Some members of Congress seem desperate to ease the ban on United States tourist travel to Cuba because they think flooding the island with American vacationers will hasten dictator Fidel Castro’s downfall or produce windfall profits for U.S. businesses.
Unfortunately, the prime beneficiaries of easing restrictions are the Castro brothers–Fidel and Raúl-and the regime itself. Cuba’s Armed Forces Ministry (MINFAR) runs state-owned or joint-venture tourist resorts. Profits from these enterprises partly sustain the private fortunes of the Castros and provide revenues to run the government that Cuba’s decrepit sugar mills and Soviet-style state enterprises never could support.
In fact, expanding tourism was the key to Castro’s survival after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of subsidies of up to $5.6 billion per year. Since Sept. 11, however, travel to Cuba has fallen off and island hotels have experienced vacancy rates as high as 30 percent.
The recent decline in tourism only adds to Castro’s financial worries. Last year, Cuba defaulted on $500 million in loans, and France and the Netherlands froze Cuban credit for nonpayment of arrears. Even Castro-friendly Venezuela cut oil shipments in April after Cuba repeatedly missed payments totaling up to $63 million for petroleum purchased at below-market prices. Lifting the tourist ban would give the regime a much-needed shot in the arm.
However, Castro is not likely to permit the “flood” of American tourists that some in Washington expect, particularly the kind apt to challenge his personal rule. His regime arbitrarily controls who may enter and what requirements may be enforced. Tourists with dollars to spend at isolated resorts are more likely to get a visa than those wanting to talk to local dissidents. Current exchanges with academics, journalists and American relatives intended to pave the way for future political reforms may suffer as a result.
Even absent that, tourism won’t necessarily encourage political reforms anyway. A close look at Cuba’s existing travel industry shows why. Most of the Canadian and European tourists who have visited over the last decade came to enjoy low-budget vacations, or set foot in a political Jurassic Park, or to seek inexpensive sex with growing numbers of prostitutes unable to survive on rations and meager state salaries of $10-$30 per month. Such tourism has not helped release political prisoners, nor has it forced the regime to change any of its totalitarian policies.
Instead, it has fueled a government moneymaking scam. Joint-venture tourism enterprises must hire all workers from the state which in turn pays them less than 10 percent of the fees it collects for supplying them. Sadly, these same Cuban employees may not use the services of or buy products sold by these enterprises under a state policy designed to limit contact between Cuban citizens and foreign visitors.
Claims of potential windfall profits of doing business in Cuba also are exaggerated. Cuba must compete with better-developed and more family-oriented tourist destinations in the Caribbean and southeastern United States. Nor will the island’s 11 million inhabitants do any traveling of their own thanks to Castro’s own embargo on Cuban travel. More important, the rule of law-not particularly strong in Latin America-has no footprint in Cuba. European, Mexican and Canadian firms that have attempted to do business there have lost investments because of arbitrary changes in policy, sudden demand for hidden fees or unexplained cancellations of projects already in development.
If expanding opportunities for international commerce truly is important to Congress, it should provide trade promotion authority to President Bush to conclude free trade agreements with America’s democratic allies. But if opening tourism with a dictatorship sworn to bring down western freedom somehow trumps business with friendly neighbors, then the only ethical thing to do is condition changes in U.S. law with reciprocal reforms by the Castro regime.
In keeping with President Bush’s new policy of encouraging step-by-step reforms on the island, the United States should offer to ease restrictions on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba when the regime establishes fair labor practices–that is, allow Cubans to work for whomever they wish, receive fair-market compensation, organize independent labor unions and buy products and use services in facilities currently off-limits to all except foreigners.
Such conditions, written into U.S. legislation, would not directly threaten Castro’s dictatorship. But they would lay the foundation for further reforms and allow American tourists to visit Cuba knowing those who wait on them are no longer receiving prison wages or being segregated like second-class citizens.