For more than 50 years, the U.S. has imposed a strict blockade against Cuba, a punitive measure implemented during the Cold War when Fidel Castro developed a close alliance with the Soviet Union. Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. continues to prohibit virtually all forms of economic interaction with the Caribbean island of 11 million.
Ask most Americans about travel to Cuba and you will hear a variety of responses, many believing it is an impossibility because of the ongoing unilateral U.S. blockade. In reality, thousands of Americans travel to the island through sanctioned and unsanctioned trips each year, building ties through people to people interactions — while Washington refuses to normalize relations, labeling the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The travel ban is out of step with the attitudes and opinions of most Americans. According to an Angus Reid opinion poll released last year, 62 percent of Americans would like Washington to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, while just 23 percent disagree. Most Americans — 57 percent — believe it is time to lift the travel ban that prevents most Americans from visiting the island.
Indeed there is a Cuba beyond Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the 1959 revolution. Many Americans know Cuba for baseball, jazz music and Ernest Hemingway, the renowned American author who had a home in Havana. Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-American actor, remains a celebrated part of television history for his role on the hit show “I Love Lucy,” 1951-1957. The commonalities are endless and yet many Americans remain fearful of the unknown just off their shores.
“[We were received] very positively and warmly. The mentality of an international solidarity included welcoming us,” Melanie Steinman, a representative AFSCME local 3800, told Mint Press News.
Steinman was part of a U.S. labor delegation that traveled to Cuba to learn about the Cuban labor movement and participate in the recent May Day celebrations, a day celebrated across the world by workers, activists and union members. Delegations from Minneapolis and New York attended the celebrations in Havana, participating as part of the 600,000 who marched through the streets of Havana earlier this month.
The experiences of common Americans traveling to the island offer a striking, different picture of Cuban society happy to embrace Americans as guests. Conservative legislators were up in arms when Jay-Z and Beyonce recently went to Havana for nothing more than a vacation. The reaction has nothing to do with any threat posed to the safety of Americans traveling to Cuba.
“I think it is different in that the people that were meeting with us there and welcoming us were conscious of us being in a common struggle with them. So they were greeting us as workers and not just us, we were one delegation among many international delegations who were all greeted as fellow workers and as people working side by side in a common struggle,” Mike Kramer of SEIU Healthcare told Mint Press News.
Unions in the U.S. have fought to improve conditions for millions of blue-collar workers, forming the pillar of support for key labor reforms including the 40-hour week, workplace safety regulations and overtime pay. It’s a similar struggle in Cuba where workers’ control of industry has allowed the country to improve its workers’ conditions by leaps and bounds since the 1959 revolution.
Cuba now boasts a world class healthcare system, illiteracy has been eradicated, and quality of life has improved substantially. Workers in both countries see the unilateral U.S. blockade as a hindrance to further economic and political growth, creating a strong front of labor opposition to the blockade in both countries.
Outside of their formal mission in Cuba, labor leaders from Minnesota reported friendly interactions with strangers, even after identifying themselves as Americans.
“I would say on the level of just walking around on the streets there was an incredible amount of interest in us. People would just ask, ‘Where are you from? Where are you from? There’s just a warmth and openness, I think, in Cuban culture,” said Brad Sigal, a spokesperson for AFSCME Local 3800 to Mint Press News. “It’s the safest place I’ve ever been in my life. In Havana you can walk around safely at any hour of the day or night. It’s a whole different world,” Sigal said.
Cuba, a country with a standing army of 60,000 and military expenditures less than 9 percent of U.S. military spending, somehow remains a boogeyman, something recent travelers believe is irrational.
“I would encourage people to go there. I would tell them about the history of the embargo and clear up any misconceptions about Cubans not wanting to receive Americans. I feel like especially my co-workers were asking, ‘so Cuba doesn’t want to let you in?’ They don’t understand where the bottleneck is and so it’s important to realize that it is our government who is infringing upon people’s basic right to travel for educational purposes. So I would encourage people to challenge that and see for themselves,” said Sarah Sosa of AFSCME Local 2822 told Mint Press News.
Vacations in cuba: now possible for all Americans?
For those who just want to enjoy a mojito and a stroll on the beach, there are an increasing number of legal travel options available to Americans.
Insight Cuba, a leading travel service bringing Americans to Cuba, has successfully brought thousands of Americans to Cuba on legal trips sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. It is an option that has increased during President Obama’s time in office.
“We first received a license February 2000 under people to people provision,” Tom Popper, President of Insight Cuba, told Mint Press News. “We had permission until the end of 2003 which the Bush administration ended. On Jan. 28, 2011, President Obama reinstated people to people travel. We received ours on June 30, 2011 and have pretty been running trips since then.”
Americans still run the risk of being fined by the U.S. government for unsanctioned trips to Cuba. In 2012, Zachary Sanders was fined $6,500 for his illegal trip to the island in 1998. Sanders, 39, traveled to the island from Mexico, where he was teaching English. Cases like these could become less common should more tour groups receive permission to lead sanctioned trips.
“We have sent probably about 6,500 Americans to Cuba legally,” he continued. “We offer six regular people to people tours on different subject matter and destinations with about 120 scheduled departures annually.”
As Popper says, the trips are strictly “nonpolitical and nonreligious,” focusing instead on the art, culture and history of Cuba.
“One of the great things about travel is that you get to travel and see things for yourself. Cubans in general are very open about political issues, their economic system. They are often self-critical and they are very knowledgeable,” Popper said.
“We have these incredible exchanges between the American travelers and Cubans. You are still curious how you are going to be received. The openness and the warmth with which Americans are received is uplifting and surprising to a lot of Americans,” he added.
No longer do Americans have to sneak through Canada, Mexico or a third country to enter the country. The licensed travel group coordinates charter flights from Miami, with periodic flights from New York, Los Angeles and Tampa.
In the years of bringing thousands of Americans to Cuba, Popper says that there hasn’t been a single bad encounter. “Even meeting with government officials has been great. They welcome the dialogue. At the end of the day they are just people like us. The local Cuban person wants Americans to know that they have no hard feelings,” Popper said. “They have close ties, share many of the same pastimes. They go out of their way to let people know that we are friends.”
Options for travel to Cuba are clearly available, but remain limited because of the unilateral U.S. embargo. People to people exchanges have shown that the people bear no animus toward Americans — in fact, that reception is downright warm. “People to people” are licenses given out by the U.S. Treasury Department to qualifying tourist, educational, humanitarian and religious groups seeking to travel to Cuba.
Cuban-Americans have been able to travel to the island and send money freely via wire transfers since Obama loosened restrictions in early 2011.
Union leaders from the recent delegations believe that the labor movement has an important role to play in pressuring Washington to abandon Cold War politics in favor of a more sensible foreign policy supported by a majority of Americans.
“I think if we look at all the most important, fundamental changes that have happened in this society, they’ve been led by unions and by working people. Things like social security, things like the eight-hour day, all of those kind of things. So I think for any fundamental change in society the unions have to play that role of leading that change,” Sigal said.
Sigal continued: “I think that is exactly what we need to do is build a labor movement that fights for justice in the U.S. and fundamental changes as well as fighting to change our relationship to the rest of the world to end imperialist foreign policies and build people to people solidarity with the workers of the world.”