In Cuba, Overseas Travel Brings Out the Worst in People / Ivan Garcia


Ivan Garcia, 6 August 2015 — Engineers Odalys and Anayanci were friends until Autumn 2012 when a training seminar in China unleashed a conflict marked by intrigue, damaging reports and even witchcraft.

“It was huge,” says Sara, an employee of ETECSA, the state telecommunications monopoly. “The department head had to choose among four engineers for the trip. The sniping, the dirty tricks and the humiliations were at a championship level. A pitched gun battle breaks out in the office whenever there is a seminar or scholarship overseas.”

Travel in Cuba is synonymous with status. If offers a chance to make a few hundred dollars and pick up a few things to alleviate the shortages of harsh daily life under tropical socialism.

An insular environment and fifty-four years of restrictions on movement have made foreign travel a luxury. The regime has always used academic and business trips as a tool to promote loyalty and political commitment.

Positions in companies which procure goods from overseas are the most coveted. Their payrolls include the boss’s kids, members of the military aristocracy, sycophants and obedient minions.

At government ministries and prominent institutions, seventy percent of the administrative staff is made up of military retirees. After some accelerated courses in marketing and business administration, they become managers.

The deceptions and scams used to pull off an overseas trip are a nefarious amalgam of the worst human traits. “There are guys who are expert at thwarting others to gain the upper hand when it comes to travel,” says Osvaldo, a former worker at a food import company. “The don’t miss a thing. It’s even common for them to ’play’ the boss with gifts, both before and after an overseas stay.”

Travel and familiarity with other cultures, cuisines and people of different nationalities are no longer unusual in today’s world. Globalization and modernity have made travel easier and cheaper.

For workers from advanced countries, tourism is becoming less expensive and less complicated. But, except for untouchables like Antonio Castro, Cubans cannot travel as tourists overseas.

It is almost impossible unless you work in a foreign business or in the chancery, where relatively short stays in other countries are common. According to Erasmus, a former buyer of a metallurgical company, Cubans have to meet three conditions.

“Unconditional support — apparent or real — for the system, membership in the party or Communist Youth, and an extensive service record that demonstrates your loyalty to the government. Academic training, years of experience and professional accomplishment don’t count for much,” notes Erasmo. “Export companies have seen horrors like people buying snow plows or heating equipment, not to mention corruption and nepotism.”

The government’s distrust of its subjects is legendary. “Usually, when you get to the country where you have work or do business, the embassy will take your passport,” said a doctor who spent two years in Africa.

There are opaque officials and advisors — those who do not make the front pages of newspapers — classic suck-ups and expert ideological contortionists with more flying hours than many pilots.

“These people know the ’fabric’ (situation) better than anyone. They often sense when a boss is about to go down in disgrace and have an instinct for knowing where the keys to opportunities and overseas trips are. In this country there are tons of shady characters like this,” says Osvaldo.

Since 2013, when Cuba’s dictators relaxed their emigration policy and dissidents were allowed to leave the country, some opposition figures have spent more time in the air than at home.

The fact that opponents can now take advantage of scholarships or post-graduate programs is a positive development, as is their ability to participate in international events, where they are able to expose the constant violations of political rights by the Castro regime.

But meetings for meeting’s sake and frivolous conversations held in different world capitals that are paid for with taxpayer money, all to discuss an agenda that can be discussed in Havana, is an unnecessary expense.

There are opposition figures who in two years have acquired visas from twenty-five different countries. Their safaris take them to places where the subject of Cuba is a distant and exotic melody.

Almost all these trips are ineffective. The Castro regime will not discuss political reforms because a dissident has called for them in a speech at a forum in Prague or Santiago de Chile.

To effect change, one must take to the streets. In Cuba.