Decay, Gorgeous Decay!

In the middle of this reasonable, by-the-numbers Jacob Weisberg argument against Bush's Cuba policy, the Slate editor tosses off this observation (italics mine):

It's hard to imagine that Castro would still be in power today if Havana had spent the last couple of decades awash in American tourists, Cuban-American visitors, and development-driving entrepreneurs (though walking around Havana's gorgeous, tropical decay makes you perversely glad it hasn't).

At the risk of objecting to the aesthetic responses of others, this common sentiment has always irritated the hell out of me. Oh, the crumbling, no-longer-beautiful houses! Ah, the lovely two-feet-deep potholes, and rickety Chinese bicycles (because the 50-year-old Chevys and 30-year-old Ladas don't work, and at any rate there's no gas). How people can derive pleasure from evidence of the suffering of innocents is beyond me, and few sights are more unseemly to my eyes than seeing a Lonely Planet-waving travel snob whine about how some current or formerly misgoverned hellhole has been "ruined" by all that yucky reconstruction, material success, and (worst of all!) tourism. Oh how pretty! The baseball players make $20 a month, and they live on a prison, but at least there's no annoying electronic scoreboard!

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  • ||

    That is hilarious, Matt. I can't figure it out either. It must somehow be related to the instinct that makes bazillionaires tell us how glorious it is to poop in the woods. Related, but not exactly the same. It seems to me that there is special, almost propaganda like language reserved for Cuba, whereas cute suffering in other places is supposed to be more of an object lesson than anything specific to the jungle or whathaveyou.

  • ||

    The Third World as Safari Park mindset. I hate it.

  • ||

    I don't now. . .one stupid parenthetical comment doesn't seem reason enough to vilify what is otherwise a pretty good article.

  • ||

    Make that "I don't KNOW." Forgive me, I'm tired.

  • ||

    He did write "perversely," too. It doesn't sound like he was too proud of himself finding beauty in decay.

  • Matt Welch||

    Jason -- Oh, it was common as hell in 1990s Central Europe, especially Prague (which, as Americans who'd been living there for all of a week would be happy to tell you, was always being "ruined" by the tourists). People were forever trying to pin the date on when Prague somehow "peaked," after which it presumably has been sliding toward Disneyfied oblivion.

    Jennifer -- I didn't "vilify" the article, did I?

  • ||

    Has a policy of punishing a people in an effort to make them so miserable that they rise up and kill their leaders worked in modern times?

    We don't like Castro, so lets not trade with Cuba, and hopefully the Cubans will oust Castro.

    We didn't like Saddam, so we put in place a program that punished the Iraqi's in the hopes they'd replace Saddam.

    I hope I'm not mis-characterizing too badly, but it seems that we need to think twice before we ever implement a policy with the hopes that punishing the people will result in the leaders ouster.

  • Matt Welch||

    SPD -- I'd think it's "perverse" to enjoy the decay, but something worse to allow that enjoyment to make you "glad" it exists instead of freedom.

  • ||

    Matt,

    Agreed. It was a poor choice of words (for a thought that did not need expression) in what was otherwise a well-written article.

  • gaius marius||

    ah, the cult of the new! i pity you, mr welch, that you cannot allow yourself to see beauty in decay. have you ever been to rome?

  • ||

    Jacob Wiseguy's best writing has always been chronicling Dubya's malapropisms. His original writing is as uninspired as his handling the reigns at Slate. (Mike Kinsley, please come back.)

  • ||

    You're not knocking Lonely Planet by association are you? They've saved my ass so many times, I'll have to defend them.

  • Matt Welch||

    ed -- Lonely Planet is terrific. Occasionally sour, moralistic, fellow-travelery ... and terrific.

    gaius -- Yeah, I been to Rome a couple of times (didn't like it so much, on account of the Romans), and the decay is lovely & marvelous. And it's also not a direct result of a current totalitarian government.

  • Val Prieto||

    While the article does make a few good points, it's incredibly arrogantto think Americans are responsible for Cuba's present ills. Tanking an economy that was third in the hemisphere in the fifties to one where the country is now just another third world vacation spot for omnipotent tourists is the sole responsibility of the man in charge over there.

  • ||

    I once had an english prof who hit the nail right on the head. She said "Remember, Glenn, lots of folks need someone to look down on"
    My guess is that most of the folks who decry progress in the third world simply like lording it over the poor people. Besides they know that one day soon the big jet will take them back to first world and all that mundane stuff like supermarkets with full shelves, gas stations on every corner and all the other trappings of freedom.

  • ||

    I did see recently that Castro's been seizing assets from and kicking out the European companies he invited for joint ventures back in the 1990s. Shock, gasp. The embargo may be stupid, but it's not like companies from other countries couldn't get around it if it really were the only problem. It's not like American tourists would be so special compared to the existing Canadian and European ones, either.

  • ||

    Matt

    I recently attended a talk put on by Ian Wright (formerly the host of Lonely Planet) in Vancouver, BC, in which Ian explicitly made the exact point you have made. I was quite surprised and impressed.

  • ||

    "It's easy to love it when you don't have to live in it'

    This is a good point, and that seems to be exactly the point that Weisberg was making. The thing is, it *is* interesting to see the exotic, the decayed, the other. I am far from a Weisberg fan, but his point is innocent enough. It doesn't seem as though he's actually suggesting that Cubans are lucky to be living in squalor, but rather acknowledging the perversity of finding their environs appealing as a visitor (as well as acknowledging the fact that it is, in fact, appealing).

  • gaius marius||

    it's also not a direct result of a current totalitarian government.

    agreed.

  • David H Dennis||

    This "thank goodness for Communism, it's the only way these lovely old buildings are saved" is a common viewpoint among the left. Before I went to Cuba to see for myself, I read numerous books that echoed that curious sentiment.

    My trip to Cuba was bittersweet because of the disintegrating but beautiful architecture, but I was always shocked at how callous people were over the sufferings of people they said they loved.

    I loved Cuba and I loved Cubans, but after going there I could never love Castro or his regime. When I found out they were slapping people in jail for 28 years for running a lending library, that was too much for me and I haven't been back since. Loved the trip, love the people, hate the government.

    D

    PS Click on my name to see my pictures from Cuba, so you can get an idea of what the fuss was all about, are in the link associated with my name.

  • ||

    The hutongs of Beijing, same deal. They'll sell you big coffee table books of glamourous pictures of these rotting slums. But the gov't is plowing them under, making pretty for the Olympics, moving the residents into high-rises with indoor plumbing and HVAC.

    The Lonely Planet types are the only ones crying. The residents say "take 'em! all yours!!"

  • Matt Welch||

    John -- American tourists *would* be "special" compared to the Canucks & Euro-trash, because they'd be so much more plentiful (and far more likely to have blood relatives on the island).

    David -- Nice pictures.

  • ||

    If I want to see ruin, decay, squalor and perversity, I can go home to my apartment.

  • ||

    Am I the only one to think that there is some sort of bizarre reverse political correctness going on here. Communism sucks, killed more people than fascism, yada yada yada. I'm with you. Where I'm not with you is in feeling the need to jump down the throats of everyone who would dare to suggest that there is something appealing about visiting a decaying tropical locale. Does the fact that Cuba is communist somehow make it improper to suggest that there might be something, somewhere, that is interesting about it?

  • ||

    "Yeah, I been to Rome a couple of times (didn't like it so much, on account of the Romans), and the decay is lovely & marvelous. And it's also not a direct result of a current totalitarian government"

    So... it's only proper to acknowledge that decay can be beautiful if it's in a country whose politics you can agree with?

    Agree with above... weird political correctness.

  • Crank||

    Matt - It's not just the Third World, either. Here in Manhattan we get people who are nostalgic for the pre-Rudy ubiquity of squalor, crime, filth, etc. (Jay Nordlinger and Daniel Henninger have chronicled this phenomenon).

  • ||

    Jennifer, Matt did call the article otherwise "reasonable." He didn't attack Weisberg's general argument at all. I haven't read the piece yet, so I don't know what that argument is. But it doesn't matter, because Matt was reacting to only that one little aside.
    And I agree with his reaction. It irritates me too. There's a tendency among some Western leftists to romanticize poverty and misery. I've talked with some. I've read a nitwit environmentalist say how horrible it was that an African village got electricity.
    "Oh no! You're becoming like us. You don't want to be like us! We're horrible! Yeah, we might live comfortable lives, have coveniences you've never dreamed of, have all our teeth past age 20, and on average live 40 years longer than any of you, but you have your own culture! Don't throw that away for a longer, healthier, more comfortable life! And more important, who will be the object of our self-righteous condescension now?"
    At least Weisberg is aware that his happiness at Havana's decay is perverse. A lot of these types of people seem utterly oblivious.
    I won't even get started on Cuba -- I hang around enough Fidel/Che-loving well-off hipsters to make me want to relaunch the Bay of Pigs invasion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
    I like the "Safari Park" remark. I may use it next time I'm in a drunken argument with one of those hipsters (probably doesn't matter -- they'll still most likely end up calling me "Hitler," and that will be that). I'll be sure to cite you, stubby.
    :)

  • Matt Welch||

    joebob, allen -- I said, "At the risk of objecting to the aesthetic responses of others" for a reason. I recognize that people get their kicks every which way, and my way should not be the highway. I'm just pointing out a sentiment that irritates me, especially the part about being "glad" that the decay has taken place.

    I have no "need to jump down the throats of everyone who would dare to suggest that there is something appealing about visiting a decaying tropical locale," since that actually describes *me*; I think there's plenty "interesting" about the place. It's just that when people say things like "aren't these crumbling old buildings great?", or "I hope it doesn't get ruined by tourists" in regards to a totalitarian country, I don't agree.

  • ||

    I think one of the differences is that you don't see quite as many miserable third worlders attempting to survive amongst the Roman ruins. The beauty is the architecture not the pain and suffering of innocents.

  • ||

    Stevo Darkly wins the award for best comment.

  • ||

    Well if there aren't enough crumbling buildings in Havana any more, they can still find plenty of them in DC.

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    Furthermore glorification of human misery is hardly a monopoly of the left.

  • ||

    Roman ruins were partly caused by a totalitarian government - the Christian rulers in the early middle ages were anxious to destroy any remnants of the pagan past.

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    It's not like American tourists would be so special compared to the existing Canadian and European ones, either.
    Well, Americans are for more special than Euros and Canadians in a few ways. We're a lot closer to Cuba, so it's a whole lot easier for us to get there cheap. Therefore, there will be more of us. Just like you see a whole lot more European tourists in the Middle East than you'll see from the US or Canada.

  • ||

    "It's just that when people say things like "aren't these crumbling old buildings great?", or "I hope it doesn't get ruined by tourists" in regards to a totalitarian country, I don't agree."

    I agree with you here 100%, and am fully aware that there are many out there who senselessly spout such silliness. My point is that I don't think that Weisberg was really saying either of those things... it seems to me that he was just noting the pleasantness of his environs as a visitor, and acknowledging the peversity of deriving pleasure from it.

  • ||

    Glenn:

    You come so close to hitting the "nail on the head" when you quote your teacher about "needing someone to look down on." And I think you've got the right hammer, if not nail.

    These romantics are not looking down on the poor. They're looking down on their fellow
    rich Westerners who lack the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate the gorgeousness of Cuban decay.

    The connoisseur is proud of seeing qualities in an item that elude the proles next door.

    You can almost picture them swirling around that beautiful, squalid Cuban scene in their mouths like a wine. "Such rich, oaky tannins amid the squalor! Such a fragnant overtones discernbile amongst the decaying bouquet!" And they spit it out neatly onto the floor, as they head back to the US.

    The poor are merely their wine. And you don't gratify your ego by putting down the wine. You gratify it by putting down your neighbors because they can't appreciate it.

    If a Dantean reward awaits these insufferable bobos, they will spend decades fermenting in
    their own wine bottle of squalor, for the delectation of others.

  • ||

    "They're looking down on their fellow
    rich Westerners who lack the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate the gorgeousness of Cuban decay."

    I disagree. Mostly they're just happy to be somewhere that is emphatically not like home, that is the point of travel for most people. Of course we should all rejoice for the people of Havana when Havana becomes just like Miami, but when it does what will be the attraction for the traveler? It will be a better place to live obviously but you won't have any exotic stories with which to regale your friends, you won't get the frisson from physically experiencing a very different way of life. Communist countries were perfect "travel" destinations. They were/are very exotic, very unlike home, but also much safer (for the traveler) than an African or Latin American hellhole. Cuba is one of the last of this countries remaining in this niche. Morally there is something wrong about being willing to condemn people to poverty just so you can vicariously live a different life, but at least Weisberg seems aware of this. Most Western Europeans wouldn't even get why he used the word "perversely."

  • ||

    Matt C-

    Your post gives the impression that you feel as though nobody has ever traveled in the third world for reasons other than what you're describing. Careful with your generalizations.

  • ||

    Well said, Vanya.

  • ||

    ah, the cult of the new! i pity you, mr welch, that you cannot allow yourself to see beauty in decay. have you ever been to rome?

    I've been to a nursing home, there's plenty of ugly decay there...
    Gaius, are you a NIN fan by any chance?

  • ||

    "I been to Rome a couple of times (didn't like it so much, on account of the Romans), and the decay is lovely & marvelous. And it's also not a direct result of a current totalitarian government."

    It's pretty sad that you have to ask whether your aesthetic impressions are politically correct before you allow yourself to have them.

    I wonder, how does the difference between current-totalitarian-government decay and former-totalitarian-government decay present itself to the naked eye?

  • Bill Peschel||

    A worse example appeared in Conde Nast Traveller about four issues ago, in which the writer praised Mexico City's new and renovated attractions, but wistfully recalled visiting the city when corruption was rampant and muggings made walking the city at night hazardous. Mexico seemed more real and authentic then.

  • John Dunshee||

    "I been to Rome a couple of times (didn't like it so much, on account of the Romans), and the decay is lovely & marvelous. And it's also not a direct result of a current totalitarian government."

    Actually the Roman ruins were saved the a totalitarian government. Mussolini established the first protection for them.

  • Joe||

    "A worse example appeared in Conde Nast Traveller about four issues ago, in which the writer praised Mexico City's new and renovated attractions, but wistfully recalled visiting the city when corruption was rampant and muggings made walking the city at night hazardous. Mexico seemed more real and authentic then."

    This is something well worth exploring. I call it the 'Fight Club' phenomenon, because of the very visceral reactions some people had in watching that movie and in thinking about their own lives.

    We want our lives to be more cushy, and yet, we want to feel as if we're living an un-cushy life, because our culture decries a cushy life and glorifies hardship.

    Hence, our innately negative reaction to Brave New World.

    It's cognitive dissonance that most people have, and everyone deals with in their own little way.

  • Matt Welch||

    joe -- I should have said the "ruins," and not the "decay." Decay, generally, is not lovely to me, less so when it's the result of evil and/or stupid government policy. As for the difference between current & former totalitarians, current decay tends to be much more, um, recent.

    And no, I don't subject my aesthetics to a political litmus test; far from it, actually. (I am a big fan, for example, of some '70s East Bloc architecture, and even some Stalinist monstrosities like the Culture Center in Warsaw.) But when you're talking specifically about the *decay* of once-lovely colonial buildings in Havana, and even going to the lengths of pronouncing yourself "glad" (even "perversely") that such rot came instead of restoration-producing interaction with the outside world, politics become inescapable.

    I wandered around downtown Havana for days with a 62-year-old architect, a guy who had been an enthusiastic revolutionary for decades, and only began to have the scales lifted off his eyes in the 1980s, when he realized the policy of neglecting the historical treasures in the capitol was not simply a preference for developing in the countryside, but for diverting money into politicians' bank accounts and eradicating the past. He would look at the same buildings Weisberg so loved with tears in his eyes over what Castro had allowed them to become.

    So no, I didn't love the decay. Different strokes, etc.

  • ||

    For Esme with Love and Squalor.

    'make sure it has lots of squalor...'

  • ||

    Matt,

    Whenever had some visiting Lonely Planet type whine about how all that western commerical development was sucking the soul out of Prague, I'd take `em to the end of the B line to show them my panelak in Haje. Soul-sucking indeed.

  • ||

    One needn't travel outside the USA to see crumbling, improvished hellholes. There are numerous Indian reservations that fit that bill. Of course, very few are in the tropics...

    Now, the question is, why are so many Indian reservations underdeveloped and improvished? It's probably not Communism. Lack of adequate gambling infrastructure?

  • ||

    The used to call this sort of thing .. the "Ugly American"

  • ||

    Those who claim that American tourists would have a bigger impact than Canadians or Europeans have a short memory. In the early years of the Castro revolution he blamed all the crime, vice, corruption, prostitution, drugs, etc. then existing in Havana to the country's US tourist and casino industry. This was, of course, strongly supported by the international and US Left who, as usual, wanted to blame the US for everything. Now, we are told by voices from the same ideological quarter (but a generation younger) that the "solution" to the Cuban issue is to flood the island with American tourists. By the way, the very sad pictures of a collapsing colonial Havana are truly representative of what is happening to the old city. Near half a century in a tropical ocean front setting with no maintenance has destroyed what had survived since the mid 1500's.
    Jose

  • Matt Welch||

    Michael -- I used to live in Cerny Most, which was a long bus ride from Ceskomoravska....

    John -- I've mentioned it here before, but when the first McDonalds opened in Prague, there was a little protest gathering ... and more than half of the demonstrators were Americans.

  • ||

    This reminds me of a quote I saw about 10 years ago, from a travel writer, after a ceasefire in Northern Ireland. Sorry, I didn't record the exact date.

    "Whatever the recent cease-fires by Catholic and Protestant terrorists may mean for the war-weary residents of Northern Ireland, they can only bode ill for the adventurous traveller." -- Louise Kiernan, Chicago Tribune

  • Greg||

    I worked for LP in the 90s at their glamorous office in the quaint neighborhood of West Oakland (near the Acorn Projects, for the cognoscenti.) It was a decent if not financial profitable place to work, filled with lots of painfully earnest people. Certainly not the most business saavy bunch of folks.

    To be fair to LP, when I was there they were well aware of their Brand Cult and how a few of their fans could be more than a little bit obnoxious. They were also generally positive on development and saw travel as liberalizing force, though individual authors sometimes took a more, shall we say, romantic view of "cultural authenticity".

  • Matt Welch||

    Jose -- Those who claim that American tourists would have a bigger impact than Canadians or Europeans may have a short memory, but at least they're right.

  • ||

    Matt:
    I think your are letting a little bit of "American Exceptionalism" cloud your judgement. Why would contact with an American tourist be more likely to turn a Cuban into a democrat than a contact with, say, a Canadian or a Brit? Are they not also carriers of the same democratic "virus"? Have they not been visiting the island in droves for the past decades without producing the expected beneficial political results? Besides, any contact under the current circumstances will be minimal since, as you know, Castro goes to extreme lengths to prevent tourists from mingling with the average Cuban. Today there is a tourism "apartheid" in Cuba which prevents Cubans (on food rations established since the 60's) from even entering the tourist centers where foreigners dine and drink to their hearts content. That is why, regardless of whether old Havana is collapsing, and what type of emotions it may elicit in an observer, it is a moral outrage to take advantage of the delights offered by tourist facilities in a country where the locals can not benefit from the luxuries which are exclusively reserved for tourists.

  • Matt Welch||

    Jose -- That wasn't my argument at all. My point was only that A) there would be many more Americans than Euro-Canucks, and B) there would be many more relatives of Cubans among those visitors. Further, if you insist on reducing analysis of various policies to their crudest forms -- whether, for instance, Euro-Canadian tourism & investment have brought "expected beneficial political results" -- then surely the biggest failed policy of all is the embargo itself.

    I don't believe that lifting the anti-American travel ban, uncapping remittances and removing the embargo will necessarily topple Castro. But I think it will weaken him far more than the status quo. Remittances go to family members, the tourism economy benefits people from outside of Castro's control, and Miami relatives tend to make sure their aid goes to the right places. And as importantly (in my view) exposing Cubans to non-Castro information is a crucial, fundamental building bloc into building a dissidence and a post-Castro civil society.

    Will some of that money go directly to the barbudo & his cronies? Sure. One of the many reasons I decided not to move there permanently was that I couldn't in good conscience pay the exorbitant Castro surcharges. But it's simply not true that contact between visitors & non-Castroites will be by definition "minimal," nor (in my view) is it "immoral" to spend a night at the Nacional, even though I for one did not. With effort, it's possible to channel the bulk of your tourism spending there to individuals who are gasping both for money and contact. That strikes me not as "immoral," but even something approaching the opposite.

  • ||

    Matt:
    I came to this debate at the last minute and I was not aware that you had previously considered moving to Cuba permanently only to decide otherwise because of Castro's "exorbitant surcharges". Am I correct to assume that if Castro offered you a discount you would reconsider and move to the tropical paradise?
    Debating points aside. There are two reasons why maintaining the embargo is preferable to lifting it. 1)Once you normalize relations with Cuba, it would be impossible to keep Cuba out of the Bretton Woods multilateral financial agencies (IMF and World Bank) For a minuscule contribution to the common fund, Castro would gain access to "drawing rights" worth billions. Since these institutions lend directly to the government and not to the private sector, the hard currency will go directly to official coffers and will inevitably strengthen Castro's dictatorship. 2) At a time when democracies all over Latin America are increasingly "wobbly" what argument would US ambassadors use to persuade the local prospective "caudillo" to stick to democratic paths when, at the same time, Washington is normalizing relations with a tyrant? In other words, our policy of supporting democracies which has enjoyed bipartisan support for close to two decades will have no credibility. So, from this perspective, lifting the embargo will not necessarily bring democracy to Cuba, but it will make it harder to advocate it in the rest of the Hemisphere.
    Is midnite now, and although I am enjoying this discussion it is bed time.
    Thanks for the opportunity to exchange views with you and your readers.

  • ||

    Matt, I think you overplayed the irritation. As a tourist, is it wrong to admire the contrast to one's home? Isn't that what tourism is all about, after all? Sometimes people just like what they like.

    I personally love decay. Wander about the Salton Sea to see some of the most eerie, ugly, beautiful decay in Southern CA. If it were magically transformed into Tahoe overnight, who could really complain. Yet, the allure that draws me there would be gone.

  • ||

    Like Jose, I fear I have stumbled upon this discussion at a very late hour. However, I would comment that decay is as decay does. When it is caused by the majestic march of the centuries, and aided by the hands of the locals needing building materials, a la the Greco-Roman ruins, it tends to excite and challenge me. Even in the remains one can visualize the soaring design of the architect.

    I agree in the main with those who cannot find beauty in deliberate decay caused by human cruelty and greed, which perfectly descibes much of the decay caused by totalitarian societies. And for anyone to celebrate the suffering such decay can cause and bemoan the improvements brought by those terrible capitalists strikes me as the height of arrogance and ignorance. 'No, little ones. Father knows best. Suffering really IS good for the soul.' As long as it is not the high and mighty advisors who must suffer, naturally.

    A note to Captain Awesome- While I completely agree that glorification of human misery can be found on all sides of the ideological aisle, I would beg to remind you in that the classical ruins, majestic though they are, were actually built on human pain and suffering- most were constructed by slaves.

  • Matt Welch||

    Am I correct to assume that if Castro offered you a discount you would reconsider and move to the tropical paradise?

    No. I didn't realize before I went the fantastic extent Cubans were forced to pay high prices, in dollars, to state-owned stores for basic foodstuffs; and I certainly didn't grasp that stuff like Internet access or cellular telephony would cost a minimum of $400 a month, most of which was larding the old bastard's pockets. I had assumed, incorrectly, that you could find a way around paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month directly into the commies' pockets, and that was one of four or five reasons why I only stayed a month, instead of a year or more.

  • LDT||

    I live in Bangkok and often have to listen to the retarded rantings of the back-packing idiots going on about Thai's losing their "traditional way of life". These idiots (who the Thai's call 'key-nock farang' or shit-bird foreigners) think traditional lifestyle is sitting in a hammock, smoking weed and listening to Bob Marley. It is in fact back breaking labor from dawn to dusk in a field then dying when you're 45 years old.

    As much as I hate these hippies I can't hate them as much as the Thais seem to.

  • ||

    Excuse me for joining in late as well. I live & work in Havana's ex-pat community and I'd certainly echo what Mr. Welch says about US tourists, they would be the best thing the USA could positively change Cuba. Misinformation about Cuba is the norm, in both directions, and all those tourists could help with that and well as put money directly in to Cubans' hands.

  • Val Prieto||

    Gray,

    So you have no problem visiting an country that has hundreds of political prisoners rotting away in jails simply because they voiced their opinions?

    Are there tourists in Cuba now? Of course there are. From all over the world. How has their presence changed Cuba?

    Convince me.

  • ||

    Reaching way back on this thread, I would invite the Conde Nast writer to try and walk the streets of Mexico City at night today. The writer may not get mugged, but there is a good chance he/she will be kidnapped and driven to an ATM at gunpoint. What is this person on about? My friends from Mexico tell me crime has gotten worse again under El Presidente Fox. And I'm sure the corruption is not too hard to find. So I heartily recommend Mexico as a destination for jaded Westerners.

  • Claudius Maximus||

    Gaius Marius,

    You think Rome is glorious now? You should have seen it when it was shiny and vibrant -- when it was the jewel of the Empire.

    THAT was glorious.

  • Vanderleun||

    The French have a fine phrase for the mindset that takes pleasure in the decay and despair of third world countries:

    "Nostalgia de la boue." -or- "Yearning for the mud."

  • ||

    I think everybody is wrong about this Cuba/Castro thing. Cuba is the one country that really needs a suicide bomber.

  • ||

    Val:
    The truth is that while the US is the only superpower its foreign policy tool kit is rather limited and often utterly inadequate to deal with a situation. As you point out the embargo has not brought down Castro. But at the same time I would also point out that "engagement" and trade with China has also not brought down that regime and, in fact, the argument can be made that our trade with them has made them an even more formidable adversary.

  • ||

    On the ruins of Rome vs. the ruins of Cuba thing:

    It's not "whether you agree with the politics of the country." These are not exactly parallel situations.

    I think the difference is that the condition of the ruins of Rome is due to age. You actually marvel that they're so old and yet some of their beauty and grandeur has survived the passage of millennia.

    Whereas the decay of Cuba is due to the form of government that keeps its foot on the necks of the people (and yeah, the American embargo). And the process of decay has been relatively rapid (we're talking 50 years). On top of that, the violence of the oppression in Cuba is a bit more fresh accessible to us. My high school Spanish teacher used to tell us about living under Castro and how she hated him.

    Admiring the ruins of Rome vs. admiring the ruin of Cuba is like ... being turned by an erotic movie of a passionate, maybe a little rough, sex scene vs. being turned on by a video of an actual rape. It could be possible to be turned on by the latter, but it's not the kind of thing you'd be proud of or that would make you feel good about yourself.

  • ||

    Yes, this pleasure in decay that some of you are describing is nothing if not "perverse". Growing up in the "inner city" myself, I've seen a lot of decay, and there's no pleasure to be had in it. Matt is correct to draw a distinction between "ruins" and "decay". What I saw in those pictures of Havana looks like "decay" to me, as I'm guessing that Castro isn't preserving the buildings in their current state for the pleasure of tourists or historians.

  • ||

    Val, you seem to be suggesting that only Americans are the One True Tourists that can somehow strengthen Cuban people enough to shrug off their chains. I'd also take issue with the conjecture that sanctions are designed to starve a people into revolution - it seems more likely they are designed to prevent precisely what Jose talks about, namely letting a regime get access to gobs of IMF money with which it can line its coffers, then plead for more based on how the global economy has ravaged the local one and it cannot repay its debts.

  • ||

    Sigh. First, tourism is inherently bullshit. You travel to entertain yourself - the vicarious thrill of seeing others lives - miserable or exciting. It is at its base self-indulgent.

    Next, the whole "tropics" angle is also bullshit. There is no "romance" of the tropics anymore so than there is the "romance" of Wisconsin (misspelt?) You think this because it is different, therefore exotic, therefore "better" than Mom & Dad's boring old life whereever you grew up.

    Finally, the elegant decay angle. Decay is only elegant when viewed from afar. No so elegant when your child dies because the hospital you take them to is full of infection due to crumbling infrastructure. Oh-my-God! In the race to flee boring old stupid middle-class white america, the vapid "cool-hip" traveller only personifies it. These people try so hard at being cool that they reveal themselves as the sad poseurs they are.

    P.S. - Latin America is general is a cesspool of corruption - the U.S. is better on so many levels. But what do I know - my family only has 450 years of experience in the New World - it is not as if we have perspective on this subject.

  • ||

    Comming in very late in the discussion so it might have already been pointed out that the suppression of progress to preserve the decay and "pristine" beauty of an area is also practiced in the US in rural areas. Living in a rural area, we find the tourists from the "progressive" urban areas want to keep any improvements to their playgrounds to a minimum. What this means is that we are denied opportunities to build, create jobs and improve the economic prospects of our children who may actually want to continue to live in their home towns. We are denied these basic rights and overruled by people who do not live here and would like to keep us in stasis, like bugs under glass. Laws are passed by government employees who have no connection to or personal stake in the results of those laws. Self interest lobbies promote their own narrow agendas at the expense of the people who live and try to work in the rural areas of America.

  • Otis Wildflower||

    This is somewhat along the lines of 'gentrification' as well.. I remember pre-Giuliani Time NYC, with the 2000+ murders, Tompkins Sq. Cardboard Condos, East Village squatters, squeegee men, deferred-maintenance subways, et al.

    Since the Times Sq. cleanup, The Disney Store, Comp-Stat, and the NYPD not being afraid of a few extra civilian complaints, NYC has done a radical 180.

    Plenty of people, of course, complain loudly. Rents in the East Village up to multi-hundreds per sq. ft, boutique after boutique, etc. Whatever happened to the good old days of burnt-out crack dens and junkies sleeping on St. Mark's Pl. stoops?

    It's the dark side of Nostalgia, or some kind of inverse (perverse?) schadenfreude.

  • ||

    castro gets 91000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, tourist dollars from around the world, confiscated the funds of the European businesses he just kicked out, and all of the surcharges he places for phone and internet access etc. All of this and Cubans live in squalor and decay. Even during the Soviet Union days he was bilking billions from them and he used all of this to build work camps for "counter revolutionaries" and homosexuals. Like Jose and Val said he lifting of the embargo will only continue to strengthen his grip on the country. And yes, this is exactly what is happening in China, lots of production and no labor laws. No no my friends, sadly the embargo must remain in place until he gives up the ghost.

  • ||

    This reminds me of a book Jamaica Kincaid wrote back in the '80s, called "A Small Place", about Antigua (where she is from). A section on tourists and the issue referenced above has always stuck with me:
    "though the words "I must get away" do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it".

    She goes on in this vein for several paragraphs, and any (middle-class, white American) one who's every visited a 'picturesque, unspoiled' Caribbean island would have to squirm most uncomfortably upon reading it.
    Waiter! Another planter's punch, I'm squirming uncomfortably here. . . .

  • ||

    Cuba is "awash" in Canadian and European tourists and yet I don't see any change in Castro's behaviour.

  • Sam Grove||

    Interesting how embargoe supporters have not problem withinterfering with the ability of fellow citizens to travel where they choose.

    The argument against the embargo on Cuba is that it undermines the freedom of U.S. citizens.

  • ||

    Val,

    I'm living here, after I came to have a look myself. No apologies. I prefered to find out for myself about what a communist police state looked like, before, hopefully they are all gone.

    I think the sheer mass of US tourists would open up the country, Canadian don't get outside the all-inclusives much. US tourists would get more places and spend more money. The "Closedness" is one way the repression works. Americans would give more money to Cuban without the goverment getting their hands on it so soon and that isn't a bad either. No policy is without drawbacks but the current one is corrupt and corrupting.

  • ||

    Well Gary if you live there you must be aware that all of the money that gets spent from relatives living in the US goes to government stores and has a hefty tax placed on it for the Euro exchange. You must also know that castro has cut down on the limited street vending that was approved untill Chaves started giving him oil. ANd has begun to fine and arrest anyone that is selling anything from cooking oil to meat.
    But if Cuba opens up tomorrow you stand to make a mint because you are in place. Sorry I don't buy it. People like you are part of the problem. The embargo worked in South Africa. Remember?

    You can e-mail me sepratly if you want to discuss this further.
    Mojo

  • dan jeffers||

    I think that when we improve (gentrify) a neighborhood, city, or country, we should set aside a section to be run-down and dirty. We could hire people (college students) to live there in poverty for a few years each, just so tourists could have something to visit. Sort of like Colonial Williamsburg but with more dirt.

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