Are You Unethical? The Anatomy of a Trip to Cuba

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There are secret police on both corners of his street and he knows he is being watched. He can’t recall how many times he’s been arrested; it happens too frequently.

Only a month ago, Claudio Fuentes–a Cuban dissident, filmmaker, and photographer–was brusquely hauled off to a moldy jail cell where a pervasive stench emanated from a hole in the cement that served as a toilet. He was detained for capturing photos of his fellow Estado de SATS (a dissident group) in their elements and his most prized possessions–a Sony a7R camera, cell phone and battery pack–were confiscated, never to be seen again.

Still, he insists, “there’s no retreat in this fight, we have to face it and avoid thinking about the dangers.”

These kind of fights, namely the fights for human rights by Cuba’s dissidents and the Cuban government’s heavy-handed squelching of the protests, have both resulted in an estimated 6,200 arbitrary detentions of political activists in 2015 alone. The majority of these detentions occurred sans evidence of a crime committed and/or without due process of law.

Cuba has been a mainstay on the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) list of countries that commit human rights violations. In their 2016 report, HRW asserts that “the Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism.”

They further state that the Cuban government holds political prisoners and represses freedom of expression by limiting access to outside information, which includes making Havana’s meager 30 internet hotspots unaffordable (internet is $2/hr, and most Cubans make $20/month).

“Morally speaking, why do you give more oxygen to a failed system? It’s crazy!”- Claudio Fuentes

In his speech at Havana’s Grand Theatre this past March, President Obama stated, “I’ve come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” thus catapulting Cuba into our national dialogue.

Cuba has become the du jour travel destination of U.S. Americans. This is partly due to the relaxed travel and trade regulations between the U.S. and Cuba that were initiated in December 2014, and finalized July 2015, although the rules have continued to evolve throughout 2016: U.S. companies can now invest in small businesses and tourists can use their credit cards.

A trade embargo is still in place, however, which isn’t likely to change.

For now, the Cubans’ oppression is ensconced in a flurry of excitement surrounding tourism, and carpetbaggers are rubbings their hands in anticipation while some legislators are eyeing to lift the trade embargo.

Cuba represents excitement: music, food, vintage cars, and an architectural digest of colonial buildings all instill a feeling of time travel into the past.

Chanel recently hosted a fabulous fashion extravaganza–a runway show on Paseo del Prado walkway in downtown Havana helmed by the luminous creative director Karl Lagerfeld. According to NY Magazine, the event included “47 models, 700 guests, 170 convertibles” and a heck of a dance party. The Rolling Stones performed a free concert. And the Kardashians, who rarely miss a trend beat, descended on Cuba with their usual caravan of fanfare, creating instant Snapchat goals worldwide.

Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Sven Dreesbach

The Cuban government has clearly seen positive changes arise from the improved diplomatic relations with the U.S., they’ve gotten their debt re-structured and things are looking up for the country with international trade. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, both traveled to Cuba this month eager to conduct business there. For Prime Minister Abe, the occasion marked the first time a Japanese government had ever stepped foot on Cuban soil.

The reason the U.S. continues to uphold a trade embargo that has been in place since 1962 is because Cuba has yet to improve their human rights violations. Citizens are still disenfranchised from prosperity. Cuba limits freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and the press.

This begs the question: is it ethical to travel to Cuba?

“Cubans have no rights or freedoms, we don’t have free elections, we have only one political party, we are not free to export or import, we have no right to a legal personality, foreign investors have no right to pay Cuban workers directly,” laments Fuentes. “For that reason, any dollar that gets inside Cuba never transfers to the Cuban people’s hands. Everything is controlled by the great, total Cuban regime of Raul Castro.”

“All we have done is cut ourselves off from a neighbor: the scientists, the writers, the artists… all cut off from engaging with us.”- Jeff Greenwald

Many human rights activists and dissidents are upset about the zeitgeist; Mr. Fuentes belongs to this group.

He vehemently opposes tourism to Cuba. “When you have relationships with a dictatorship, it is immoral,” he maintains. Fuentes stresses that pressure should be put on the Cuban government until the demands of human rights are met.

The saddest part, he feels, is that the Cuban dictatorship was at its weakest state in history with the “fall of Venezuela, without Brazil and Argentina” before the U.S. came to the rescue. “Morally speaking, why do you give more oxygen to a failed system? It’s crazy!” says Fuentes. “Before we only had one force against us, now we have two–Castro and the U.S.”

The Brookings Institution’s (an American think-tank in Washington DC) step-by-step guide on Influencing Dictatorships contradicts Fuentes’ assertion that Cuba could have collapsed due to its own isolation.

According to the Brookings’ model, first, a country’s armed forces are a necessary key, reiterating, “in Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000, and the Ukraine in 2004, the armed forces refused to suppress protesters, in some cases cooperating with them, and allowed the dictators to be overthrown.”

Another more critical factor is external forces, which “reshape domestic incentives and power distributions, often in ways that are decisive to regime outcomes.”

Courtesy of Claudio Fuentes.

Traveling to North Korea on vacation can sink a person into morally ambiguous territory–just look at the guy who mistakenly gloated about his staged, wonderful vacation in Pyongyang and got derided and ridiculed online. Then yet why so rarely does anyone decry travel to Cuba?

Sure, Cuba is not North Korea, but similarly Cuba has committed grave human rights violations such as forced labor camps and executions, if only for a briefer period.

Jeff Greenwald, the co-founder of Ethical Traveler, explains that ethical travel means mindful travel. Each year, his organization publishes an annual list of Top 10 Ethical Travel Destinations which draws on a myriad of metrics that include a country’s vaccination records, human rights, education, water purity, as well as records from the CIA, the World Bank, Reporters Without Borders, and many more.

This year, Cabo Verde, off the northwest coast of Africa, tops the list.

Mr. Greenwald is a gregarious and deeply thoughtful man who also happens to be the world’s first travel blogger. He doesn’t take travel lightly.

“Ethical travel is being aware of our impact, of putting our money where our values are and not supporting countries that do not practice ethical treatment of their animals, of humans rights, of people of color, or of people with different sexual orientation,” he says.

But Greenwald makes a distinction for travel that serves as an educational experience. He says that travel to Cuba, North Korea, or similar countries is fine so long as one is a mindful traveler; he or she must be aware of the issues that the citizens are facing, and do so with both open eyes and an open mind.

“A big travel group of people who think they are on some sort of holiday away from what the issues of a country are–I’m not in favor of that,” he clarifies.

Jeff Greenwald in Trinidad, Cuba. Courtesy of Greenwald.

Mr. Greenwald traveled to Cuba for the first time six years ago. He recalls the experience as one that was so wonderful and amazing that “it took, like, 10 years off my life.” He remembers the people, whom he describes as very warm, and the culture, the music, and the beautiful landscapes.

He points out that 50 years of isolation didn’t do anything to improve the political structure and that “all we have done is cut ourselves off from a neighbor; the scientists, the writers, and the artists have all been cut off from engaging with this country.”

“We have a much stronger position to help address those human rights violations through engagement,” states Greenwald. “I think people traveling to Cuba will increase the expectations of the government to change, and the writers and dissents will increase and I think it will be a net positive for human rights in Cuba. If our previous policy had been working, I may have had a different opinion, but it hasn’t.”

Sven Dreesbach, a German filmmaker and surfer who traveled to Cuba in 2011 via Mexico, notes that he had been advised, prior to his trip, that Cubans of the past didn’t really speak or open up to tourists for fear of suppression. He was very surprised to learn how open and transparent people were about their political dissatisfaction.

“It started with our cab driver and continued throughout our trip” he muses.

Mr. Dreesbach had been inspired to travel to Cuba to learn more about the culture and he felt that everything about the trip was amazing. Specifically, he was struck by the aesthetics of the beautifully eroding architecture and the streets, which lacked billboards and adverts and as a result didn’t overshadow the look of the street. “It was almost like looking into how people lived 50 years ago, without commerce and capitalism,” he adds.

He noted that people were poor, but overall seemed normal and happy.

The last night of his stay, Dreesbach scraped his last few dollars together to take his then-girlfriend out for dinner by the beach and proposed to her. He notes the irony of proposing to an American girl on soil she wasn’t “officially” standing on.

La Habana series. Courtesy of Sven Dreesbach.

Many people, especially in Miami have close ties to Cuba yet have never set foot there. Karinna Alvarez, a Relationship Manager at Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and a member of CANF, is one of these people.

A descendant of Cuban grandparents who fled Cuba, Alvarez lives in Miami and has never traveled to Cuba herself. She is unsure of what treatment she’d be met with, given her opposition activities.

She grew up hearing her grandparent’s stories of travail, hardships, and nostalgia for their home country. She speaks passionately about the many dissidents, political prisoners, and Cuban families she encounters in her work, many of whom have been jailed with “no paperwork, no formalized process, or legal structure.”

She points out that her organization aims to help Cuba from within. They don’t want people to leave the country, although it’s worth noting that in 2016 at least 46,000 Cuban refugees were admitted by the United States.

She is quick to denounce the cozy U.S./Cuba diplomatic relations, as she believes the economic gain will only benefit the government and not its people, but she does offer up one positive view on the subject of tourism.

“We want to show them what the possibilities are if we change the system and the government.” – Karrinna Alvarez

She explains that most Cubans have been indoctrinated to believe that the reason for lack of milk in the markets, or access to certain goods, or paved roads was because the U.S. government was impeding them from being able to participate in the marketplace.

Now the government can no longer use the U.S. as a scapegoat.

Even hardliner Fuentes echoes these sentiments and points out that for a long time the first relative internet for the Cubans were tourists and Cuban-Americans that would return to the country with information about salaries, the price of fuel, and share the plethora of options that were available to U.S. Americans. He admits that “these were the first comparisons that Cubans could use to analyze our system, our misery.”

When asked what he would have done if Cuba had been liberated and if he’d had the option of spending his life in any other way, an uncomfortably long pause follows as if he’s pondering a response, but nothing comes out. Too convoluted and complex, just like an upcoming trip there.