If you want to appreciate democracy, visit a communist state. I learned that 35 years ago in the Soviet Union and against last month in Cuba, which is another reason why President Donald Trump’s new restrictions on American travel to the island make no sense.
The administration announced Tuesday it is banning group educational and cultural trips known as “people to people” contacts. While American travel to Cuba purely for tourism has long been illegal - a political rebuke to Cuba’s socialist revolution - the Obama administration relaxed the rules in an effort to improve relations. The Trump administration has taken several steps to reverse that course, and it also announced this week it would bar cruise ships, yachts, fishing vessels and private aircraft from stopping in Cuba. The changes have sent tour operators scrambling and cruise lines to change ports of call.
Trump’s national security advisor previewed the crackdown in an appearance before hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami this spring, vowing that the administration would target “veiled tourism” in an effort to squeeze the Cuban government for its support of leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Talk about senseless bullying.
The week I arrived in Havana in May, the Cuban government announced new rationing of eggs, rice, beans and other staples. The shelves of many state stores were empty. Few bathrooms I saw had soap. Venezuela, meanwhile, is paralyzed with a power struggle of its own. If it’s a crisis Trump wants, these countries are managing that themselves.
Even if these trips are little more than “veiled tourism,” who cares? Why should our government dictate where Americans can travel? Anyone who spends hours on the streets of Havana - in the shops, museums, restaurants and markets - cannot help but gain a greater understanding between two neighbors separated by only 90 miles.
As in the Soviet Union, I dealt with my share of indifferent state workers in Cuba and mindless enforcement of pointless rules. Police officers ignored an old woman struggling across a busy street but stopped four lanes of traffic for a military patrol. Wet laundry hung from decaying balconies like the national flag. Nearly every corner was a contrast between the false promise of the revolution and the sad reality of it. The poverty stood out, but so did the ordinary. Men drenched in sweat muscled scaffolding into place. Kids hustled cigars and played soccer after dark with a crushed beer can. Street musicians played for the best behaved schoolchildren imaginable. This is the next Red Menace?
Trump’s restrictions on cruise ships will only force more travelers to stay in state-owned hotels, which helps the Cuban government. And creating more barriers to scare travelers away only makes it more unlikely that the woman who sold me bread will ever see her granddaughter, who lives in Jacksonville, a two-hour flight away. This is a ridiculous, hypocritical policy from a president who lavishes praise on dictators and autocrats from North Korea and Russia to China. It hurts only average Cubans and our ability to offer a glimpse and a hope for a better alternative.
John Hill is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.