So we went to Cuba.

I am anything but any expert after four days, but I do know more than I did when I left – not least because Dr. Ruth was on our trip – so you just knew I would subject you to it.

The only possible ‘finance’ connection I can think of is: Boy, aren’t we fortunate to have been born here. Otherwise, you can just skip this column.

But don’t skip the Season Finale of The West Wing tonight – a TV series the early recommendation of which in this space surely outdoes any financial recommendation I’ve made. In which regard, before we board the plane for Cuba, I have to tell you I just watched last week’s TiVo-ed episode of The West Wing and found out, to my great sorrow, that Mrs. Landingham, the President’s secretary, has died. It is a sad, sad day. Although fictional, Mrs. Landingham was someone a great many of us cared for deeply.

And now on to Gate G-7 of the Miami International Airport, for our chartered Gulfstream International Airlines four-engine 50-seat propeller plane for the 75-minute flight from Miami to Havana. At check-in, there it was on the display: Havana – on a public concourse of the Miami International Airport. Is that a good idea, I wondered? At which point, as if on cue, a bomb sniffing dog arrived to sweep the departure area (you don’t get this for flights to Cleveland), and we proceeded to the plane.

We were among nearly 200,000 Americans to visit Cuba in the past year (second only to about 285,000 Canadians), although most visit via Mexico or Jamaica because of the embargo. The New York Times has called for an end to the embargo, and even the Miami Herald – which, understandably, has to be cautious in these waters – has called for a lifting of all travel restrictions. But for now, travel by American citizens to Cuba is restricted. To be legal, a license from the Treasury Department is required.

There were 33 of us, traveling under a license issued to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Dr. Ruth was among our straight participants. When the pilot and co-pilot discovered she was aboard, they got quite excited. In return, Dr. Ruth promised them ‘good sex for the rest of your lives.’ Just how she is able to assure this is not clear, but it is a gift she bestows liberally (and people seem pleased to accept it).

Among our gay and lesbian participants were the former COO of E*Trade, the designer of the Anne Klein clothing line (well, that would be Charles), a senior guy from Christie’s, a partner with White & Case, a mortgage banker, a Wharton professor, the former COO of the Small Business Administration, and a variety of entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Also, a recently retired phys ed teacher who had learned how to get kids to enjoy phys ed – even the ones who would normally be ‘picked last.’ I urged her to write a book.

The goal of the trip was ‘cultural exchange’ – a chance for us to learn about Cuba, but possibly also to let some Cubans know about us, and the freedoms we enjoy. Plant some seeds of hope and aspiration.

One of our visits was to the home of the US Ambassador, Vicki Huddleston, a career diplomat (previously our man in Madagascar, among much else). The home – originally built for FDR in 1941 on the thought he might enjoy coming down to vacation – is fantastic. Its occupant, equally so. Castro and crew are not too keen on her now. But the first time she met him, in Mexico City, if I remember this right, her posting was in the Office of Mexican Affairs. Castro arrived and worked the cocktail reception easily. When he got to Ms. Huddleston, he asked her what she did for her office and she told him that she was in charge of Cuban affairs. ‘I thought I had that job,’ he replied without missing a beat.

And of course he does, although he was in Malaysia when we were in Havana.

You may have thought, like me, that we have no embassy in Cuba. Technically that’s true. The Swiss Embassy sponsors our United States of America Interests Section. The Swiss have something like 4 employees at their embassy – and 60 Americans and 185 Cubans working at their United States of America Interests Section. Ours is a diplomatic presence second only to that of the Canadian Embassy.

So it’s not as if there are no Americans in Cuba. Staying in our hotel while we were there were, among others, a delegation from Newsweek, which was hosting a contingent of its advertisers; and Arthur Frommer, whom I first met when you really could travel Europe on $5 a Day – or not much more.

George Washington is everywhere as well – the dollar is freely and openly accepted as currency. There are also pesos (20 of them to the dollar), but we never saw any.

The U.S. Treasury permits travel by groups like ours on the theory that cultural exchange will inevitably lead the Cuban people to thirst ever more for a free press, freedom of association, and a democratic system.

General tourism is not permitted (although this restriction is widely flouted) on the theory that vacationers will be whisked straight to resorts that have been built far from the real Cuba, where dollars will be dropped in abundance but visitors will have returned with barely any contact at all with real Cubans.

Still, there are strong arguments in favor of lifting the embargo entirely:

  • It doesn’t work.
  • It hurts the Cuban people, not Castro.
  • It hurts the U.S., because we lose the trade that goes, instead, to Mexico, Canada and elsewhere.
  • It gives Castro an excuse for everything that goes wrong. Without that excuse, he might have a tougher time of it.
  • It gives Castro a common enemy to rally his people around. Without that enemy, their dissatisfaction might turn inward.
  • There is a big difference between our embargo of Cuba and our embargo of Iraq. Saddam is not only a good deal crazier than Castro, he is really, really dangerous.  Castro is not building weapons of mass destruction, and his tanks are highly unlikely to roll into . . . anything.  He is no longer exporting revolution, he is exporting doctors.
  • A huge influx of Americans and trade would surely only hasten the collapse of this creaky, anachronistic system.
  • The more prosperous the country is when Castro finally dies (“the biological solution,” as its known, which many people feel is by far the most likely, but a long way off), the more resources it will have to negotiate some sort of settlement with those whose property was expropriated – unsatisfying as any such settlement is likely to be.

None of this is to excuse the repressive, oppressive dictatorship.  But by contrast with some, it could be worse.  And the embargo probably does more to prolong than to curtail it.

Tomorrow:  The Tour Continues; Dr. Ruth Has Some Advice for You


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