Thursday, July 11, 2013

Reflections on Cuba: Is Tourism a Trojan Horse?

In May I went to Cuba with 5 seminary students through Praxis – a scholarship program designed to give students an opportunity to see first hand the work of Canadian Baptist Ministries with one of their international partners - in this case The Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba. The students and I spent 18 days in Cuba, living with Cuban families, studying with Cuban seminary students and pastors, traveling, thinking, watching, worshipping, talking, learning, un-learning, re-learning. It was a truly incredible time!

I’ve been to Cuba before – my husband and I have gone as tourists 5 or 6 times in the past 25 years. In fact, we would both say that Cuba is our favorite vacation destination. But I’ve always wondered how Cubans really see us tourists as we come to enjoy the sun and the beaches. I generally don't LIKE being a tourist, but the fact is, when you book a vacation in Cuba and stay at an all-inclusive resort, you're a TOURIST! And tourists are often pretty much oblivious to the economic and social realities and challenges of the everyday lives of the people whose country it is that they're visiting. As we're transported from airport to resort and then from resort to airport, we pass through towns, villages and the countryside aboard air-conditioned luxury buses, and I always wonder what the Cuban man or woman, boy or girl, thinks of these “foreigners”? I wonder… and I struggle to know whether our tourist dollars are a blessing or a curse. Could tourism be a trojan horse? Do we come to Cuba bearing "gifts" that ultimately could be dangerous? Hm...

There’s an excellent documentary that I’ve used in some of my classes called Life and Debt which contrasts the Jamaica that tourists see with the “real” Jamaica and even though Cuba is not Jamaica (thanks – really! - in large part to the US embargo), I think some of the same principles apply: western tourists come to get away from the stresses and tensions of life at home (and of course in many cases, to get away from harsh winter climates!). The Jamaicans, Cubans, Mexicans and other ethnic groups that serve us in their tropical resorts have no such opportunity to escape their everyday challenges. The all-inclusive bracelet that clearly identifies the “haves” from the “have-nots” is perhaps something that they dream about – a representation of the “good life” - but with little hope that it will ever be worn on their own wrists.

I took advantage of every opportunity to talk with Cubans during the Praxis trip about tourism. I was curious to know how they see it and it turns out that that depends on what they see. In areas where there are no (or very few tourists), like in Guanajay (where I stayed with a local family for a week), I heard comments like this: “we don’t see any benefit from tourism here. The government says tourism is good for Cuba but they just take the money from tourism and invest it in other projects. It hasn’t improved our lives at all.” In other areas – near Varadero, for example - some people were quick to point out that the growth of tourism had actually increased the cost of living for Cubans in the area. For Cubans, work within the tourism sector is far and away the most lucrative employment option – all kinds of professional people have given up work as teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. to work in resorts where they can make a lot more money – or at least that’s what I heard.

Amongst the students and at a pastors’ retreat we talked about the church and her response to tourism. How is tourism affecting Cuban’s understanding of the gospel? When we come to Cuba as tourists, are we bringing with us more than the dollars and the miscellaneous toiletries and clothing that we will leave behind? If Cubans see the all-inclusive bracelet as the symbol of prosperity and a good life, is there a danger that we are spreading the “affluenza virus” (if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will likely remember several references to a book by Oliver James called Affluenza which argues that affluence is like a virus which infects us and produces all kinds of alarming symptoms – things like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses).

It seems to me that tourism IS affecting all of Cuba in that it is bringing a steady flow of western ideas and western cultural values – individualism, materialism, pluralism – not to mention assumptions about the superiority of capitalism and democracy, into a country that many would describe as “deprived”.

Perhaps those who see Cuba as deprived would be surprised to learn that Cuba ranks 59th (out of 187) on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a ranking based on health, education and income. Cubans generally don’t have access to the Internet and since most Cubans don’t get to travel out of country, it's pretty much impossible for Cubans to have any accurate sense of how life in Cuban compares with life in other countries.

When I asked the Cuban students where they think Cuba ranks on the Human Development Index, they laughed and said that they doubt that Cuba even makes it onto the scale. The reality that they know is so far removed from what they see of the West on TV or in the lives of tourists and other visitors, that they can't imagine that life could be any worse anywhere else in the world. They haven't been to Haiti, or Jamaica, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Liberia, etc. etc. etc. The truth is that as hard as life is for Cubans, it is a LOT tougher in many, many countries.

In the absence of good quality and well-rounded information, I Cubans naturally evaluate themselves relative to what they see: tourists and the few other westerners that come to Cuba on business or for humanitarian or educational purposes (like the Praxis team and CBM more generally). And here’s the thing that I think we all need to be cognizant of: our perception of reality and our understanding of Scripture are inevitably influenced by our native culture and its norms and values. We can’t help it and even when we’re aware of it, we can’t fully control it or change it. By our very nature, we are ethnocentric (which means that we are biased in our own favour – we judge others based on the assumption that our way of thinking and the way we do things is really BETTER than any other way).

And so, even though there are clear indications that "our way" - our assumption that bigger is better, our perpetual and insatiable desire for economic growth, our propensity to assume that technology can solve our problems - is actually quite unsustainable, both from an ecological and an economic perspective, we continue to think that the rest of the world needs to be more like us. Frankly, it's absurd.

I believe that the wisdom of Scripture can help us all to discern what's needed at this moment in history, but the essential prerequisite for that quest is a genuine hunger and thirst for righteousness and a willingness to submit to the wisdom that we discover. I suspect that we may actually discover that our partners in Cuba (and elsewhere) can help us as much as - or more than! - we can help them.


Martin Zwicker said...

Thanks for this Lois! Another thoughtful piece, as usual. The issues in Cuba are complex, for sure. The non-material issues like - lack of democratic elections, the arbitrary application of the law or even misunderstandings about what is even legal have created a culture of fear and paranoia. Much is being made of "new opportunities" for private business (which is likely an initiative for the gov't to try and get a handle on the "black market") and yet what is permitted or "legal" business seems very uncertain. I know someone who has been jailed for two years and has yet to be proven guilty and sentenced - for "black market" activity. This has created significant hardship for the family in Cuba and heartbreak for family outside of Cuba, who provide support - which leads to my second comment. The "trojan horse" of Cuba is that every family is supported, in some way, by family and/or friends outside of Cuba who send $$ and material goods regularly to supplement. Were this to discontinue, the result would be catastrophic to the average Cuban. This is, in my opinion, what fuels the economy and provides basic subsistance. The end is surely near, with the immanent demise of "el Jefe."

cbmlois said...

The issue of remittances is a very significant one. I came across this article that you might find interesting: This is something that I want to look into further... Also, I appreciate the statement that "the issues in Cuba are complex, for sure". I think we sometimes don't fully appreciate how complex they are and how diverse issues are very inter-related. We sometimes naively think that we can understand the complexity once we've had a few interactions or personal visits, but in my experience, we fool ourselves if we think we "get it" after spending a couple of weeks (or even a couple of years!) in another culture.

Unknown said...

As one of the students in this Praxis course, I see tourism as a trojan horse in another way. I have been reading and exploring the Afro-Cuban religion (Santeria) which is connected to tourism as one of the major tourist attractions of Cuba. People want the opportunity to see first hand the ceremonies and listen to the drumming and music of Santeria. In so doing, the spiritual powers behind Santeria are exalted and strengthened. This has to have an impact on the church in Cuba. George Otis, Jr. says "Religious festivals, ceremonies and pilgrimages are not the benign cultural spectacles they are made out to be. There is nothing innocent or "natural" about them. When their colorful veneer is stripped away, they are conscious transactions with the spirit world, occasions for successive generations to reaffirm choices and pacts made by their ancestors. In this sense festivals are a kind of generational passing of the baton, a chance to dust off ancient welcome mates and extend the devil's right to rule over specific peoples and places. Their significance should not be underestimated" (The Twilight Labyrinth, p 202). In Cuba, the state strongly supports the practice of Santeria because it attracts tourists. I'm not sure how much the church in Cuba recognizes the spiritual danger of this trojan horse.

Unknown said...

Really nice blog on cuba holidays.