Vacationing with Castro: Should universities travel to dictatorships?
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.”
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