Guilty of tourism
By Desmond Boylan
Recently I was at the beach on a very hot and sunny day in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana, when a group of tourists arrived in a bus. As I watched, two of them sneaked behind a bush, stripped to their underwear, slipped their clothes to their companions, and had a quick dip in the sea. They were obviously nervous, watching out so that they wouldn’t be spotted by their minders. I realized that they were Americans, and that by taking a swim and committing an act of tourism, they were breaking the laws of the U.S embargo. They were breaking the law in their own country, and they knew it.
United States citizens are now allowed to fly in directly to visit Cuba under a cultural program bound by strict conditions, the main one being that they are not allowed to practice tourism. By following the rules they will not be breaking the 60-year trade embargo imposed on the island under U.S. law. At last U.S. citizens are allowed to visit this forbidden country, listed by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorism along with Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea, but they have to behave themselves.
The sneaky swimmers spoke in a nervous whisper, twisting their mouths as if someone could read their lips from the distance. As they glanced over their shoulders, it was like a massive crime was being committed with a long prison sentence as punishment for being caught. There were rumors among them that minders were infiltrating their groups and posing as one of them. If it were true, anyone could be a minder reporting back to the U.S. congress on illegal tourist activities engaged by American travelers with the aim of stopping these tours and tightening the embargo once again.
A known fact is that thousands of Americans have been breaking the embargo in increasing numbers by flying into Cuba via transit stops in the Bahamas, Mexico, and Europe. Cuban immigration authorities don’t touch their passports, but give them entry and exit stamps on a separate paper. In their passports they only have exit and entry stamps from the intermediate country, so technically they could have been on the moon, on mars, or floating in the ocean for the undocumented days.
But many U.S. immigration and customs officers checking passports on return know very well where citizens have been. Occasionally they ask questions about popular Cuban products like cigars and rum, and sometimes people are discovered and fined. In spite of that, it is a known fact that it is happening, and if the U.S. really were to enforce the law and build prisons to lodge all Americans visiting Cuba, another problem could be added to the list of ills in the U.S. economy.
The groups are tightly guarded and controlled by minders from both sides, with Cubans taking care of security for the visitors, and the Americans in charge of enforcing the embargo rules. They are not allowed to speak freely to the press nor to ordinary Cubans. It looks to me like the tropical salsa version of a North Korea tour, but without the salsa; no salsa dancing allowed, except maybe alone in your hotel room, in the dark.
I have spoken several times to people in these groups as I find the subject fascinating. Recently some complained that they were not allowed to take a dip in the sea after a long, sweaty day of cultural visits to museums and lectures. The words they used to describe their minders from the American side were not nice, and they accused them of reporting directly to the anti-Castro lobby led by U.S. congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. These visitors were literally paranoid when having a short chat with me, even more so after I told them that I work for the international press.
Nearly all the visitors I’ve spoken to were elderly, open-minded and intelligent. I felt sorry for them because they were not getting the ‘real picture’ of Cuba. Others I approached for a chat put their heads down and didn’t utter a word, and a couple gave me a defiant look. I assumed those were minders.
The new cultural exchange trips are a new delicate, interesting and challenging way to visit the communist island, but you will not feel very free and the only dip you can legally take is one in your hotel bathtub.