The Next Cuban Invasion?

Image by Bud Ellison |

Image by Bud Ellison |

The first invasion of Cuba took place on April 17, 1961 when a certain CIA-run paramilitary group, Brigade 2506, unsuccessfully tried to take power from the hands of the communistic government run by Fidel Castro. The set of incidents that followed and is infamously known only from its enigmatic, yet descriptive name: “Invasion in the Bay of Pigs” has been widely discussed in history books. What happened in that invasion can be described as a lengthy period of the US-Cuban relationship of mutual critique, travel and trade barriers, as well as no standard international politics modus operandi. These are all widely known, historical facts and this situation has been in place for the last 54 years or so.

However the most recent developments show that the US-Cuban period of mutual hostility is just about to soften, if not end completely. First, at the end of 2014 the White House announced the normalization of the US-Cuba relationships and facilitations in travelling between these two countries. Then, last week the world’s largest holiday cruise ships company, Carnival, has announced its new Cuba-related business plans.

On July 7th, 2015 the Carnival Cruise Line has received official permission from the US government to organize cruises to Cuba, pending similar approval from the Cuban authorities. Regular cruises are planned to start in May 2016 and will be executed via Carnival’s new business idea of “social impact travel”, AKA fathom cruises. The Carnival fathom ship tourists still won’t be able to fully enjoy all that Cuba has to offer as the US law still prohibits US citizens from travelling to Cuba for touristic purposes. Fortunately for Carnival the US law allows travelling with the idea of “humanitarian aid”. And this is where the Carnival’s fathom cruising idea comes into play.

Fathom cruises are advertised under the “social impact brand” and are supposed to take tourist directly from the Carnival ships to the noble idea of the act of volunteering in a developing country. In short, fathom tourists will eat, sleep, and play on the Carnival fathom ship as they usually do, but to avoid tight US policies and maybe to “rinse off” the over consumption rich-country carbon footprint guilt, they will do some sort of a “development–volunteer work” in the country where they sail to.  As an added bonus, the fathom passengers will also have a chance to brag a bit about this paid “making the change in the world” experience upon return to the home base. 

It is not exactly specified what this volunteer work is going to involve, but Carnival’s CEO stated that it will include certain volunteering pursuits associated with environmental preservation as well as food and art activities. I guess anything from making their drinking water come from the fountain instead of a plastic bottle to eating locally grown Cuban food prepared in the manner of “la cocina Cubana” qualifies under fathom's “social impact travel” agenda. The official Carnival announcement for fathom cruises states that they are supposed to provide “cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens.” Again, who knows what that really means?

The fathom cruises to Cuba will initially be run on relatively small ships with a capacity of 710 passengers. When compared to the standard Carnival’s cruising operations on the Caribbean Sea that take on board close to 3000 passengers these are really tiny ships. The estimated starting price tag on these seven day long cruises to Cuba is about $2,990 per person/per week. Carnival is anticipating and expecting a high demand for Cuba, as the US tourists haven’t been able to officially travel to the island for the last half of the century. It seems a sufficient enough reason to justify this rather high price for the volunteering in Cuba experience. At the moment a similar type of “social impact” fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic is priced just over $1,500/per person. But the Dominican Republic has never had its Castro and has never been a “forbidden island” for the US tourist industry so by default it needs to be cheaper to attract the crowd.

From the general, political, and economic point of view the reinstatement of the US-Cuba pre-conflict relationships is good news.  It gives an enormous chance for the normalization of US-Cuban cooperation on all levels. For half of a century the island of Cuba, which is located only about 1,520 miles from the US coast, has been isolated from the influences of the US market and compared to other islands on the Caribbean Sea has lost a lot of profit that comes from US tourism. The inflow of US tourists with their well-known purchasing habits will definitely bring much needed monetary resources to the impoverished Cuba and its neglected citizens. This is the positive side of this story.  But, there is also the other, less bright side. Many other Caribbean Islands that have been hosting cruise tourists have been experiencing obvious negative environmental influences, they have been suffering from overcrowding on certain days (when the ship arrives), they have been experiencing much lower incomes coming from the hotel industry (as cruise tourists sleep in their ship’s cabins, not in local hotels), they frequently observe port space-related disputes between cargo ships and cruiser ships (cargo ships need to wait to enter the dock which delays their shipments), etc.

There is also an obvious cultural crash that negatively influences local communities. And it is best visible in the changes that happen in the local cuisine. The cruise tourists have certain culinary expectations and they usually evolve around Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Chipotle. Maybe with just a touch of a locally made salsa. After some time of such cultural exchange the local cuisine starts to resemble a weird quasi–edible fusion of local ingredients and tourists expectations. And it doesn’t end with cuisine.

So here is what I suggest: If you can, go to Cuba this year, before Carnival brings its volunteer shipments. Try traditional Cuban cuisine. Experience the country before all you can eat Chipotles marina stands will make your Cuban experience full of sofritas. I'm planning to go to Cuba this year, too. Just before the second Cuban invasion takes place.

This article was originally published by Sustainable Collective, which has since merged with The Starfish Canada.