BY ELLEN CREAGER
DETROIT FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER
Given the restrictions of the new "people-to-people" program, is it worth traveling to Cuba? I think the answer is yes, if you are a certain type of person. You have to enjoy cultural travel. You can't be a complainer just because the food might not be up to standard or the Internet goes on the blink. You must be willing to stick with a group and get along with others.
The cost -- about $3,000 per person including airfare from Miami for a seven-night trip -- is certainly worth it. We had two guides, a driver, a very nice, modern, small tour bus, a group of only 11, and excellent service and programming. It included all meals, accommodations and activities on the Insight Cuba tour, one of the companies that has a new license to offer the people-to-people trips.
There were some logistical problems on the maiden trips. There were a few issues and complaints about long bus rides and convoluted schedules, but nothing that can't be fixed as the program progresses.
Were we subjected to propaganda? Not really. On one hand, you can see why Cuba was determined to escape American influence -- gangsters were taking over Havana, the country's leaders were corrupt. But it's still hard to see the piece of the American B26 shot down in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs, which is on display at the Revolution Museum.
But Cubans see every day that their form of government hasn't exactly been peachy. They have suffered -- yes, from the embargo -- but also from their own leaders' choices.
I came away with a respect for Cuba and an appreciation for its people, music, art, science and its pride.
But I also came away certain that things are changing. There is restlessness, too much information coming in, a generational divide, an aging Castro (who will be the fond leader until he dies, no matter how many years his brother runs the show). More ominous, there is China, Cuba's new best friend, stepping in to ply its products and influence the nation because the U.S. has turned its back.
And I came away with a conviction that the people-to-people idea is good. We met a lot of Cubans who probably had never met an American. They were surprisingly cordial, given the decades of anti-American scary stuff they've been fed. We met them, they met us. We ate cake.
I am more sure than ever that the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo is completely useless. It doesn't work for tourists. It doesn't work for American farmers or manufacturers.
The reams of paperwork I had to fill out, the letters we had to carry to make sure we weren't questioned upon arrival back in the States, it's all ridiculous.
"The world is changing and Cuba has to change, too," said a young tour guide in Viñales, who said Cubans should be able to travel anywhere they wish.
On the U.S. side, tourism should be opened up so all Americans can travel freely to Cuba. Stop treating us like children. We know Cuba is a Communist nation like China or Vietnam, but we should have the right to go and see for themselves, good or bad.
For now, the new U.S. government-sanctioned people-to-people option is the best we've got, and it's still a pretty good option for those who have been longing to see Cuba.
The full series of Ellen Creager's reports from Cuba can be found at http://www.freep.com/dispatchesfromcuba