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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cuba Tourism: Seeing the Real Cuba or the Potemkin Village?

How to become a totalitarian regime's agent of influence

American tourists pass by the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba
Traveling to Cuba under the Castro regime should be a subject for serious reflection and not to be taken lightly for a number of reasons that are not immediately evident. First and foremost the tourism industry in Cuba is run by the military and intelligence services.

These reflections would also be useful for visits to other totalitarian regimes because they use many of the same tactics. Visitors are often kept in areas geared to tourists providing them a Potemkin village experience. However that does not mean that information on health and security will be accurate and it can still place tourists at risk.

In the case of both Cuba and North Korea, businessmen who have engaged the regime in business ventures are rotting in prison. There is no independent judiciary and all is subject to the objectives of the dictatorship. One can become a pawn of the regime to advance the dictatorship's agenda as was the case with Alan Gross who spent five years in a Cuban prison and as is now the case of University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March of 2016 in North Korea for supposedly removing a political banner from a hotel. 

How tourism can unwittingly turn one into an agent of influence
Two important questions that arise are how useful are trips to places like Cuba in ascertaining the reality on the ground? What has happened in the past when tourists visiting a totalitarian regime take the lead in public diplomacy?
Visitors to totalitarian states become targets of both the state security service and the propaganda ministries. These regimes will pull out all the stops to show themselves in the best light possible and make sure that high profile visitors have a great time but within a reality fabricated by them. It has paid back with big dividends in the past with a partial list including: Lincoln Joseph Steffens, Charles Lindbergh, Jane Fonda, Linda Ronstadt, and Dennis Rodman that wittingly or unwittingly became agents of influence after visiting totalitarians.

Singer Linda Ronstadt visited Cuba and got the Potemkin Village tour
 Linda Ronstadt presents a textbook example of this phenomenon in a August 18, 2014 AZCentral interview where she gives talking points on the Cuban Adjustment Act and reveals that she had traveled to Cuba to further legitimize her claims:

"We allow Cubans to come in and say that they're refugees. Well, in Cuba — I've been there, you know — people are fed, people are housed, people are clothed. There isn't violence in the streets. 
Ronstadt had spoken more extensively about her impressions of Cuba in a 2003 interview in City Pulse:

It’s an amazing country. I’ve been all over Latin America. And it’s the only Latin American country I’ve been in that didn’t have armed troops on the street, there weren’t homeless people everywhere, and kids had school uniforms and had schoolbooks paid for and had their health paid for. There’s things going on in Cuba that we don’t know about, and that’s mainly because of the Miami Cubans, they just absolutely won’t – they are absolutely closed-minded. They hate Fidel Castro, they won’t even hear about some of the good things he’s done, and they don’t want anyone else to know about it, either. It’s a total propaganda device and they’ve blanketed this country with propaganda about Cuba, huge amounts of which are untrue.
The reality that Cubans know on and off the island is far different, but also there are respected international human rights bodies and organizations that would dispute everything in the above statement. Sadly, the Cuban government successfully manipulated this talented and legendary singer who had The Eagles as a backup band into an agent of influence for their regime.

This is has been going on for a long time and the techniques of hospitality are so refined that one need not be an ideological fellow traveler to be converted.  These totalitarian tactics are ideologically neutral and the language used by those taken in by it remarkably similar.

Charles Lindbergh in Nazi Germany with Hermann Göring
Charles Lindbergh, visited Germany five times between 1936 and 1939. Lindbergh was taken on tours of airfields and factories, lavishly entertained by Air Marshal Hermann Göring, and awarded one of the Third Reich’s highest civilian honors. Lindbergh wrote to the banker Harry Davison, “With all the things we criticize, he [Hitler] is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe has done much for the German people.  Following the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that further legitimized the Nazis, Lindbergh's wife offered the following perspective on Hitler to her mother in a August 5, 1936 letter:     

"Hitler, I am beginning to feel, is a very great man, like an inspired religious leader -- and as such rather fanatical -- but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power, but a mystic, a visionary who really wants the best for his country and, on the whole, has a rather broad view."
When Germans failed to achieve the Thousand Year Reich Hitler had wanted the German dictator issued the Nero Decree on March 19, 1945 ordering the infrastructure of the country to be destroyed effectively sentencing the German people to death by destroying water supplies and shelter. Not only did Nazi Germany order the extermination of the Jewish people at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 but three years later Hitler wanted to do away with the German people when they did not achieve his goals.

Did the Lindbergh's travel provide them with an advantage over Winston Churchill, for example who did not visit Nazi Germany, on the real nature of the German government? Remember that the Lindbergh's were not Nazis but had been manipulated during their five visits to Germany but had as did many others the "advantage" of saying that they had special knowledge because of those visits. Churchill's counsel in the 1930s to take a hard line against Nazi Germany went unheeded and the consequences were catastrophic. In 1945 in a speech to the Belgian Senate and Chamber, Winston Churchill described how one day Franklin Roosevelt asked him what should we call this war? To which the British Prime Minister responded the Unnecessary War because it easily could have been prevented.

Totalitarians whether Nazi or Communist have a track record of effectively using tourism, athletic events, and academic exchanges to present their regimes in a way that historically legitimized them and covered up their hostile objectives often with disastrous results not only for their own countries but the international community as a whole. An excellent accounting of these practices and their impacts on national and international politics is found in Paul Hollander's book Political Pilgrims that should be required reading for anyone traveling to Cuba, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Vietnam.

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