Monday, May 02, 2011

Ethics in the Caribbean

Last Monday the BBC released a video discussing the ethical implications of tourism in poor areas:

Is tourism in poor areas ethical?

This was a question faced daily in Cuba. There, tourism is a growing, profitable industry. There’s just one tiny catch: the profits support the growth and cater to the well being of tourists so as to get repeat business; it’s hard for actual Cubans to get the benefits. There’s a reason the most desirable jobs are in that particular industry.

Compounding this issue of inequality is that it occurs, not just monetarily, but in actual access to certain areas of the country. Varadero is an area that is one all inclusive resort after another along a long stretch of beach, and in past years Cubans were not allowed access to this long beautiful stretch of their own country.

In 2008 this supposedly changed with the decree by Raul Castro that Cubans could now stay at resorts should they so wish (Cubans allowed to stay at tourist hotels). As the article rightly points out, this is a sweeping generous statement with questionable practicality, because when the country has built up the resorts to 5 star levels, how exactly do they expect the Cuban people to afford it? I know that change cannot occur instantly, but my group studied in Cuba a year after the resorts were opened to the public, and we still saw signs of the old practice, with little indication that things were changing. One of the women who was a part of my group, Courtney, regularly contributed to the Havana Times while we were there and she has some interesting thoughts on the subject (Resort life). Also worth reading is her piece about Valentine’s Day which highlights the continued discomfort of Cuban/tourist interactions (The strangest Valentine's Day).

The 5 star Melia Cohiba

Only a few blocks away, an un-maintained pool next to a park and track

Going back to the video, I found this so interesting because of two distinct experiences while there. We were in a unique position. Being students we were not as removed as tourists from genuine everyday life, but we were still given special treatment not consistent with the lives of the Cuban people; for example, our rations for a day were obscene considering what some people were able to eat. Importantly, while we did not consider ourselves tourists, that is what we appeared to be, the most obvious conclusion to the question of our identity. And while the following incidents were realistically not something tourists would regularly do, or have access to (our status as students getting us a “backstage pass” as it were), just the fact that we found ourselves in these situations while clearly being foreigners is why I find the above video so relevant.

On a weekend trip to Matanzas, we, on our air conditioned tour bus, rolled in to a small town – the name of which I don’t remember even being told – where we were released for 15 minutes to explore. It felt horribly intrusive, our large shiny bus parked in the middle of the street and letting loose a herd of 13 Americans to just “look around” when clearly this was not a town used to that. It would have been better (maybe) had something been planned, like a talk by a townsperson, or a tour of a local business, but just getting off and wandering made me feel like I was intruding, like this town's sole purpose was to accommodate my intrusiveness as I observed the local culture, not fully engaging the people as actual people. It was obviously a poor area and showed signs of decaying grandeur, and I feel like had the roles been switched I probably would have just wished the tourists would leave me alone to live my life without emphasizing the life I didn't have.

I say that maybe a tour would have been better, because the other occurrence that made such an impression was in fact a tour. As part of one of our classes, we were given a tour of a nearby medical facility/home that supported women with difficult pregnancies. Which again, was fascinating; so few people are able to see Cuba and here I was getting an inside look at the support offered to the women there – especially interesting in a comparison of healthcare systems. But here’s the thing, this was a home for women in difficult, painful, and scary situations, and the whole group of us, men included, were walked in and shown around. And it’s not like any of us were going into the medical field so while this was informative, it wasn’t directly relevant to our careers or training. Part of the tour took us in to actual patients’ rooms where we saw several women who looked as though they had been crying, and one woman spent at least ten minutes, during which she was asked questions about her care, trying to rearrange her blankets so as to cover herself better – something that should not have been necessary in her own room. As we walked around, our chronically insensitive professor actually photographed the facility and while I doubt if he asked permission, even if he had, how could they have said no? It seems obvious that they could have, but we were visitors from the US, representitives of the perpetuators of the embargo, and home to many who feel strongly that it is a good thing to have in place (even if we were personally against it). I feel like that’s an intimidating presence to be packed into a single facility and while it was obvious by looking at the people in charge (especially a few of the nurses) that patient care was paramount, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that this tour also had a large degree of country PR involved.

To me this demonstrates the danger not necessarily addressed in the BBC video in that inviting tourism may not be as welcoming as it appears. If the tourism industry is the most lucrative and offers the best financial benefit, who is to say that people are inviting the tourists in because they truly want them? An invitation is not a guarantee that tourists are actually wanted on a social level. Additionally, Cuba is renowned for its medical care and of course people in the industry are going to want to present the extent of this care, which is why as students we were given the behind the scenes look. But at what cost? In showing us the level of care, I think the integrity of the care actually decreased with the compromise of privacy.

I hope these issues are better met in the Brazilian initiative from the video. I hope in the subsequent two years they have been met in Cuba. It was incredible to see the things I saw while I was there, but I don’t want my experiences to been at the expense of people who are there permanently. That’s no way to create a dialogue, and certainly no way to move forward – a movement US/Cuban relations are in desperate need of.

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