THESE DAYS, IT CAN BE HARD TO TELL THAT THE United States still maintains its 40-year trade and travel embargo on Cuba. Jimmy Carter and Ralph Nader recently touched down on Fidel Castro's communist island in the Caribbean, just 90 miles from Florida's coast. North Dakota's Republican governor John Hoeven went there to drum up farm business for his state. And even Tampa, Fla.'s Democratic Mayor Dick Greco made a furtive trip to Cuba with 15 local business leaders (they caught hell when Florida's Cuban-American community found out).
In all, 176,000 Americans visited Cuba in the last year. Many were tourists: New Hampshire businessman Arnold Goldstein simply wanted to take a look at the country portrayed in his youth as an international bogeyman. (He recalls diving under his desk in drills to prepare for possible Soviet attacks from Cuban bases.) And despite the travel embargo, it's easy to get there. Any Internet search--try "Cuba travel"--turns up scores of travel agencies offering options that generally involve passing through countries with no embargo, usually Canada or Mexico. Goldstein and his wife didn't want to travel illegally and risk being fined up to $7,500 upon their return. They didn't have to: For an extra $100, a California travel agency hooked them up with licenses the U.S. government issues to academics, journalists and charitable associations. The Goldsteins became new members of the Sephardic Friendship Committee, an organization they had never heard of.
In fact, the travel ban has become so lax that this was an unnecessary precaution. On the Goldsteins' return, U.S. Customs Service agents showed no interest--even when the couple volunteered information and offered to show their permits. Such a reception would have been inconceivable during the Cold War, when Cuba was Moscow's military and ideological beach-head in the Western hemisphere. Like the few U.S. journalists who managed to enter Cuba in those years, I was photographed (as were all other passengers) by local police at the Mexico City airport before boarding the flight for Havana. Once inside Cuba, I was assigned escorts who followed me everywhere, around the clock. Communist regimentation was evident in all aspects of life. We were photographed again upon our return to Mexico City, which was the only noncommunist airport offering regular flights to and from Cuba. The mug shots ended up at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Nowadays, visitors to the balmy Caribbean island find that though it remains communist in name, Cuba better resembles a mismanaged third-world dictatorship long past its sell-by date and dependant on Western tourists for hard cash. The Goldsteins, for example, were enchanted by Havana but stunned by the sight of underage girls selling their bodies to elderly European and Latin American tourists within view of the ubiquitous police. The militant days of communist puritanism--and of vows to ignite revolution around the world--are a faded memory. So are the big plans for industrialization that Castro's Marxist economics czar Carlos Rafael Rodriguez once devised. Roughly half of the country's decrepit plants have closed. Castro, who once derided "bourgeois" tourists, now relies on them. The American dollar is virtually the principal legal tender in the capital.
And so Cuba is back to square one, selling its tropical climate, blue skies and white sandy beaches. Like other third-world travel destinations, Cuba hosts foreign hotel chains and tour operators who develop vacation resorts against the backdrop of grinding poverty. Some hotels have already opened; among them is a Club Med complex. Others are being developed, such as those on the sandy beaches of Cayo Coco island in the north, which features a marina, shopping centers and golf course. A newly opened airport on Cayo Coco receives direct flights from Europe, Canada and Latin America. …