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The Castros Are Shaking in Their Boots at Yankee Tourists

By: José Azel - Jun 11, 2015, 1:58 pm
US tourists would much rather drink mojitos than bother with converting the Castros' totalitarian regime. (<a href="https://flic.kr/p/4Jf2Ni" target="_blank">fiat.luxury</a>)
US tourists would much rather drink mojitos than bother with converting the Castros’ totalitarian regime. (fiat.luxury)

The proposition seems intuitively reasonable: US tourists will help bring democracy to Cuba. But, it is also demonstrably false.

The idea that US tourists, innately imbued with democratic values and norms, will proudly reflect and share those values while traveling abroad is an authentic premise. Thus, we view them as ambassadors for democracy, and a powerful force in communicating the virtues of democratic governance.

And whereas this may indeed be the case, it does not follow with syllogistic certainty that such ambassadorship can bring about the empowerment of the citizenry in a totalitarian regime.

In the case of Cuba, for decades 2 million tourists from Canada, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have traveled yearly to the island with no impact whatsoever on the Cuban regime. The more empirically valid argument is that expenditures by tourists add to the longevity of the regime, since the monies flow into enterprises controlled by the Cuban military. Moreover, tourist dollars allow the regime to avoid meaningful economic and political reforms.

In any case, international tourism has not brought about political reforms in Cuba, or in the remaining universe of totalitarian regimes. For example, China and Vietnam welcome 130 million and 8 million tourists respectively each year with no impact on their form of government.

Advocates of tourism as a means to democratic governance counter argue that Cuba is different, and suggest that it is not the total number of visitors that counts, but specifically US tourism. Yet, the logic behind this chauvinistic view of US tourists as the only effective couriers of democratic values is never explained. It is only offered that they, by some vague cultural and historic affinity, are better endowed to convey the values of democratic governance to the Cuban people. But if such cultural and historical kinship does exist, it applies much more to Spanish-speaking tourists from Latin America and Spain.

In fact, US tourists have only limited contact with the Cuban population. Most tourist resorts are in isolated areas, controlled by the security apparatus, and off limits to the average Cuban. Most also encounter a language barrier, and it is not clear that they consider their vacation time as an opportunity to subvert the Cuban regime.

Most likely, US Americans, like most tourists, prefer to relax with mojitos in the beautiful beaches of Cuba. In the case of cruise-ship tourism, passengers will disembark for a few hours to purchase rum and cigars, and return to the ship. Again, it is not clear how this helps to usher in democratic governance, unless the argument relies on some mysterious osmotic process.

Nonetheless, rather than rejecting the “American tourists” argument only on its lack of logical merits, I looked for statistical proxies to test the hypothesis. US tourists represent only 1.6 percent of inbound tourism in China. In Cuba, tourists from the United States account for 3.3 percent of total tourism. In other words, Cuba’s tourism is twice as US intensive as China’s. Neither country has engaged in political reforms, so it is only fair to ask: what percentage of tourists must be from the United States to validate the “US tourists will bring democracy” thesis? Answer: unknown.

Another revealing comparison is to relate the number of US tourists to the population of the host countries. China, with a population of 1.3 billion, receives 2 million US tourists each year. Cuba, with a population of 11.2 million, welcomes 90,000. Thus, on a per capita basis, Cuba welcomes a US visitor for every 124 Cubans, while China receives a US tourist for every 650 Chinese citizens. In theory, at least, this means that the per capita concentration of US tourists in Cuba is already five times greater than that in China. Yet no democratic reforms are visible in either country.

Again, it is fair to ask: how many US tourists per capita are required to substantiate the “US tourists will bring democracy” theory? Answer: unknown.

The point of all this is simply to show that the “US tourists will help bring democracy to Cuba” working proposition of the administration’s new US-Cuba policy fails to pass the most basic tests of logical coherence. We deserve more critical and rigorous thinking from our policymakers.

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.