Ron Radosh

Should You Travel to Cuba? The Truth: What the Real Cuba Is Like

Kirchick's Cuba

As the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba continues, it is important for Americans to be informed about what life on the island is really like. This is all the more necessary because our major newspapers and magazines are running features proclaiming that “now is the time to travel to Cuba,” especially before the island gets American chain restaurants and the charming 50-year-old autos disappear from the streets.

Just visit sites from National Geographic to The Nation, and you will find the itinerary, cost, and joys of a trip to Cuba. A recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek includes Cuba in its “Take a Real Vacation” section. The article explains that one can book a tour through a “government-approved” licensed operator; one of these “specialists” offers a nine-day package, departing from Miami for $4,449 a person.

What these tourists will get is a 21st century trip through Potemkin villages.

They will learn that Cubans are a friendly people, that they love and support their Communist leaders and system, and that they believe they are better off today than they were in the ’50s before Castro came to power. They will be told that the scenic areas and preserved sections of towns they travel to are the “real” Cuba. They will stay in hotels and listen to some good music in high-priced clubs that most Cubans can’t afford to enter — even if these Cubans could get into one of the hotels, they would not be allowed to stay there.

They will come back reporting how joyous and grateful the people are, living in this socialist paradise. Finally, they will all say that if there are any economic problems, it’s the fault of the United States and the embargo that prevents them from living in prosperity.

That is why the cover story in the new issue of National Review by Jamie Kirchick on his recent trip to Cuba is so important.

Unlike the regular American tourists who are signing up for the tours, Kirchick went on his own, staying at an individual’s guest house and then a hotel. He wanted to see for himself what Cuba is really like, and most importantly, to seek out and speak to Cuba’s dissidents, most of whom are not happy with Obama’s policies.

Kirchick writes:

The relaxed travel policies, the pending opening of embassies, the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, the restoration of limited economic activity — all longtime goals of the Cuban regime — were declared without any corresponding demands that Havana change its conduct.

In other words, Barack Obama is applying to Cuba the same mindset that he applies to Iran: give our adversary what they want, and eventually they will democratize and become our good friends.

The dissidents, on the other hand, want support for their movement towards democracy.

They do not want Obama’s policy, which involves legitimization of the totalitarian regime in the false hope that such measures — such as lifting the embargo — will suddenly move the Marxist-Leninist caudillos in charge of the regime to change. They want an end to the kind of experience that dissident Antonio Rodiles told Kirchik he had when he was arrested, as he stepped out of his home on the way to a scheduled free-speech demonstration.

From what Kirchick reports, Cuba hasn’t changed much since I was there for a few weeks in the summer of 1973, and wrote about my experiences in my memoir.

Much of what Kirchick describes is the same, although Cuba is more economically destitute than it was when Castro had the Soviet Union to subsidize it. I too saw the local snoopers of the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which Kirchick calls a combination of “the Gestapo and the Stasi.” The CDRs see to it that their neighbors do not do anything to undermine the system. Those who falter find that their weekly ration cards are suspended.

What Cuba does have now that is different is a visible and growing group of advocates of democracy, free elections, and an end to the oppressive system which they are forced to live under.

In the 1970s, as is true now, workers got paid a pittance. Then, apparatchiks shopped at what were called “dollar stores,” where the Cuban nomenklatura bought expensive Western goods. Now, Cuba has instituted a formal dual currency: lucky Cubans who receive money from American relatives and foreign tourists can also shop in “special stores” which use dollars as their currency.

My trip to Cuba in 1973 was one of the major events that began to turn me away from the ranks of the American Left.

The New Left, who claimed they were different than the Old Left worshippers of Stalin and the Soviet Union, ended up replicating them — by pledging allegiance not to the Soviet Union, but to Castro’s Cuba. Instead of Stalin, they saw Fidel Castro as a hero and Che Guevara as a revolutionary saint who liberated Cuba from the tentacles of the American Empire.

I saw the bitter truth about Cuba after traveling there for close to a month with such a group of true believers, finding that what we called “really existing socialism” was a total fraud. When I raised doubts about the socialist paradise, my travel partners condemned me.

One honest intellectual of the German New Left, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, wrote that while he lived in Cuba among people who were in the direst poverty, the “radical tourists” knew nothing of what the real Cuba was like:

I kept meeting Communists in the hotels for foreigners, who had no idea that the energy and water supply in the working quarters had broken down during the afternoon, that bread was rationed, and that the population had to stand in line two hours for a slice of pizza; meanwhile the tourists in their hotel rooms were arguing about [the Marxist philosopher] Lukacs.

Unfortunately, we in the New Left ignored what Enzensberger had to say, and shared the perspective of the famous late sociologist, C. Wright Mills of Columbia University, who wrote:

I am for the Cuban Revolution. I do not worry about it. I worry for it and with it.

Mills penned a book in 1960 that became the New Left’s bible on Cuba, Listen Yankee! The Revolution in Cuba, which posited the Revolution as the event that would eventually lead Americans to take the same path as Castro. This generation, he wrote, “had the courage for revolution.”

Today, only the ranks of the far Left engage in such delusion. For The Nation magazine crowd, it’s still 1960, and Cuba is still the beacon of hope. Its book division just published a book by the once prominent ’60s radical and New Left leader Tom Hayden, who in tribute to Mills named his book Listen Yankee! Why Cuba Matters.

He writes that we can “understand the long history of the sixties generation through the prism of the Cuban Revolution and the American response.” For Hayden, nothing has changed. He was a true believer then, and despite the decades that have passed, he still is.

Of course, Hayden chastises conservatives — he singles out Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal — for accurately saying that Cuba is a “floating prison.” As for those dissidents who want democracy, Hayden terms them “recipients of U.S. support for regime change and the chaos that would follow.”

From his perch in the U.S., Hayden still argues for support for the Castros and their repressive Communist regime. But unlike the ’60s, few are listening.

I was pleased to hear that on his book tour in New York City, a grand total of 15 people turned out to listen to him.

In his article, Kirchick tells us what the real Cuba is like:

Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro’s visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

We are lucky, however, to see this reality for ourselves in a remarkable 2013 documentary that airs in two parts on PBS — yes, the public network usually criticized fiercely by conservatives — Cuba’s Secret Side, filmed and narrated by Karin Muller. She lived in Cuba for three months, using her Swiss passport to get into the country, and filmed clandestinely without government permission or knowledge, and was arrested and detained over one dozen times.

PBS — which has in the past given viewers hagiographic pro-Castro documentaries filmed by the late Saul Landau and more recently Oliver Stone — has finally aired one that allows us to see the bitter reality which Kirchick describes.

Muller is at times a bit naïve about what Communism is supposed to be, but she knows the various ways in which the promises of the virtues of revolution were a total failure. At one point she astutely comments:

The Revolution promised equal distribution of wealth and prosperity; what came was a distribution of wealth that allowed everyone to be equally poor and destitute.

The documentary originally aired two years ago without much publicity, but PBS –at least the stations in the Washington, D.C. area — has again decided to show it given the Obama administration’s new Cuba policy. One can, however, order a DVD of the series.

Kirchick writes:

The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation. Preventing anything that may pose a threat to its continued existence — any material that might germinate the seed of independent thought within an individual Cuban’s mind — from making its way onto the island is therefore a priority. In light of the increased number of tourists visiting Cuba since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on American travel, a number that is expected only to grow with time, the Castro regime has had to beef up its [repressive] capabilities in this field. But judging from the headlines of the Cuban Communist-party newspaper, Granma, which boasted of the dramatic rise in tourism on a recent cover of its weekly English edition, Havana doesn’t seem to mind.

Maybe they should. It was just announced that there are plans for ferries once again to travel between the U.S. and Cuba, and that JetBlue is going to be flying there weekly from New York City. There may be so many Americans eager to visit the forbidden island that the regime may not be able to control them all. They may find ways to circumvent the paths laid out for them, and see the real Cuba for themselves.

To get the truth about Cuba, save your money and don’t subsidize the Cuban regime by booking travel on these officially state sanctioned tours. Instead, read Kirchick’s article and buy or watch Karin Muller’s documentary. You’ll save a lot of money and learn the truth.