The last few weeks have been very difficult for North America and the Caribbean. Huge wildfires have caused smoke and devastation in parts of Western Canada and the Western United States.
The warm dry weather contributed to the ‘perfect storm’ over Houston, where hurricane Harvey was held against the shoreline, recharging and then dumping unimaginable amounts of water.
Next, hurricane Irma virtually destroyed several Caribbean Islands, before flooding much of Cuba and Florida. Meanwhile, an 8.1 earthquake struck the southern Mexican highlands.
Now Hurricane Maria is on a path of destruction, currently assaulting Puerto Rica, while Mexico City and region frantically search for survivors of yet another major earthquake.
One would hope these many tragedies would unite us in a desire to prepare for disasters, address climate change and help each other to rebuild.
Sadly, in the case of Cuba, politics always get in the way.
Recently the President of the United States addressed the United Nations. After asserting his respect for all countries to pursue their own interests and political systems, he called out several countries by name. Cuba was included.
I could go on and on about the need for proper diplomacy, or I could again raise the deep inconsistency between massive arms deals with repressive Saudi Arabia, but I would rather just make a case for travel to Cuba.
In terms of the historic conflict between Cuba and the United States, I have always taken a rather neutral position. Historically the Cuban regime has needed the embargo as much as the US. I will not defend Cuba’s government, but nor will I condemn everything about a system that replaced pure corruption and repression.
By most statistical measures, Cuba is fairly successful. Despite being isolated economically, it has an excellent medical system and life expectancy, 100% literacy and greater gender and racial equality than most countries in the region.
The archipelago is clean and extremely appealing as a tourist attraction. It is attractive for everything from old cars and aging colonial architecture to perfect beaches and its vibrant art and music scene.
In US dollars the average Cuban earns about $25 / month (due to a dual currency system). Tourism has finally led to the legalization of small businesses and is greatly increasing economic mobility.
Cubans are free (and happy) to talk to visitors about their politics and simply hope for their nation to grow and develop. After years of isolation, thousands of Cubans have died or gambled their lives to escape. The lure of the US has caused so many to risk everything in order to migrate.
Those who did not try to boat to Florida, would fly to Ecuador and travel overland. The casinos in Panama were filled with Cuban woman ‘paying’ for their journey. The United States has helped save countless Cuban lives by taking away the carrot of welcoming all Cubans who arrive on US soil.
In opening Cuba to travel (something enjoyed by Canadians and Europeans for years), gradually the final trenches of the cold war are being dismantled. Cuban Americans can visit friends and families. Cuban music and art are rediscovering fame and Havana’s World Heritage architecture is gradually being renovated. This cannot be anything but good.
For Americans, travelling to Cuba is mildly a political statement, but it is always a deep learning experience and directly helpful to the actual population of the country.
At last count, 10 people died in Cuba when hurricane Irma made landfall. Cuban authorities are very effective at responding to disasters and the nation will recover, but, as with the many small nations of the region, tourism is among the fastest and most effective ways of helping.
I am planning two trips to Cuba in late January, early February, and another mid-March. As always on my trips I make sure money reaches the local people directly. On these first trips, I also plan to contribute specifically to a few causes.
Most people know I am not a church-goer, but I want to help restore the church in Remedios. Its art is spectacular and as an important tourist attraction, the church’s well-being will help the people of that community. We are exploring several other specific ways to help, but in the short term, guaranteeing tourism to Cuba is a huge support.
Should one explore the ethics of travel – and I do so in much of my writing – I would not boycott Cuba. Rather I will spend, laugh, share and enjoy.