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Yes, cruise lines screwed up in Cuba. But engagement built up Cubans' sense of control

Al Diaz
Miami Herald
PRIVATE PUSH The San Cristobal paladar, or privately run restaurant, in Havana that President Obama visited in 2016.

COMMENTARY: The positive effects of U.S. travel to Cuba — especially strengthening private entrepreneurs — helped bring Cubans out to protest last summer.

This week the Miami Herald confirmed something many suspected: U.S.-based cruise lines, in violation of the trade embargo against communist Cuba, made deals to provide tourism services there after the Obama Administration normalized relations with the regime in 2014.

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The cruise lines claim they were simply doing what U.S. rules at the time allowed. But whether or not it was legal, they were making a mockery of the actual and spiritual intent of the U.S. opening to Cuba. Not to ferry sunburned, Cohiba-puffing gringos to the state-run El Tropicana Night Club — but to put real Americans in contact with real Cubans in their real homes, restaurants and businesses, to share some real people-to-people exchange that might plant the seeds of real change on a really oppressive island.

The cruise companies were instead promoting the kind of Margaritaville excursions to Cuba that I and several colleagues were decrying back then. The vintage Chevrolet convertible-and-mojito slurping packages the Kardashians’ reality show sophomorically glorified. The “I wanna see Cuba frozen in 1959 before it changes” visits that insult Cubans there and here — and any adult who appreciates that changing a wrecked and repressive country is the whole damn point.

READ MORE: A Democratic president helped empower Cubans — and that's helping Republicans

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with keeping the Cuba embargo in place or not. (I don’t.) It’s about understanding that, for now anyway, American visitors shouldn’t treat Cuba like Cancún. That it’s fine to smoke the cigar and sip the rum — if you’re also engaging ordinary Cubans and helping them inhale some small, empowering token of financial and philosophical independence from the Cuban Communist Party.

Which is why my beef here isn’t just with the cruise lines. It’s also with the Cuba policy hardliners who’ve been jumping up and down this week shouting, “See?! We told you Obama’s engagement policy was nothing more than a tourism ATM for Raúl Castro!”

Running your own business space can be as attitudinally freeing as roaming cyberspace — and make you less afraid about marching en masse to shout, “We’re not afraid anymore!”

That’s bull and then some. Yes, the Obama Administration should have reined in the cruise lines. But much if not most U.S. travel to Cuba was done right. And before former President Trump derailed engagement in 2017, it did two potent things: it helped Cubans win long overdue access to the internet and social media; and it strengthened Cuba’s fledgling private entrepreneurs.

Both those developments helped lead to the unprecedented, island-wide anti-government protests in Cuba last July.


The internet is the more obvious factor: arguably, it was Cubans’ resourceful mastery of Telegram and other networking platforms that lit the powder keg of their economic and human rights anger. But the decade-long experience more than half a million Cubans had had with entrepreneurial self-employment, even as limited as it is in Cuba, shouldn’t be underestimated. Running your own business space can be as attitudinally freeing as roaming cyberspace — and make you less afraid about marching en masse to shout, “We’re not afraid anymore!”

“It comes down to finally having even just a little sense of control,” says former New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma, whose recent book, “The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times,” charts that mindset change through rich personal histories that often include cuentapropismo, or private enterprise.

“After more than half a century of the regime controlling everything in their lives, that taste of personal control did help nudge more Cubans than ever to go out to the streets.”

Eliana Aponte
Cubans march through Havana in July protesting their communist regime in nationwide demonstrations of unprecedented size and anger.

So it seems obvious that helping Cubans push the cuentapropismo envelope further is the most effective policy path to follow now — especially since the cash-strapped Cuban regime itself is pushing it. In December it proposed allowing foreign investment in the island’s small private enterprises.

“The Biden Administration should not be waiting for the Cuban government to permit that,” says John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade & Economic Council in New York. “You’ve got U.S. businesses that are saying, ‘Let us in to help these folks.’”

Some, Kavulich points out, are already soliciting the U.S. Treasury Department for embargo licenses to invest directly with Cuban entrepreneurs.

Along with re-opening the flow of remittances to Cuba — cash that’s often used as private business capital — yanqui investment would help the U.S. help Cubans feel more of that emboldening sense of control.

The kind that can push Cuba toward a freer future — and to becoming an island that cruise line tourists can’t keep frozen in 1959.