At noon on December 17, 2014, the Academic Travel Abroad team gathered in our conference room to hear President Obama announce he intended to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in over 50 years. Many on our team have spent the past few years working closely with Cuba to deliver superb educational programs for client organizations like the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Our understanding of the island nation, our appreciation for Cuban culture, and our friendship with many Cuban citizens mean that we care deeply about what happens next. And not just for business reasons.
First, we applaud President Obama for this historic, if not long overdue, step. No President in the past 20 odd years has had the courage to apply political capital to this thorny issue. Yet every President had the power to do so. Cuba, it seems, means a lot to a vocal few and too little to a vast majority.
Second, the reasons to adopt a different Cuba strategy are numerous. Here are mine:
- The Cold War ended in 1991, over 23 years ago.
- Our policy of isolation, including the embargo, never worked: the regime was not undermined and Communism lives on in Cuba. In fact, Cuba has been forced to turn to supporters like Venezuela and China for resources while using the embargo as a way to demonize the U.S.
- Our Cuba policy has undermined U.S. credibility on the world stage, particularly in Latin America, and has made us look irrational and out of touch. In October of 2014, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for the 23rd time (188 to 2) to condemn the U.S. embargo.
- Engagement with a country that commits human rights abuses does not magically bring democracy and freedom to the oppressed people. However, by engaging rather than isolating, the U.S. can build leverage, increase dependence, and thereby exert more effective pressure on the powers that be.
The past two weeks at ATA have been interesting. Americans realize that things in Cuba are about to change dramatically over the coming year. They also know the expected surge in U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba will tax the island nation’s current infrastructure. We have seen a dramatic increase in Cuba bookings, doubling the number we received over the same period last year.
While I understand the sense of urgency to see Cuba before too much change occurs, I also want to reassure those who can’t plan a trip in the coming months. Cuba will always enthrall. Its charm and vivacity are irrepressible, as evidenced by its music, arts, and spirited people. No matter when you plan your trip, whether in a month, a year or three years, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Felíz año nuevo!