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July|August 2003
Alimentary School By Joel Topcik
A Seat At The Table By Michael S. Gerber
Tour's Over By Damien Cave

Tour's Over

By Damien Cave

IT WAS A SUNNY DAY IN HAVANA, and the 22 members of Holy Trinity Church of Minneapolis, most of them white and middle-aged, had their cameras out and their sunblock on. A graying vice-principal stood in front of the group, directing their attention to the freshly painted yellow building in front of them.

"Let me start by telling you a little about our school," she said, explaining that it was named in honor of two brothers who had fought in the Cuban Revolution during the 1950s. It had recently been renovated, she said, in part by the teachers themselves. The crowd looked impressed.

The vice-principal pointed out that with only 12 students per teacher, the school demonstrates the Cuban government's commitment to small classes. Like every other school in Havana, it provides a computer lab for its students, all of whom will have the opportunity to go to college.

"What about disciplinary problems?" asked a member of the group, which was organized by the Center for Global Education, a tour agency at Augsburg College, a Lutheran liberal arts college in Minneapolis.

"We don't have many problems," the vice-principal said. "It's not like in your country. We don't have guns in schools."

"But how does the school system handle difficult topics like homosexuality or racism?" asked Ann Lutterman-Aguilar, the group's leader, and a Center for Global Education employee. "We don't have racism here in Cuba," the vice-principal said.

The portrait of Cuba that the vice-principal painted was too good to be true. While Cuban schools do tend to have small classes and access to computers, a teacher shortage in Havana is leaving middle school to be taught by high school students, and only about 5 percent of Cuban students go to college. And racism is a problem that continues to plague both visiting African-Americans and black Cubans, who are frequently turned away from hotels and tourist restaurants because of their skin color.

The Minnesotans didn't see this side of Cuba. Like most American visitors to the island, they went only where the Cuban government wanted them to go, barraged at every turn by upbeat images of Fidelista socialism. They were also one of the last American "education" groups to travel legally in Cuba for the foreseeable future. In March, the Bush Administration shut off that option, exercising its authority under the 86-year-old Trading With the Enemy Act to keep American tourists from spending money on the island.

The clampdown doesn't mean Americans can't travel there, however. Journalists, academics, government officials, representatives of international organizations, relatives of Cuban nationals, amateur and semipro athletes headed for competitions, business people, students completing legitimate academic course work, and others are allowed to make the trip. But like the Reagan Administration, the current administration regards restrictions on travel for everyone else as a sign of toughness against a country the U.S. Treasury Department lists along with Iraq and North Korea among the places now off limits to most Americans.

Official tours had been the only legal option for most American visitors to Cuba for two generations. Laws passed in July 1963, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, made it illegal to spend money there. But the Treasury Department could make exceptions to the law, and in 1977, under President Jimmy Carter, the department decided to let any American travel to the island. Five years later, with Cuba supporting Marxist rebels in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Reagan Treasury Department again restricted who could make "travel-related economic transactions." By the time the Minnesotans made their trip, Americans legally visiting the island as tourists could travel only with organizations that had obtained a special license from the Treasury.

To obtain these licenses, organizations had to submit their itineraries to the Treasury Department. Under the Clinton Administration, itineraries could include several hours of free time per week, and visitors could skip group events to explore the island on their own. In 2001, pressured by Cuban-American legislators who sought to discourage travel to Cuba, the Bush Administration tightened up the policy. Tony Fratto, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, said that the department wasn't "in the business of trying to make it easy for people to go to Cuba. If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of enforcing the law." Or of making it more restrictive, which is what the administration did in March.

SINCE 2000, A BIPARTISAN GROUP OF LEGISLATORS in the House of Representatives has repeatedly introduced a budget amendment that would lift the American ban on spending in Cuba. In 2002, the amendment passed in the House, but it was removed by Congressional leaders when the White House threatened to veto any bill that would weaken the embargo against Cuba.

The passage of the bill is a sign that the movement against the ban is gaining some momentum. An increasingly large group of congressmen and a majority of Cuban-Americans now support dialogue with Cuba, rather than sanctions, a major reversal from 10 years ago.

Some 200,000 American tourists visit Cuba each year, about 60,000 of them traveling illegally via Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas. Bill, a 60-year-old math teacher from Washington, recently flew to Cuba by way of Canada. (Bill's name has been changed to protect him against federal fines of up to $55,000 for his illegal visit.) He avoided the hotels where most groups stay, slept in private homes, and ate in family-run restaurants. The trip left him with an impression of Cuba as a "society stuck in place."

Though he occasionally felt frustrated with the jinteros, unofficial guides who help tourists find restaurants, hotels, cigars, and prostitutes in exchange for kickbacks from business owners, he figured that his money was well spent. His trip poured hundreds of dollars into the pockets of the jinteros and of the Cubans who rented him rooms, fed him, and drove him around in taxis. Bill believes this income helps these people avoid complete dependence on the state for their livelihood; he also believes that financial independence can promote civic dissent.

Dissent in Cuba needs all the help it can get. In April, the Cuban government began trying some 80 dissidents it had rounded up in a sweep the month before, among them activists, journalists, and even librarians. In a span of just over a week, Cuba tried, convicted, and executed three men who had hijacked a ferry and demanded passage to the United States. With Castro continuing to demonstrate little tolerance for opposition—the U.S. State Department called the mass arrests "the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade"—Cubans are understandably wary of criticizing their government. Some prominent Americans think that Cuba's would-be critics need our assistance, not just our commiseration. As Congressman Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and a sponsor of a bill to ease the travel ban, told The New York Times in April, "We need a lot more American voices in Cuba, not fewer."

Damien Cave is a contributing writer for Salon and a Phillips Foundation Fellow.

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