Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why travel to Cuba is no carnival ride

Normally, travel broadens the mind but what about visiting a totalitarian state?

American tourists pass by the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba
Traveling to Cuba under the Castro regime should be a subject for serious reflection and not to be taken lightly for a number of reasons that are not immediately evident. First and foremost the tourism industry in Cuba is run by the military and intelligence services.

These reflections would also be useful for visits to other totalitarian regimes because they use many of the same tactics. Visitors are often kept in areas geared to tourists providing them a Potemkin village experience. However that does not mean that information on health and security will be accurate and it can still place tourists at risk. 

In the case of both Cuba and North Korea, businessmen who have engaged the regime in business ventures are rotting in prison. There is no independent judiciary and all is subject to the objectives of the dictatorship. One can become a pawn of the regime to advance the dictatorship's agenda as was the case with Alan Gross who spent five years in a Cuban prison and as is now the case of University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March of 2016 in North Korea for supposedly removing a political banner from a hotel. 

Seeing the Real Cuba or the Potemkin Village?
Two important questions that arise are how useful are trips to places like Cuba in ascertaining the reality on the ground? What has happened in the past when tourists visiting a totalitarian regime take the lead in public diplomacy?
Visitors to totalitarian states become targets of both the state security service and the propaganda ministries. These regimes will pull out all the stops to show themselves in the best light possible and make sure that high profile visitors have a great time but within a reality fabricated by them. It has paid back with big dividends in the past with a partial list including: Lincoln Joseph Steffens, Charles Lindbergh, Jane Fonda, Linda Ronstadt, and Dennis Rodman that wittingly or unwittingly became agents of influence after visiting totalitarians.
Singer Linda Ronstadt visited Cuba and got the Potemkin Village tour
 Linda Ronstadt presents a textbook example of this phenomenon in a August 18, 2014 AZCentral interview where she gives talking points on the Cuban Adjustment Act and reveals that she had traveled to Cuba to further legitimize her claims:
"We allow Cubans to come in and say that they're refugees. Well, in Cuba — I've been there, you know — people are fed, people are housed, people are clothed. There isn't violence in the streets. 
Ronstadt had spoken more extensively about her impressions of Cuba in a 2003 interview in City Pulse:
It’s an amazing country. I’ve been all over Latin America. And it’s the only Latin American country I’ve been in that didn’t have armed troops on the street, there weren’t homeless people everywhere, and kids had school uniforms and had schoolbooks paid for and had their health paid for. There’s things going on in Cuba that we don’t know about, and that’s mainly because of the Miami Cubans, they just absolutely won’t – they are absolutely closed-minded. They hate Fidel Castro, they won’t even hear about some of the good things he’s done, and they don’t want anyone else to know about it, either. It’s a total propaganda device and they’ve blanketed this country with propaganda about Cuba, huge amounts of which are untrue.
The reality that Cubans know on and off the island is far different, but also there are respected international human rights bodies and organizations that would dispute everything in the above statement. Sadly, the Cuban government successfully manipulated this talented and legendary singer who had The Eagles as a backup band into an agent of influence for their regime. 

This is has been going on for a long time and the techniques of hospitality are so refined that one need not be an ideological fellow traveler to be converted.  These totalitarian tactics are ideologically neutral and the language used by those taken in by it remarkably similar.

How tourism can unwittingly turn one into an agent of influence
Charles Lindbergh in Nazi Germany with Hermann Göring
Charles Lindbergh, visited Germany five times between 1936 and 1939. Lindbergh was taken on tours of airfields and factories, lavishly entertained by Air Marshal Hermann Göring, and awarded one of the Third Reich’s highest civilian honors. Lindbergh wrote to the banker Harry Davison, “With all the things we criticize, he [Hitler] is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe has done much for the German people.  Following the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that further legitimized the Nazis, Lindbergh's wife offered the following perspective on Hitler to her mother in a August 5, 1936 letter:      
"Hitler, I am beginning to feel, is a very great man, like an inspired religious leader -- and as such rather fanatical -- but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power, but a mystic, a visionary who really wants the best for his country and, on the whole, has a rather broad view."
When Germans failed to achieve the Thousand Year Reich Hitler had wanted the German dictator issued the Nero Decree on March 19, 1945 ordering the infrastructure of the country to be destroyed effectively sentencing the German people to death by destroying water supplies and shelter. Not only did Nazi Germany order the extermination of the Jewish people at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 but three years later Hitler wanted to do away with the German people when they did not achieve his goals. 

Did the Lindbergh's travel provide them with an advantage over Winston Churchill, for example who did not visit Nazi Germany, on the real nature of the German government? Remember that the Lindbergh's were not Nazis but had been manipulated during their five visits to Germany but had as did many others the "advantage" of saying that they had special knowledge because of those visits. Churchill's counsel in the 1930s to take a hard line against Nazi Germany went unheeded and the consequences were catastrophic. In 1945 in a speech to the Belgian Senate and Chamber, Winston Churchill described how one day Franklin Roosevelt asked him what should we call this war? To which the British Prime Minister responded the Unnecessary War because it easily could have been prevented.

Totalitarians whether Nazi or Communist have a track record of effectively using tourism, athletic events, and academic exchanges to present their regimes in a way that historically legitimized them and covered up their hostile objectives often with disastrous results not only for their own countries but the international community as a whole. An excellent accounting of these practices and their impacts on national and international politics is found in Paul Hollander's book Political Pilgrims that should be required reading for anyone traveling to Cuba, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Vietnam.
Center of image mugshots of Dr. Carlos & Elsa Alvarez: Castro spies at FIU

Targeting and recruitment by the Cuban intelligence service

The friendly sounding "Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP)" claims to encourage visitors to see the real Cuba for themselves and works to educate visitors about the "real Cuba" while debunking criticisms of the 56 year old dictatorship. The reality is far more sinister.  According to counter intelligence expert Chris Simmons the "ICAP’s intelligence collaboration with the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) dates back over three decades. It is not a DI entity per se, but is believed to be roughly 90% DI-affiliated due to a large pool of collaborators who serve the small team of ICAP-embedded DI officers." A past president of the ICAP was indicted for drug smuggling into the United States in 1982.  In 2014 the FBI published a report detailing how Cuba’s communist-led intelligence services are aggressively recruiting leftist American academics and university professors as spies and influence agents. This is not new and has been going on for decades with some major successes by the Castro regime that compromised national security and cost lives.

At Florida International University psychology professor Carlos Alvarez who was the associate professor for educational leadership and policy studies, and his wife Elsa Alvarez, counselor for the psychological services department were arrested by the FBI on January 6, 2006. Professor Alvarez conducted trips to Cuba with young professionals in the late 1990s in what was billed a conflict resolution project.  Alvarez was sentenced to five years in prison and his wife to three years in prison on February 28, 2007 for conspiring to act as unregistered Cuban agents.

 Tourism funds Cuban military 

A large chunk of the Cuban economy is run by the company Gaviota that deals with tourism and is controlled by the MINFAR (the military)  and Castro’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT) that runs a hotel chain, an airline, taxi company, marinas, shops, restaurants and museums and is under the control of another general. The tourist group Cubanacán was founded at the beginning of the 1980s and is also under military control. This means that tourist dollars go directly to strengthening the Castro regime's repressive apparatus.

The first American ship to cruise from the United States to Cuba in over half a century is partnering with Havanatur that is heavily penetrated by Cuban spies from the Ministry of Intelligence (MININT).Christopher P. Baker in his travel guide Havana explains the nature of the staff that tourists will be encountering.
"The Cuban government looks with suspicion  on U.S. travelers entering on religious or humanitarian licenses, and U.S. "people to people" programs are handled exclusively by Celimar, a division of Havanatur that is said to report to MININT and is heavily laden with ex-MININT staffers."
Secondly, since Cuba is a totalitarian communist dictatorship that is the tenth most censored country on Earth according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, information of interest to traveler is often unavailable or misrepresented.

Don't trust the water

The Cholera out break that was announced in July of 2012 and spread across the island with official reports emerging from Camaguey, Granma, Guantanamo, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba was not reported immediately in the official press.  The Cuban government's lack of candor in reporting on outbreaks of contagious diseases such as cholera and dengue goes back decades and should give travelers to Cuba cause for concern. International media in Cuba are cautious about reporting bad news from the island. Journalists in Cuba have ample reason to fear being expelled having seen colleagues such as Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx, the BBC's Stephen Gibbs and Cesar Gonzalez-Calero of Mexico's El Universal all expelled in 2007 from there for offering reporting that although bending over backwards not to offend still ran afoul of the regime.

News of the Cholera outbreak in Manzanillo, in the east of Cuba, broke in El Nuevo Herald on June 29, 2012 thanks to the reporting of the illegal independent press in the island. The state controlled media did not confirm the outbreak until days later on July 3, 2012. The BBC reported on July 7, 2012 that a patient had been diagnosed with Cholera in Havana. Meanwhile the dictatorship stated that it had it all under control

If you get sick don't count on the healthcare being free in Cuba. New York high school teacher Alfredo Gómez contracted cholera during a family visit to Havana during the summer of 2013 and was billed $4,700 from the government hospital. A total of 12 tourists have been identified who have contracted cholera in Cuba.

Jailed for 7 months for breaking silence on Cholera outbreak
Public Health Whistle blowers silenced

Calixto Martinez, the independent journalist who reported the cholera outbreak on July 13, 2012, was imprisoned in September of 2012 in horrible conditions and released in April of 2013 for informing the public about the healthcare threat and the poor government response. Amnesty International had declared him a prisoner of conscience in January of 2013.
This type of repression against whistle blowers reporting on health threats in Cuba that could endanger tourists has been going on for a while. For example, in 1997 when a Dengue epidemic broke out in Cuba the dictatorship tried to cover it up. When a courageous doctor spoke out he was locked up on June 25, 1997 and later sentenced to 8 years in prison. Amnesty International recognized Dr. Desi Mendoza Rivero as a prisoner of conscience. He was released from prison under condition he go into exile in December of 1998. The Castro regime eventually had to recognize that there had been a dengue epidemic.

Albert Romero killed in Cuba in 2015
Cuba is not crime free

Cuba is a travel destination that has an under reported record of tourists murdered or gone missing. Tampa Bay Times is reporting that Alberto Romero (age 39), a Tampa based marital and family law attorney, was killed in Cuba while visiting extended family on January 8, 2015. He was killed along with close family friend Hector Mario Cruz Naranjo. The two men were tied up, beaten, stabbed and in the case of the Cuban American attorney one hand was severed according to the source. Martí Noticias obtained a copy of the death certificate. There have been other cases. 

Cubans and the children of Cubans discriminated against
The Castro regime does not recognize the U.S. citizenship of  Cuban-borns and their children born in the United States charging them hundreds of dollars more than their U.S. born counterparts to enter Cuba. Worse yet the United States government accepts the differential treatment of their citizens because of their national origin providing a warning on their US Embassy in Cuba website.
The Government of Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born or are the children of Cuban parents.  These individuals will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations, including military service.  
This is why on Sunday, the Democracy Movement will sail on May 1, 2016 to protest that Cubans should have the right “to freely enter and leave the national territory without there being a discriminatory visa process,”

The question 

There is also an ethical question providing hard currency to a system that is actively repressing its own populace and no matter how little it may be, it is helping a totalitarian state. If you are going to travel to Cuba and put hard currency into dying communist institutions that prolongs the life of the dictatorship then you have to ask yourself what would serve as a counterbalance to that? What does purposeful travel to Cuba look like? One could argue that it looks like this: members of the Miami-based non-governmental organization, the Cuban Democratic Directorate, traveled to Cuba in 2002 and took humanitarian assistance to Cuban dissidents and signed the Varela Project in the living room of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Courageous human rights activists from Europe and Latin America have risked all to assist Cuban human rights defenders. Is this something that you'd be willing to do? Would you be ready to assume the consequences?

Some things to think about and read up on.