Vacationing with Castro: Should universities travel to dictatorships?

by Stephanie Wang - University of Michigan on January 19, 2012

Cuba, once a non-option for travel, is quickly gaining tourists as restrictions on visiting the country are eased. And now, The University of Michigan Alumni Center will follow in the footsteps of several other American universities and embark on an alumni trip to Cuba later this year.

But given that an oppressive government still exists in Cuba today, some are concerned about the appropriateness of the trip—and whether spending tourism dollars in a communist dictatorship is a wise idea.

“The regime needs those dollars like oxygen,” said Jay Nordlinger, senior editor of National Review and a U-M graduate. “I, myself would not choose to vacation in Cuba, or any other totalitarian state.  I would not feel comfortable vacationing in a place whose citizens are forbidden to leave. Voting with your feet—opting to leave—seems the minimum right.”

In the past, Cuba has been known for its “tourism apartheid,” in which tourists and citizens were kept entirely separate.  While this practice has been relaxed in recent years, Cuba remains an oppressive place to live for the average Cuban.

“Cuba is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag,” said Nordlinger. “It has been this way for more than 50 years.  There is no dissent allowed, no freedom.”

While the planned trip has upset some critics of the Cuban government, others believe contact between Cuban citizens and American tourists would be beneficial.

“I think all people-to-people contacts are positive, as they teach one about the rest of the world and the rest of the world learns about us,” said Sylvia Pedraza, professor of sociology and American culture at U-M. “However, it will depend on what they will actually do there.”

Pedraza, who was born and raised in Cuba, said the Cuban government shouldn’t monitor the trip.

“If the trip consists of just visiting with government officials or those artists and intellectuals chosen by government officials, it will not benefit anyone too much–neither the Cuban people nor the Michigan alumni,” she said. “If the Michigan alumni make an effort to get out of the beaten path and meet the real Cuban people and they try to understand their lives, then a positive exchange will have taken place.”

The itinerary for the trip is available on the Alumni Center website. The alumni will travel to Havana, Cojimar, and Cienfuegos, three of the larger cities in the country. They will be exposed to Cuban artists and citizens in each of their destinations.

In 2003, President George W. Bush eliminated licenses to travel to Cuba, but those restrictions were lifted by President Obama. Prestigious universities, including the University of California Los Angeles and Harvard University, have since visited the country.

U-M’s selection of Cuba was due in part to the eased travel restrictions, but also because university alumni had asked about the possibility, said Carrie Fediuk, Travel Program Manager for the Alumni Center.

When it comes to making travel plans, the U-M Alumni Center holds itself to a three-pillar system consisting of “camaraderie, life-long learning, and global awareness,” said Fediuk. According to her, the trip fits the bill and “is not politically motivated.”

The Alumni Center puts on about 50 trips around the world each year, usually to places outside the United States. The point of these trips, said Fediuk, is cultural immersion.

“These are sophisticated travelers dedicated to learning,” she said.

Despite the eased restrictions, it is still difficult for Americans to plan trips to Cuba. Programs like the Alumni Center must apply to the U.S. government for a travel license. Only experienced programs are approved. It is necessary to be explicit about the purpose of the trip as well as the exact number of people traveling, because the Cuban government wants a specific ratio of visitors to Cuban citizens. Feduik believes this policy is in place because it allows for the best interaction and deepest immersion within Cuba.

Feduik noted that the Alumni Center works solely with the U.S. government when planning these trips. Presumably, the U.S. government then makes arrangements with the Cuban government to make sure the planned activities are acceptable.

Despite some negative opinions about the appropriateness of an American university vacationing in Cuba, the Alumni Center has two trips planned in 2012 and a possible third in the works. Whether or not U-M alumni will be immersed in true Cuban culture—or a government-approved version of it—remains to be seen.

Fix contributor Stephanie Wang is a student at the University of Michigan.

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  • willis

    ““These are sophisticated travelers dedicated to learning,” she said.”

    Please, these are Marxists making a pilgramige to their Holy Land.

    • Blayne Sapelli

      And what do you call businessmen traveling to China or Singapore?

      • phil

        Great non sequiter. You must be a sophisticated fellow traveler.

  • JKB

    “Feduik noted that the Alumni Center works solely with the U.S. government when planning these trips. Presumably, the U.S. government then makes arrangements with the Cuban government to make sure the planned activities are acceptable.”

    How naive can the university be? That is not how this works. They have to use government approved tour operators but that doesn’t preclude the Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) from deciding later the tour didn’t meet the person-to-person program criteria and imposing a big fine.

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  • Philster

    The allumni association of my alma mater, Northern Illinois University, advertised a trip to Cuba several years ago. The next time they called me for a contribution I explained to them why I woud never contribute to their organization again.

  • OSweet

    …I think all people-to-people contacts are positive, as they teach one about the rest of the world and the rest of the world learns about us…
    That reminds me, I have a good friend, a Canadian, who goes to Cuba about twice a year, seeking out good times of the salacious sort. So he especially enjoys the people-to-people contact, i.e. the prostitutes, which are everywhere. Says they often offer the first night free, such is how the supply exceeds the demand. Says he sometimes even gets the service in the prostitute’s home, with her parents in like the other room. They need the money so their father can eat meat, he says they say.

    • Bob

      Yeah, a “friend” is going to Cuba to patronize prostitutes. Sure thing.

  • Bob

    The naivete of the individuals at UM organizing this trip is absolutely hilarious. The following comment is an absolute gem: “If the trip consists of just visiting with government officials or those artists and intellectuals chosen by government officials, it will not benefit anyone too much–neither the Cuban people nor the Michigan alumni.”

    That there is someone who actually thinks the government in a TOTALITARIAN STATE is not going tell a group of travelers (fellow travelers is more like it) where they can go and who they can see is just plain funny. As is the notion that those alumni are actually going to “try and understand” the lives of those who have been enslaved by the Castro dictatorship. People who make trips like this have demonstrated time and time again that they couldn’t care less about those who have to live under a communist tyrant. The only thing they care about is fawning over their hero, dear Fidel.

  • Alex Bensky

    I imagine that there would be a burst of protest if the group organized a trip to Israel.

    The people-to-people idea is fine, but the tourists are not going to have a chance to speak to anyone not carefully selected by the government.

    I am an alumnus of the U. of Michigan’s law school–I don’t give to them, either, because I don’t knowingly contribute to organizations that practice racial discrimination.

  • John

    As bad as the Cuba trips are, they are nothing compared to when the California Alumni Association offered a trip to Iran a couple years ago while three of my fellow alumni were still being held there on trumped up spying charges.

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  • richb

    No American in their right mind should visit Cuba until Castro and his government is gone. Until then, you are supporting his government, which oppresses its own citizens, by spending hard currency there.

    How else did this evil “government” regime last for over fifty years? Because naive and stupid people enabled him.

    People from universities are the last people that should be visiting Cuba at this time, they are the group that will fall for the nonsense from Casto’s regime. The new president in 2013 should eliminate these “licenses” on his or her first day in office.

  • Blayne Sapelli

    Oh, so we shouldn’t go to Cuba because it’s totalitarian… but China is fine? Singapore is fine? WTF?

  • Cajun Nick

    Blayne,

    Who said China is fine? Who said Singapore is fine? No one on this comment board.

    I’m sorry to have to explain this to you: The point of the article is not to examine travel to ALL the totalitarian regimes in the world. The reason that a trip to Cuba is singled out in this article is because the university is sponsoring a trip there. Not to China. Not to Singapore.

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