Based on the anti-American bias I've experienced when traveling abroad, I was pleasantly surprised by the kindness and acceptance I received in Cuba. With over a million Cubans residing in the United States, it made sense that everyone I met in Havana was thrilled to be chatting with an American: They viewed me as a peer to their relatives, often offering up names of their cousins in Miami just in case I knew them (even though I live 1,300 miles north of there, in NYC). Over countless glasses of rum, locals opened up to me about the reality of living in a communist nightmare, as well as their failed attempts at crossing 90 miles of ocean* in hopes of finding freedom on the other side.
I had only been on the island a couple of days when I noticed a middle-class European family who, among the dilapidated buildings of Havana, looked as though they'd taken a wrong turn at Disneyland and accidentally ended up in Cuba. This out-of-place sighting triggered thoughts of the Canadian men I'd witnessed picking up teenage prostitutes just the night before. The one group I had yet to see acting a fool was the Americans. It had become clear that the only advantage of the travel ban is that it has weeded out the ignorant American spring breaker contingent from transforming this nation into its own personal frat house. It'd be great if there were a way to lift the travel ban without this conflicted Caribbean country having to suffer the repulsive repercussions of American tourism, but that is an impossible task. To complicate things even further, in a sadly somewhat successful attempt to hide the injustices taking place on the island, the Castro regime has managed to separate citizens from visitors, creating an even stronger lack of awareness among tourists. This discrimination is exemplified by the unfair advantages tourists have over the very people who occupy the land they are visiting, namely:
Two forms of currency: In 1961, Che Guevara, then President of the National Bank, closed all the banks, seized their accounts, and announced that the existing currency was no longer valid. Everyone in the entire country could trade in something in the neighborhood of fifty pesos for the new bank notes--and they only had one day to do so. This left people scrambling to visit as many of the official money-changing stations as possible, bribing others to wait in lines for them.Flash forward to 1993: Two years after the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba started accepting the US dollar. This continued until 2004 when George Bush declared that those with family in Cuba were only allowed to visit once every three years, as opposed to annually. The Cuban government responded by banning the USD. In 1994, a separate currency for tourists was created called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), worth almost as much as the USD. Locals possess the Cuban Peso (CUP), worth approximately 24 times less. The two types of currency are not accepted at the same establishments.
No consorting with tourists: The government bars Cubans from hanging out with tourists. This rule is heavily enforced and results in jail time. I walked a block behind my Cuban friends when heading from one location to the next. The police aren't the only ones from whom locals must hide their friendships with tourists; I had to sneak into my friend's house for a night of drinking to avoid neighbors reporting us to the authorities. A lot of natives run government-approved businesses called Casa Particulars, where they rent out rooms in their homes. If a tourist has the option of staying somewhere for free, such as a friend's place, it is viewed as taking money out of the pockets of other Cubans. While I understand that logic, in the long run it is only hurting them as it feeds into exactly what Castro wants: Division of the people, because only unity can birth a revolution.
Health care is wealth care: Cuba's healthcare system is mistakenly praised by foreigners who know absolutely nothing about it (specifically Michael Moore). There are three types of healthcare in Cuba: One for tourists, one for government officials, and one for citizens. While the first two systems are supposedly stupendous, the treatment reserved for the average Cuban consists of devastatingly unsanitary hospitals containing dirty instruments, a shortage of medicine, and a lack of basic necessities such as soap and toilet paper. One hospital I walked by in Havana had broken windows and looked as though it was on the verge of collapsing.
Holy cow: There is a shortage of cows on the island, so beef is reserved for tourists only. I talked to one Cuban who, during the Special Period (directly after the USSR dissolved), spent a year in jail for killing a cow. He did it for survival. He had been starving, for throughout this era the most common forms of food were paper, and a dish called "condom pizza," which, unfortunately, is exactly what it sounds like. He also admitted that a few years ago, on Valentine's Day, he and his brother wanted to impress their girlfriends so they killed a stray dog, fed it to them, and claimed it was cow. I'd love to see Hallmark put that on a card.
Segregated areas: Up until 2008, it was illegal for Cubans to set foot on some of the country's best beaches, as well as in hotels or any other tourist-associated places. Now it's nominally legal, but still treated by the government as a punishable offense. If a Cuban, whose average monthly income is the equivalent of $20, can somehow manage to pay the toll required to enter the once-restricted areas, they are often still harassed by government officials and told to leave.
Regardless of the effect that an absurd amount of American visitors would have on Cuba's culture, there are factors much more important to consider when discussing the 51-year-old trade embargo. Economically speaking, in addition to the $4.84 billion that America could gain annually in export sales, approximately 6,000 jobs would be created if the ban were lifted. Money aside, the hypocrisy of the situation is truly ridiculous: The American government telling its citizens where they can and cannot travel is one of the very same laws practiced by Castro. Cuba is also the only country from which Americans are banned, despite similar human rights violations currently taking place in nations such as Russia and China. And yes, no one wants a percentage of their travel funds to support Castro's communist vision -- but a lot of U.S. citizens also don't want their money to sustain wars in the Middle East, and nonetheless we still pay taxes (unless you're one of my pothead friends, that is).
The most crucial aspect to acknowledge, however, is that the trade embargo is hurting more humans than it is helping. The tips that Cubans working in the tourism industry would accumulate from American travelers could feed thousands of families. Those who don't work in tourism would still benefit substantially from donations that Americans could bring with them upon visiting. And finally, because of U.S. patents, it is extremely difficult and time-consuming for Cuba to receive fifty percent of prescription drugs, including treatments for children with cancer. Yes, I just pulled the "Children with cancer" card, so now you have to agree to the embargo on Cuba being lifted. We can do better, America. Visit Cuba... just try not to be an asshole when you do.
*Due to the high volume of Coast Guard ships located between Florida and Cuba, it has become more common for Cubans to boat to Mexico and then travel by land to get to the U.S. border.