October 4, 2016
Much of our trip to Cuba is defined by conditions set by the late Senator Jesse Helms in the Helms-Burton act. The act limits the conditions under which Americans can travel to Cuba. We are here on a Person to Person, p2p, program. Technically we cannot come as tourists but must come on an approved p2p itinerary. It used to be that p2p programs had to be licensed in advance, but now we can set our own p2p itineraries.
To do a “self-guided” p2p we need to write down whom we contact and document what we do and keep the records for 5 years. This forces American citizens to keep track of contacts in Cuba so the government can inspect them at will. It’s almost like we are part of the Stazi State. We all have to sign affidavits in advance attesting to our good intentions.
Some of our fellow travelers are on p2p programs organized by their church denomination. They are attending church service and talking afterward to believers about the problems they have in Cuba.
But most people on the cruise are sticking to the official p2p program offered by the cruise line. It is just easier than record keeping. And who does the cruise line work with? Havana Tours, a State agency. On my own I would have worked through a private agency but Jesse Helms’ act gives me incentive to give the money, instead, to the Cuban state. Sticking with the p2p program guarantees that Americans are having their Cuban experience choreographed by a Cuban state agent, the tour guide.
Our guide at Las Terrazas, a UNESCO designated biosphere, is feeding us propaganda. (Aside from the Che “t” shirts) He says Fidel had the idea for this sustainable community in 1968 “When Al Gore was still in college.” It is impressive. The “before” pics of erosion and agricultural/industrial devastation show us what they accomplished with reforestation. But this is supposed to be a sustainable community. There is a lot of sunshine but I notice no solar panels, or even solar water heaters. I see no wind mills or small scale hydro projects. I ask about energy. The guide tells me that they get power from the grid, mostly from diesel generators with fuel from Venezuela. He says Cuba does not do solar, biofuel or wind. So how exactly is this community sustainable?
In 1981 Paul Hollander wrote a book called “Political Pilgrims, Western intellectuals in Search of the Good Society.” It is the sad, and often funny, story of Western political tourists visiting Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba and being completely won over by the tour guides and “chance” meetings they had with “ordinary” people. I recommend this book to anyone going on a p2p tour to Cuba. It’s easy to romanticize shabby buildings gone to seed and forget that people have to live with the mildew. It’s easy to see what the regime has accomplished in areas like literacy and health care while overlooking political prisons and repression of information.
On the drive back from the countryside the agent took us past the U.S. Embassy. It used to be called the U.S. interest section. When George W. Bush was president it had a lighted message sign that flashed anti-Castro messages. When the tour guide told us this, people on the bus groaned. The guide said that Fidel put up huge flagpoles with huge Cuban flags that made the messages hard to read from the street, a kind of visual jamming. The bus laughed and applauded. The guide said if people on foot stopped to read the messages the police moved them along. Much of the bus cheered. Imagine, a bus load of Americans cheering police keeping people from reading a political message. Jesse Helms’ law that placed us in the hands of this tour guide has some problems.