Racing to Cuba

Like many Americans, I've long desired to visit Cuba, and for every American to be free to go there - in that order.

Sure, I want freedom for the Cuban people as well as safe, cheap and open travel lanes between Miami and Havana. Like countless others, I just want to get there beforehand. Hence I greeted today's news that the Obama administration is lifting restrictions on individual travel to Cuba with a discomfiting mix of joy and trepidation.

For years I've been telling my husband, "Time is running out." Lately my entreaties grew even more urgent, and so we signed up for an InsightCuba "people-to-people" tour. Come mid-June, at considerable expense, we are scheduled to spend a week touring Havana and the rugged Vinales region.

Friends who traveled to Cuba last year reported two things were ubiquitous: music and poverty. For good and ill, that won't change inside of three months, nor will the meticulously preserved 1950s American cars and elegant Colonial architecture disappear from sight. If anything, the cars and buildings will be better preserved than ever, to cash in when the floodgates open.

But every day, as a little more of America moves in, we fear that a little more of Cuba will be lost. Not to mention, we wonder if the steep price we are paying to be escorted around the country will wind up foolishly spent, when we could henceforth presumably do much the same thing on our own.

In actuality, of course, Cuba has never been closed. Canadians, Europeans et al have traveled freely there for years, and if we had had the time, the gumption and the Spanish language down pat, we could have made our way there via another country years ago. I've met and envied people who did just that.

In recent years, U.S. tours have proliferated under the "people-to-people" banner, in which visas are granted and tourism allowed as long as the group spends a portion of each day meeting with Cubans in a set circumstance.

A friend who was thinking about joining us in June, and likes to sleep late, asked if she could skip one or more of these sessions. Not without a doctor's excuse, a tour company advisor told me, because visas could be endangered if the "people-to-people" raison d'etre wasn’t followed through.

Tour companies know exactly how best to promote Cuba tours, all with some version of "See it before it changes forever!" Meaning, of course, before America changes it, because we are most feared in that respect. The fact that Obama (along with the Rolling Stones) is headed there this month is one thing; a massive influx of ordinary Americans like me is quite another.

I'm old enough to recall when American cultural imperialism, a.k.a. the March of McDonald's, could be seen as a bigger threat than American military intervention. The power of our popular culture is still potent enough to strike fear in some parts, but it's largely been eclipsed by our military escapades.

I don't yet know, but hope to find out on the ground, what Cubans fear most, or if they fear anything from us at all. But there's no doubt whatsoever what American travelers fear. We have met the cultural enemy around the world and, all too often, it is us.

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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