|AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa|
Peter Orsi, The Associated Press, February 3, 2014
HAVANA (AP) — When President Barack Obama reinstated "people-to-people" travel to Cuba in 2011, the idea was that visiting Americans would act as cultural ambassadors for a U.S. constantly demonized in the island's official media.
Two and a half years later, a survey shared exclusively with The Associated Press suggests the trips are not only improving Cubans' views of Americans. They are also changing U.S. travelers' opinions of the Caribbean nation for the better, and dimming their view of Washington policies that have long sought to pressure Cuba's Communist leaders.
"I think U.S.-Cuban relations should be open. People should be talking to each other. People should be sharing," said Ellen Landsberger, a 62-year-old New York obstetrician who recently visited on a people-to-people tour.
"We have this tiny little island that is no threat to the U.S. that we're isolating from the world," she said. "It doesn't make sense."
There's surely significant self-selection among people-to-people travelers; supporters of a hard-line policy against Cuba are unlikely to consider such a tour. And the people who run the trips tend to be more or less sympathetic toward Cuba, or at least to the idea of easing or lifting the 52-year-old U.S. embargo, which could potentially be a boon to their business.
Still, the results of the multiple-choice survey by Friendly Planet Travel, a company based in suburban Philadelphia that promotes legal tours of Cuba, are eye-catching. Three-quarters said they were drawn by curiosity about life in a nation that has been off-limits to most Americans for decades.
Before travel, the most prevalent view of Raul Castro's government was "a repressive Communist regime that stifles individuality and creativity," 48 percent of respondents said. That fell to 19 percent after their visits, and the new most-popular view, held by 30 percent of respondents, became the slightly more charitable "a failing government that is destined to fall."
Most striking, 88 percent said the experience made them more likely than before to support ending the embargo against Cuba.
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, said visitors are surprised at how hard it is to find many goods, even something as basic as an adhesive bandage.
Some leave Cuba blaming U.S. policy for the shortages — as the Cuban government does constantly, although analysts also point to a weak, inefficient and corruption-ridden economic system as a key cause of scarcity.
"In day-to-day life, it's so difficult for the average Cuban. When the travelers go and they see that, and they experience it themselves, it makes sense that they say (the embargo) doesn't make sense," Goldman said. "It hasn't toppled the government in all these years. We need to try a different way."
Goldman acknowledged that her informal poll, which surveyed 423 Americans who visited Cuba in December, was not scientific.
But others in the industry tell a similar story.
"Some people go back and say they want to write letters to their senators," said Jeff Philippe, a guide who has taken 34 groups to the island in just over a year for Insight Cuba, which puts on people-to-people tours for Americans. "I've had several people say to me, 'I want to make this my personal mission to end the embargo.'"
That could provide ammunition to the harshest opponents of people-to-people travel, who have argued from the beginning that the tours, partially organized in concert with Cuban state-run entities, let the Communist government put its best face forward and hide its warts.
"It's hard to imagine anyone being exposed to Cuba's reality and walking away with a more favorable view of the Castro regime," said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida. "But it's not surprising to hear that's the case with these tourist trips to Cuba, since they are specifically designed to expose people only to what the regime wants them to see."
"It's clear these tourist trips do little more than help the regime's image, fund its repressive machine, and undermine the courageous work of Cuba's democracy fighters," Rubio said.
In general, the tours tend not to include much contact with Cuban dissidents.
In a written response to an AP request for comment, the U.S. State Department said people-to-people travel has successfully "contributed to a more realistic and therefore more positive view of Americans and the United States by the Cuban people." It called the visitors ambassadors of democratic values, free-market economics and freedom of expression.
"Being favorably disposed to Cuba and ordinary Cubans should not be confused with endorsing a totalitarian system of government," it said of the returnees. "The people of Cuba have a rich and powerful culture that is rightfully appreciated by visitors to the island."
Tour operators insist any talk of Potemkin villages is wrong. They argue they're supporting local organic farmers, performers, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs who run private restaurants, adding that the Cuban government's involvement in scheduling is minimal and agendas carefully comply with U.S. rules barring sun-and-sand tourism.
"It's nothing like going to North Korea where you've got minders and there are only certain places you can go," Goldman said.
Most visitors report warm and seemingly open exchanges with Cubans from all walks of life. Some say they're aware that being shuttled around in air-conditioned buses and sleeping in luxury hotels differs greatly from most Cubans' reality.
"That part of it, you feel very separated. It's almost schizophrenic because you're treated very differently from the person who lives here," said Allan Kessler, a New York banker. "But, yes, we are meeting different types of people. We have no idea if everyone is pre-screened or not, but to our eye it seems rather candid."
He spoke on a recent morning after his Insight Cuba group visited a local youth dance troupe and a farmers market. Each traveler was given the equivalent of less than $1 in the local currency, about one-20th of the average monthly salary, to see how much they could buy. Afterward they discussed the experience.
"Overpriced," ''very little protein," ''it doesn't go very far" were among the comments. "Why are beans so expensive?"
Then it was off to lunch at an enormous outdoor state-run restaurant where just about every client orders the house specialty, roast chicken.
Estimates of how many Americans travel to Cuba legally on cultural exchanges range from around 70,000 to 100,000 a year.
Several Cubans interviewed by the AP said they've always been taught to separate people from politics, and valued the chance to meet Americans.
"We realize that they're just like us. They like to dance," said Glenda Quintana Carpio, a 20-year-old member of the dance troupe who coached visitors in basic steps after a performance in a Havana theater. "We're human beings from different countries with different idiosyncrasies."
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi