuba Travel
by Thomas Emmert
In Havana last month, a government representative put it clearly: Just lift the travel ban on Cuba, and you will see momentous change in this country within a year.
His expectation that a million and a half tourists from the United States would quickly inundate the island was perhaps a bit optimistic. But there seems little doubt that open travel between Cuba and the United States would break down some important barriers and even begin a process of revolutionary change on the island.
The argument is often made that these restrictions are all too convenient to Fidel Castro, who can use them and the U.S. embargo as an excuse for much of his regime's miserable failures. We have to wonder, however, what interests the travel ban and embargo serve in the United States as well.
Our group -- 18 American professors from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. -- was one of the very last U.S. educational groups to explore Cuban society before the Bush administration's rather Draconian restrictions went into effect this week. Now almost all short-term educational programs such as ours are prohibited. To what end?
Our group's host was an ecumenical, community-based organization in Havana that has offered short programs of study and reflection to thousands of U.S. citizens. We were introduced to Cuban society in a very open way and encouraged to consider both the successes and the enormous problems that face this struggling country only 90 miles from our own shores.
We met people who are immensely proud of their island, who are grateful for levels of education and universal health care that are not typical of the Third World, and who are generous in spite of their persistent poverty. They are also exhausted. Forty-five years of "the system" and the U.S. embargo have taken their toll. Castro was able to bring out 200,000 Cubans on June 21 to harangue again about the new U.S. restrictions on travel to the island. Most Cubans, however, sit quietly and wonder how much more difficult life can be.
I have been studying Eastern Europe and the Balkans for more than 35 years. From the Khrushchev era on, with only a few exceptions, the United States enthusiastically encouraged its academics, artists and other professionals to establish contacts across the curtain.
For example, I researched my doctoral dissertation in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with funds supplied by a U.S. government program.
Yugoslavia's Communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, repressed dissent far more thoroughly and perhaps more successfully than Fidel Castro. Nevertheless, as a nation we understood how important it is to encourage people-to-people contacts with those on the other side.
Yugoslavia opened its doors to millions of tourists each year. The United States Information Agency sponsored concerts and lectures and reading rooms in Yugoslavia and helped to introduce tens of thousands of Yugoslavs to our country and its values. There is no reason that such an open policy cannot have a positive effect on Cuba and its regime.
As we prepared to leave Cuba on June 20, a change came over one of our Havana hosts. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that she was beginning the difficult process of farewell. It appeared that our group would be her last for the foreseeable future.
At that very human moment this decades-long effort to keep our peoples apart seemed unbearably absurd. Havana and the tip of Florida are not much further apart than Minneapolis and St. Peter. Now even China seems closer.
A few days after commemorating the legacy of President Ronald Reagan's efforts to tear down a wall, our current administration has added a new layer of bricks to its own wall designed to keep U.S. citizens out of Cuba. This is not a cause for celebration.
Thomas Emmert is a history professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.
© 2004 Star Tribune.