I just completed a very short interview this morning live on MSNBC with Jonathan Capehart. The subject was Cuba travel, of course… one year after the Obama-Raúl Castro initiative.

The second (highly politically charged) guest, was Paul Bonicelli, former Assistant Administrator for USAID for Latin America and the Caribbean.

MSNBC interview with Christopher P Baker on Cuba travel 3 12-19-2017

Live interviews are always an unknown and in this case I was pitched only two questions:

JONATHAN: So, Chris, what do you think the biggest impact this travel deal will have?

ME: I think the most important thing is that we are supporting the Cuban people who are now engaged in private enterprise. Raúl Castro has initiated reforms that permit people to have their own businesses. Private restaurants, for example, are booming because of travel. And we’re able to support this initiative.

To which Paul replied: 

PAUL: I appreciate what Chris said about more tourism. Certainly hundreds of millions of dollars has been going into Cuba in the last year since the president’s initiative. The problem is the Cuban people, the average Cuban, cannot use the convertible peso [the currency of choice in Cuba], so most of the money that is coming in from tourism… is skimmed off by the government.

I was floored that someone of such authority should utter such factual tripe.

Fortunately, I was able to counter in reply to my second (and last) question, by pointing out to viewers that Bonicelli needed to get his facts straight:

JONATHAN: How do you feel that this travel deal will help everyday Cubans?

ME: Oh, it really is helping them. For example, I do these motorcycle tours, I do other tours, and we are staying in private homes, for the most part. We’re using private restaurants almost exclusively. We hire the old 1950s cars to take our clients to restaurants, etc. This is money directly into the hands of Cubans. And it is actually incorrect, I just want to correct that Cubans can indeed use the convertible peso. That’s what we’re paying them in as travelers, and that channels through the economy from one private individual to another private business, etc.

Bonicelli was shaking his head on the split screen.

He was then asked about repression of dissidents and freedom of speech.

No-one is going to deny that there’s a freedom of speech problem in Cuba. But Bonicelli’s statements about people getting beaten up on the streets, of Cuba being a “police state,” reminded me how much distortion our governmental servants are still capable of. It happens, undeniably. But I thought about the Soviet Union and how so many of its citizens firmly believed what they were taught about the USA being run by racists and gun-toting murderers (well, I guess in some regards that was pretty close to the mark, too)… a line familiar to Cubans under Fidel, who never lost an opportunity to demonize the USA. You select a negative and blow it up to be the whole picture. Raúl, fortunately, has more or less stopped all that nonsense.

Going into this interview, I failed to heed a lesson I learned long ago: Research the “other” guy!

I’d assumed, incorrectly, that anyone working for USAID would be on my friendly turf. I failed to check out Bonicelli’s position, plainly stated in this opening paragraph from a recent piece that he wrote for that beacon of right-wing journalism, The Federalist:

“Obama’s Cuba initiative has gotten less attention than the Iran deal, but it’s almost as bad. Cuba is not the security threat that Iran is, but it is still a security threat because the Castro brothers hate the United States and continue to enjoy warm relations and scheming with Russia, Venezuela, drug traffickers, and various other U.S. enemies, not to mention continuing to harbor terrorists and cop-killing fugitives from U.S. justice…. During all these months that Obama has been caving to Castro, Castro has repeated his mantra that nothing on the island will change.”

Er, just last week Cuba returned an FBI-wanted fugitive to the USA (in fact, the Cuban police handed him over to the FBI in Havana)… And this is what our own U.S. Department of State ‘Country Report: Cuba’ says: “Cuba continues to demonstrate a commitment to counternarcotics cooperation with partner nations and… demonstrates increasing willingness to apprehend and turnover U.S. fugitives.” 

Bonicelli was responsible for USAID’s democracy and governance programs. Reading through his entire article I came, late in the day, to understand that I’d been put up by MSNBC against a neo-conservative hawk.

Alas, after Bonicelli finished, I didn’t have an opportunity to counter his narrowly channeled misrepresentation. No chance to inform him that this year, for example, Cuba has eased up immensely on Internet access by providing scores of new public WiFi zones and reducing costs threefold. (BTW, Paul, next time you reference restricted access to Internet, you might want to point out that the U.S. embargo has forbidden Cuba from accessing not only U.S.-owned cables, satellites, and servers, but those belonging to any other country if it involves as little as ten percent U.S. parts, products, or payment in U.S. dollars. For which reason, the Cuban government justifiably can claim that it has to prioritize who gets access: It’s a matter of bandwidth. You can’t have your cake and eat it too!)

Now that the USA is beginning gradually to get off Cuba’s back, Raúl has more space to reform, to ease up, to validate individual rights over those of the state.

Reform is a process. True, Cuba has a long, long way to go. But it’s now making strides. And travel is a superb facilitator for supporting that change.

Meanwhile, Bonicelli’s comments brought to mind one of my favorite quotes from Samuel Johnson: “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” 

At least I have one advantage of having visited Cuba more than one hundred times during more than two decades. Perhaps Mr. Bonicelli should come with me so that I can help set him straight on some facts.

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and success travel writers and photographers is considered the foremost authority on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions and other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.