For over an hour, Michael Fernandez ’07 tries to describe why he won’t go to Cuba. “It’s like going to South Africa in the high part of Apartheid,” he finally says, finding the words to describe his conviction. “I would be contributing to sustaining a tyrannical government. I wouldn’t travel there.”
Fernandez’s great-grandfather was stripped of everything he owned by Castro’s regime. His grandmother fled Cuba for the United States thirty years ago. Fernandez refuses to forgive a government that continues to restrict the press, ban most private enterprise, and throw dissidents in jail. He echoes generations of Cuban exiles who have argued that any and all travel to Cuba bolsters the authoritarian regime. “Everything you spend contributes to the oppression of the people,” Fernandez explains. “The money ends up in the hands of the state.”
This argument goes far in the United States. The economic embargo against Cuba has remained intact for nearly fifty years. President Clinton loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba for students and academics, artists, members of the clergy, and Cuban-Americans with family on the island. In 2004, however, Bush issued controversial guidelines restricting Cuban-Americans’ family visits from once a year to once every three years.
Less politicized but equally stringent were the President’s restrictions on academic travel. Under the current guidelines, undergraduates may visit Cuba only as independent researchers conducting work for a course, and must stay for a minimum of ten weeks. Class trips are banned. In 2001, sixty thousand undergraduates traveled to Cuba. That number has dwindled to well below one hundred. Yale is one of the few institutions that continues to send its students to the socialist state.
Michael Bustamante traveled to Cuba in 2005, during the summer before his senior year. The things he carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near necessities were a few thousand Canadian dollars in cash, an entire suitcase of antibiotics, cough syrup, toilet paper, and Pepto-Bismol, a letter signed by his Yale advisor, and a copy of Yale’s Treasury Department license permitting academic travel to Cuba. He carried Canadian cash because U.S. dollars are subject to a ten percent penalty when exchanged for the Cuban convertible peso. He carried an extra suitcase stuffed with toiletries because he knew he would have to share the wealth. He carried the letter from his advisor and the copy of Yale’s license to demonstrate that his travel to Cuba was legal.
Bustamante’s letter verified his enrollment in an undergraduate degree program at Yale University. It confirmed the dates during which he would conduct research for a structured Yale course, and stated that he was traveling to Cuba under U.S. Treasury Department License No. CT-9259. The license, obtained by Yale Associate General Counsel Harold Rose, invests the University with the authority to approve research projects, and allows Yale students who meet the regulations to make travel-related transactions in Cuba.
Lillian Guerra, an assistant professor of history who specializes in the Caribbean and advises the vast majority of undergraduates conducting research in Cuba, speculates that under twenty institutions now hold the academic license. The license must be renewed every year, and can easily be withheld by the Department of the Treasury. For example, in 2005, Harvard lost its license for 18 months.
The Cuban government also erects barriers. Before students jet off to the island, they must obtain a Cuban research visa, which grants access to any Cuban academic institution and legalizes study in a country that often equates research with espionage. “If you don’t have a research visa,” Guerra warns, “it is criminal, and you can get deported.”
Students must meet rigorous regulations and obtain independent funding to receive Yale’s endorsement. One such student, junior Gerald McElroy, studied the Cuban media’s portrayals of the United States as a crime-ridden, marijuana-smoking cesspool characterized by extreme racism and cold-hearted, capitalist murder. McElroy understood the need for tact when dealing with socialist regimes. On his application for a Cuban research visa, McElroy proposed a project titled “el pensamiento anti-imperialista del pueblo Cubano” (the anti-imperialist thought of the Cuban people). “They never would’ve accepted my project if I’d said ‘how el Partido manipulated the image of the United States,'” he says.
Although Yale’s authorization eases the Treasury Department limits on a student’s travel, restrictions are inevitable. Students are only allowed to spend a certain amount of money in Cuba per day, and are required to keep all their receipts for potential inspection. Though the scarcity of paper, thriving black market, and evasion of official price controls eliminate almost all possibility of documenting transactions, Bustamante says students must try their best to stay in line. “To this day, I have a file of the receipts that I did collect.” For American students, traveling to Cuba is a careful balance of satisfying the home government, the host government, and one’s daily needs.
McElroy had grown dissatisfied with the capitalist system in the U.S., and traveled to Cuba with stirrings of sympathy for the revolution’s ideals of equality in health care, education, earnings, and race relations. His initial interactions with other Cubans reinforced this view, but after the honeymoon period, his politics changed quickly. “None of my [Cuban] friends were telling me the truth at that point,” he explains, “but what I came to realize was how much complexity there was in the situation.”
One night toward the beginning of his ten weeks, McElroy was walking through a tourist hangout with a friend. McElroy is very fair; his friend dark-skinned. While they waited for two others to arrive, a policeman circled suspiciously. He eventually approached the two, greeted McElroy with a courteous “Buenas noches,” and asked him a few questions to determine that he wasn’t Cuban. Then, he asked McElroy’s friend for his identification card. He walked a few feet away with it, and then read the friend’s full name into his walkie-talkie to a central authority, presumably to confirm that he was a “jinetero,” a tourist tricker. McElroy was angry. He approached the policeman, told him that he wasn’t some turista estapido at the mercy of any wily con-man on the street, that this man was his good friend and must be left alone. “I was fighting with him, and really they can’t do anything to tourists.” He was surprised and outraged at the officer’s racism, but he came to understand that, in Cuba, discrimination is the norm. “This would define my experience,” he explained.
Combining daily experiences with his research on the Cuban press, McElroy soon began to understand the irony of the government’s depictions of the United States as a bastion of racism. Other ironies stood out as well. In the much-touted Cuban health-care system, foreigners are given preferential treatment and doctors are shipped off to other countries to maintain the image of the revolution. Though the revolution aimed to harness tourism for the Cuban people, McElroy says that many foreigners now consider Cuba “the brothel of the world.” Though many Cubans listen to the anti-U.S. sensationalist media, just as many distrust the government enough to assume the opposite of anything propagated by the national media. Revolutionary leaders touted Soviet-style communism, but the people never entirely bought it.
“Soviet culture was really mocked as having no relevance to Cuba,” McElroy explains. The Cuban media scorns capitalism, he says, and then “you go around Cuba and I’ve never seen so much fucking Puma in my life!” At one point, McElroy spotted a man getting the Puma logo shaved into his head.
Michael Fernandez insists that the opportunity to speak to Cuban exiles in the U.S. renders travel to Cuba unnecessary. “There are a lot of Cuban exiles, Cuban dissidents, who were in jail for 25 years,” he says. “Go talk with anyone and they’ll tell you it’s not a paradise.”
The debate over travel to Cuba pits academic freedom against concern for the freedom of the Cuban people. McElroy believes that speaking only to exiles would have limited his scope, and that his research project necessitated speaking with Cubans living in Cuba to determine the effects of a sensationalist national media.
Fernandez argues that nothing short of a family member in a critical situation, like a dying grandfather, merits regime-supporting travel to the island.
Michael Bustamante was raised in a Cuban exile family. His paternal grandparents left the island with three children in 1962 and never went back.
In Cuba, his research focused on 1920s bourgeois intellectuals who took divergent paths in the years leading up to Castro’s dictatorship. Some became die-hard supporters, others outspoken enemies of the regime. Their chief outlet was the publication of essays and visual art in highbrow magazines and journals. Bustamante was also able to read much of their correspondence at the National Archives in Havana. While his research wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive without a visit to Cuba, the transformative part of his travel lies in his rediscovery of family ties.
“No one in my family had been back in forty-plus years,” he explains. His grandfather told him about some remaining family on the island and suggested that Bustamante consider visiting them if he had the time. Beginning on July 26th, when almost all Cuban institutions shut down for celebrations, he set out to visit his cousins in Santiago. Technically, Bustamante’s academic visa did not permit such travel, but his research became impossible when the archives closed. Bustamante didn’t realize how important the visit was until he was in Santiago. “My grandfather, he absolutely felt that it was necessary to do that, but he didn’t necessarily want to put the burden on me.”
In Santiago, he spoke to the woman living in his grandmother’s childhood home. She remembered his grandmother as a little girl. He discovered that his grandparents must have had some communication with their relatives because his cousins had photographs of Bustamante from when he was twelve-years old.
Since returning to the U.S., Bustamante has continued to communicate with a number of his cousins. Although an extremely small portion of the Cuban population has access to the Internet, one of his cousins can go online because she is a doctor. “They’re kind of like five years behind in Internet culture,” he adds, citing the chain e-mails that she always sends. Now, with the lines of communication opened, he can transcribe letters from his grandparents and send them to the Gmail account his cousins share. “These human-to-human ties that are not cooked up in some resort hotel is what needs to happen,” he insists. For Bustamante, the most important part of traveling to Cuba was realizing, “This is a person. She is related to you.”
Bustamante went to Cuba to explore the murky realities underlying the simplistic, polarized Cuba debate in the U.S. He went to find answers, to figure out which faction of U.S. advocates had it right, or to find some different solution. Instead, his human ties have given him an intimate understanding of the exact same “complexity” that McElroy experienced. When pushed to make even the mildest of judgments, Bustamante stumbles over his words. “No one likes the government. There, no one-wait-I take that back. Some do, but everyone is frustrated… Part of the problem with the debate is that people are forced to try to make these generalizations.”
Both Bustamante and McElroy articulate the paradoxes-the ironies in the health care system, the tourism, the racism, the plight of individual freedom in a socialist society. They reject the polarized debate between Che-shirt-wearing revolutionary liberals and the hard line, primera-ola, Cuban elite in South Florida. Suspicious of a quick fix, the students are in search of ways to bridge the divide.
Elizabeth Jordan, who graduated from Yale in 2006, traveled to Cuba with Bustamante during the summer of 2005. She had gone once before with the Yale Chaplain’s Office on a religious visa, and went once more on the same permit after her ten-week summer trip. Jordan studied the interactions between Protestant churches and the socialist, atheist state. She says these experience gave her “a more nuanced take on Cuba” and allowed her “to see the gray areas.”
Both Bustamante and Jordan continue to use the knowledge they gained in Cuba, Bustamante at the Council on Foreign Relations and Jordan at Human Rights First. Jordan is often forced to correct the assumption that she stands firmly on one side of the debate. Once, while speaking to a Cuban exile, Jordan says, “I made an offhand comment that I had traveled to Cuba.” The woman assumed Jordan must be a sympathizing leftist. “I had to convince her that I wasn’t ardently Castro.” Another time, she was speaking with a fellow activist who worked for an environmental NGO. “She asked, ‘What do you think about Cuba?” and she thought that I would just say, ‘Castro’s great, go Che!’… She was surprised that I had so much to say.”
Travel to Cuba gives college students a unique view of the island and the will to change the U.S. policy debate. Barack Obama thinks that travel to Cuba is also bound to change the political landscape of the island. In an op-ed published in the Miami Herald in late August, Obama argued that removing restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ family visits to the island can only help foster dissidence and a grass-roots movement for democracy. If Americans travel to Cuba, Obama believes, information will travel with them.
McElroy concurs. “People are so willing and anxious to talk to you,” he says, noting that the Cuban media leads Cubans toward extreme opinions of the U.S. He was asked, “Geraldo, can you walk outside in the United States at night without the police telling you to go home because you’ll be shot at?” And once, he says, “I met a Cuban who was trying to defend the war in Iraq to me.”
Ideas from the U.S. manage to infiltrate the Cuban psyche despite the country’s controlled media and restricted travel. Undergraduates, Guerra argues, are in a unique position to aid the exchange. “These students are like vehicles of information,” she asserts. “Undergraduates, because of their age, their curiosity, their-in fact-openness… they are possessed of a number of skills and talents that older people just don’t have.”
Both Jordan and Bustamante call Guerra the “sole reason” that Yale undergraduates are able to travel to Cuba, both because of her tireless advocacy of student trips in the face of so many obstacles and the support she provides students in Cuba about everything from contacts and housing to what to wear to avoid looking too yuma, or American.
Ras Raudel, a Cuban friend of McElroy, is a member of La Comision Depuradora, a group that works to break the silence surrounding racism against Afro-Cubanos in Cuba through rap and hip-hop at underground concerts. One day, McElroy asked him, “How can you keep fighting?” Raudel answered, “As much oppression as there was in the United States, at least they could express themselves.” Then he began to cry.
The naivete of American students traveling to Cuba makes them approachable and allows even older Cubans, the ones who have been in the trinchera, or trench, with Castro for decades, to ask them questions and expect honest responses. In May of 2002, Guerra and three of her students were riding a bus. The driver was dark-skinned. He regarded her three students, who were dark-skinned as well, with curiosity, and eventually sidled up to one of them.
“So are you really in college?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the student replied.
The driver thought for a moment. He was about fifty years old, grateful to the revolution for his education. He assumed that he wouldn’t have gotten that education in Cuba without Castro, or in the U.S. He said to the student, “I didn’t know that black people could go to college in the U.S.”
Ali Seitz, a junior in Trumbull College, is an On-line Editor of TNJ..