An Interview with Karen Dubinsky

Dubinsky Transcript

15 June 2022

Karen Dubinsky is a Professor in Global Development Studies and History at Queen’s University. She started visiting Cuba in 1978, and has lived in Havana, intermittently, since 2004. She is a leading scholar of tourism, having brought out The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls (BTL and Rutgers University Press, 1999). She has also co-edited My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela (University of Toronto Press, 2014).  In Cuba Beyond the Beach: Stories of Life in Havana (BTL 2016), Dubinsky provides readers with an unparalleled look at Havana, blending sympathy for the idealism of the revolution with a hard-headed analysis of how many of the regime’s policies make daily life extremely difficult for the average person. It helps clarify what every visitor to Havana, especially those of us sympathetic to the revolution, must sometimes wonder: how can we reconcile those ideals to the sights and sounds around us, from what Professor Dubinsky calls “a beautiful, wounded city.”  Welcome to Syndemic, Professor Dubinsky.

McKay: Before we get to the situation of tourism in Cuba, specifically, could you share with us some of the recent insights from your two recent trips to Havana in late 2021 and in Spring, 2022?  How have Cubans responded to Covid-19 and the country’s seemingly permanent economic crisis? Do you think the hunger strikes in Old Havana and the explosive protests of July, 2021 are going to make lasting difference?

Dubinsky: Well, thank you for the opportunity to talk… I made two recent trips to Havana. One was when a tiny little travel window opened up in December 2021… I took advantage of that window to go in December, just for a week. My first interest was in seeing my friends, who have lived the pandemic in a way that’s been very different than the way people like me lived the pandemic in Canada. I also wanted to meet some of the new people with whom I was hoping we’d be working at the University of Havana, people who are colleagues and collaborators in this course that I have co-taught at Queen’s for 12 years. Of course, that was put on hold over the past two years, so I wanted to see if we could offer the course in 2022. 

That’s also why I went in December. And in fact, we were able to host the course again – to my surprise, to lots of people’s surprise. So that’s why I went back in May. I went with a group of students from Queen’s and we did what we usually do in May – we spent two weeks at the University of Havana receiving presentations from university professors, as well as from journalists, musicians, artists, other kinds of scholars, and doing some site visits to places like art galleries and music venues and things like that.  In brief, those were my two most recent trips.

I went with my partner in December. We were among the first, and frankly, almost the only foreigners in Havana at that time….Things had just reopened, to the extent that Cuba had reopened at all, mainly in the beach areas. There weren’t many tourists at all in the city. I kept thinking of this ironic Leonard Cohen poem from 1961,  “The Only Tourist in Havana.” Leonard Cohen had the genius to show up, just before the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He wrote a typically Leonard Cohenish poem, very funny, but also very deep and ironic….

My experience had a similar sense. The streets are empty, the streets are dark. It’s not just that there weren’t many foreigners around – there weren’t a lot of Cubans around. As in so much of the world, they were just opening their doors, literally and metaphorically, to see what this allegedly post-Covid world is going to look like.

I go to Cuba to see my friends. And I also go there to listen, because as somebody who teaches about Cuba, sometimes writes about Cuba, I feel that when I’m there, I have a responsibility to listen. And when I’m here [Canada], I listen and read as much as I can through social media. That’s not the same as being in the same room with people and getting to ask them questions. I did a lot of listening when I was with my friends. I heard a lot of sadness about how difficult the past two years have been.

The best thing I will say, and this should be up-front and underlined, is the fact that this small, poor, blockaded country in the Global South was able to come up with its own vaccine, without Pfizer attached to it, without any Big Pharma attached to it. It was able to come up with its own vaccine and managed to get some 90% of the population vaccinated, in the same short period of the world the rest of the world has been wrestling with it. That’s the best thing. That’s an extraordinary achievement.  Sometimes they didn’t have needles to put the vaccines into people’s arms, but they did have vaccines.

So, when I say people were suffering,…people were suffering far less, directly, from Covid-19. Almost everybody I knew had had it or knew somebody who had had it. But by the time the vaccine got well in circulation there, it became more like here. You get it, but if you’ve been vaccinated properly,  it’s usually not fatal.  Of course there were many tragedies.

That’s the end of the good news. Cuba has had an amazing success, keeping its people alive during this pandemic, in a part of the globe where famously, notoriously, the inequalities of vaccine distribution between First and Third World nations have made things so much difficult in most of the Global South. And Cuba just did not experience that. That really is a remarkable achievement.

McKay: It really puts me in mind of a great story from your book – and I recall you weren’t sure if it was apocryphal or real. The story is that a CIA agent taken to task by his superiors to submit a report on Havana. He finally wrote:

I will never understand this country.

There is no food in the shops, but everyone is well fed.

There is occasionally chicken in the markets but there are never any eggs.

The clothes in the stores are horrible but the people are beautifully dressed.

They never finish any construction project, but no one is living on the street.

Everyone complains about the revolution, but everyone loves Fidel.

That’s why I can’t write a report abut this country.

Dubinsky: I heard that from friends in the early 2000s, when I started going there as a researcher….That’s a joke that was an old joke even then. But it’s really an old joke now. In fact, it’s not funny. Things are too sad.

McKay: The contradiction is that of a Cuba that can develop its own vaccine and keep most of it people safe – yet where you have to wait in line for long, long hours, five or six hours, just to buy a chicken.

Dubinsky: A Cuban economist I very much admire asked, succinctly: “Why has it been easier for the country to produce a sophisticated vaccine than to keep pork or chicken on the table?” It’s a good question. It’s not a question that can be answered quite as succinctly as he poses it. It’s definitely a question that has to be asked.

McKay: Can you help us understand this contradiction?

Dubinsky: I could run down the kinds of things that Cuban economists say, especially in this moment… Here are some things I would draw from my own recent experiences there.

There’s been a continuing, huge investment in things like hotel construction, for these “invisible tourists,” to cite a phrase I recently saw on social media. Of course there are some tourists at the resorts – they’re not full, but they have some visitors. In Havana there are very few visitors. The hotel construction I witnessed was in Havana. Why this emphasis on hotel construction, when buildings are literally falling down in a strong rain (that just happened two weeks ago: 50 or 60 buildings in Havana alone tumbled)?  The infrastructure is in such bad shape. Why spend all this money on tourism? 

Obviously tourism is a necessary economic strategy. I’m not questioning the entire strategy. But a lot of Cubans are asking, Why the investment in the new buildings? That would be one set of questions.

Economists use words like “disaster” to describe the agricultural sector. It’s always been a problem. Here’s another old Cuban joke: What are the great successes of the Cuban revolution? Education, health care, and culture. What are the great failures of the Cuban revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s been an old Cuban joke for decades…Seventy percent of the food consumed on island is imported (though that figure includes tourism).  There have been various attempts over the years to reduce that, and community gardening is a big deal.  But overall,  without great results.

If I were going to focus on one thing, I would focus on the obsessive quality of state control over the economy, which is reproduced continually in the arts, in culture, in writing, in media (which are the sectors I pay most attention to). That for me is most alarming…Restrictions on expression. And the incredibly, incredibly hard-hearted, ham-fisted reactions to, for example, the protests of July 11 last year….That’s not the Cuban Revolution that many people outside Cuba… thought they had signed up for….that they admired.

McKay: It’s almost as though the pandemic has given authoritarian rulers an opportunity to clamp down even more, and in more drastic ways.

Dubinsky: Critics in Cuba, when they’re in Cuba, when they’re writing from Cuba,  have to be very careful in how they broach their criticisms, how they express themselves. I’ve recently seen this turn-of-phrase that people use that goes something like: “This government that feels it has a connection with the Revolution” or “This government that thinks of itself as an inheritor of the Revolution.” They’re using this phraseology to ask serious questions and to distance these guys who are currently in power from this thing that happened some sixty years ago. These guys would just call themselves “the revolutionary government.” They don’t take five sentences and subordinate clauses to get there…. Scholars, journalists, people who comment for a living, are all raising questions in as direct a way as possible….

McKay: How about ordinary people?

Dubinsky: That’s another question. Let me give you a very recent example, from just this week. A young woman Amelia Calzadilla – everybody knows her as Amelia – is a thirty-something, white, educated mother of three who received her gas bill. She’s not getting regular gas, there’s what are called apagones, black-outs, regularly. She lived in a relatively poor, working-class neighbourhood in Havana. She’s educated. She’s worked in tourism, which means she’s got a little more money than many people. She’d just had it up to here. All the utility prices have gone up. She’s had it up to here.

So, she goes and sits there with her phone and she opens her Facebook or whatever and she just yells into the camera for a good eight minutes. In High Cuban. I had to watch it three times, because she’s speaking so quickly and so colloquially – but you didn’t really have to grasp every word to get the emotion of it. And she’s yelling at her government. And she’s yelling at her government as an equal: “I’m the citizen, you’re the government.” It goes instantly viral. Maybe surprisingly, maybe not so.

She’s not the same kind of person, demographically speaking, who was on the streets on 11 July, 2021. She’s not young,  she’s white, she kept emphasizing she’s the mother of three children. Her outburst was kicking it up a notch, in a certain sense, when it comes to expressing rage and frustration at the situation. She was not screaming about liberty. She was not shouting, “Down with the dictatorship,” the way lots of people on the streets were.

But when people get angry, teasing out the precise reasons for their anger can be tricky. Are you angry because your gas bill went up? Are you angry because you had to wait in line for hours? Are you angry the government is not doing its job? Are you angry because it’s a one party system?  And how do you separate all of those things? She was expressing, on the one hand, a very specific grievance – my gas bill, and I can’t cook anyway, because you’ve turned the power off. But she wasn’t yelling at her neighbour. She was yelling right to the very top.

That’s all by way of saying: the average person, the person on the street, the mother of three, the Black Cuban kids who came out strongly in the protest, these are all belong to different demographics. And they are different from the artists and the musicians who have been gathering at the same thing, gathering outside the Ministry of Culture – which is a pretty unprecedented thing as well.

There’s a lot cooking, a lot going on. It’s not the same people, all saying the same things. But it seems to me very significant that this is all happening at the same time.

McKay: Like many Canadians (as many as a million annually, in the years leading up to 2020),  I have enjoyed visits to Cuba, especially Havana. I always wonder a little bit, though, whether I am just another “Gringo from the Far North” or (I hope) someone more genuinely curious about and respectful of the people I’m visiting. Has Cuba as a destination altered Canadian perceptions of the Global South – and Cubans’ perceptions of Canadians? After five decades, with Canada as Cuba’s primary source of tourists, has Canada’s relationship with Cuba been mutually beneficial – or has it just paralleled many other exploitive colonial relationships?

Dubinsky: Those are really good questions. I’m working on a project, writing ultimately a book on the history of Canada/Cuba relations in the cultural realm. I’ve also done some work on Canada/Cuba relations in the development realm, looking at early development-aid projects. CUSO had a big project in Cuba in the early 1970s. A Canadian NGO was the first NGO to be invited back into the country after the 1959 Revolution. That says something…

I’ve interviewed lots of Cubans in the development sphere, and people in the cultural sphere, musicians especially, both there and here…The stereotype, of course, is that there’s this huge affection. I have a Cuban friend in Ottawa. I just heard her say this recently: “Canadians adore Cuba. I don’t know if it’s because of Pierre Trudeau or because of Sunwing Vacations.” Or maybe it’s both.

It’s easy for me to talk about Canadian perceptions of Cuba… To try to reverse the gaze and think about what it looks like from the other side, that’s also something I asked people. At the conclusion of my interviews, I have a stock question, which is basically what you were asking. “There’s this talk of a special affinity between Canadians and Cubans. Do you think that’s true or not?” There’s a range of responses. Some people just roll their eyes and say, “Look, Cubans are astute.” Cubans know that in the last pre-pandemic year,… Canada was the highest tourist-sending nation…. You don’t have to be a genius to think about how that influences the relationship.

Are Canadians nice? Are they nicer tourists? I don’t think so. That stereotype of Canadian niceness – maybe what that is actually speaking to is the history.… Canadians go, I think, with the sense that there isn’t a blockade, that Canada acts differently vis-à-vis Cuba than does the US… And I think Canadians often … go back to the same hotel, year after year.

…I go back a lot. We bring students every year. I try to go back for the film festival. So, it’s like any other relationship. Once you show yourself to be a known quantity, a trusted quantity, someone who listens, someone who’s not there to tell you what to do, but someone who listens…if Canadians have a good reputation in tourism, it’s for those sorts of reasons.

There is a way in which Cuba has been fantasized by Canadians – people on the left/liberal side of the spectrum most obviously – as the great exception to our investment in global inequalities and colonial relations.  I think people-to-people relations are clearly important, but “Cubans like us” or “we’re not as bad as the Americans” doesn’t get us very far in thinking about power relations.

McKay: Your book has some interesting comments from Cubans who prefer German tourists to Canadians. At least the Germans were kind of interested in history, culture, art. Many Canadians tend to want to lie on the beach and sip their Mojitos.

Dubinsky: One assumes it would be frustrating to be thought of as a beach, nothing more. And people who work in tourism are extremely well-educated. They know there’s a lot more to the place than, “Would you like another Mojito?”

On the other hand, there’s a knowledge about Canada that exists in Cuba, in part arising from tourism relationships, in part from increasing migration. The first question that almost any Canadian gets asked when you step into a Cuban taxi is, “What’s the weather like?” If it’s January, “It must be cold?” It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that’s often based on knowledge: “I have a cousin in Montreal, my brother lives outside Toronto.”… Those people-to-people connections are meaningful.

McKay: Aren’t you gesturing towards some of the limits of the binaries that are often brought to the study of tourism? Tourism studies seem radically divided right now, between those who want fundamentally to critique the industry and those who want to develop it. There’s lots of grey in between those positions, isn’t there? Isn’t it more complicated than they allow? You’re suggesting that, over these decades, lasting relationships have evolved between tourists and the toured-upon, in relationships that are, at least to some extent, between equals.

Dubinsky: There are many things that could move the pattern in a more equal direction. One of them is for Canada to take a really careful, critical look at its own policies on granting Cubans visas. Canadians get their visas for Cuba on the airplane as they’re passing out the peanuts. It’s not an application process. “Don’t lose that form!”  Many people likely don’t really know what it is.

On the other hand, Cubans have to line up, pay for, visas…and very often get denied. Canada doesn’t believe that people from the Global South can be visitors. Everyone is treated, at least initially, as ‘possible immigrante’ [a likely immigrant].  “You’re not coming to Canada to visit you friend the Canadian professor you’ve known for decades. You’re coming because you want to clean floors in Canada.” Those relations could be more equal if there were actual opportunities for equal exchange.

McKay:  Fidel had it that each resort would be like a factory, generating revenues for a revolutionary regime determined to raise living standards for the rural masses. From the perspective of tourism studies, he seemingly operated on the assumption that a tourist bubble could generate money for Cuba without seriously undermining the social solidarity necessary for revolutionary transformation. What happens in the resort, it seemed, wouldn’t really change much about the society outside that resort, except generate money for its projects.

Yet, on a recent trip, I kept sensing resentment against those who work in the tourism sector, who have a standard of living higher than many other people. And even a casual visitor like me notices that, although Cuba owns the resorts, they are generally managed by foreign corporations with class hierarchies typical of capitalist tourism the world over. Was Fidel wrong? Is it really possible to isolate the effects of tourism and treat it more or less as an offshore bubble, as a neutral source of income?

Dubinsky: Cuba was dragged, in a certain sense, kicking and screaming into mass tourism, as it’s understood in the Caribbean region, during what was called the Special Period, after the Soviet Union collapsed. It was by no means their first choice of an economic development strategy.

When you look back at the first generation of Canadian development workers who went to Cuba to help build an engineering school [in the 1960s] – they weren’t tourists. They were teachers, they were what we would call today NGO workers. You could barely get to Cuba in those days. There weren’t direct flights. You had to fly via Mexico….You might have had to stay overnight there. The hotels had been sitting in mothballs, basically, since the 1959 Revolution. Tourism was by no means the regime’s first choice as an economic development strategy.

And for really good reasons: it sucks as an economic development strategy. So much of the money goes back to the First World in terms of multinational hotels, etc. So, they tried to organize something economically different, with more joint partnerships – not foreign ownership, the way most of the rest of the Caribbean is organized.

What does it do, socially and culturally? I like the way you pointed out that there are very binary kinds of answers among tourist scholars, which I don’t think are super helpful.

Tourism is clearly hierarchical, economically. Socially, it’s a bit different, because the guy mixing your Mojito might well be more than educated that you are. He’s mixing your Mojito because doing that is paying him more than to be an engineer or a medical doctor or a technician. That’s not a great development strategy, either.

In the twelve or so years I’ve been bringing students to Havana for this course, sometimes at my most cynical, I think: “What are we doing? What is the take-home message? What is this accomplishing for them?” Of course, there’s a million things. I’m not feeling particularly cynical right now, having just come back. I love watching the way students can assimilate such a different place and so many new experiences in a pretty sophisticated way.

But sometimes I think: “Basically what we’re doing is creating more educated tourists.” And sometimes that seems that that’s not enough. But other times I think: “Well, what’s wrong with that?” That begs a whole lot of big structural questions. But having more educated tourists could be a good thing, in and of itself.

McKay: Do you get the sense that Cuba might change its tourism strategy, given the resistance you were mentioning around the construction of new hotels? I was thinking about your Mojito-mixer with a PhD: surely on some level he must resent the Canadians who just want to get drunk on Mojitos and behave accordingly?

Dubinsky: The most hopeful moment I’ve seen since I’ve been going there was when Raoul Castro took over. There was a push towards  small business, entrepreneurship. Maybe the state is not the only engine of economic growth. None of this had anything to do with a change in political dynamics, in the structures of government. This was only about the economy.

But there was a kind of renaissance, certainly in the arts and cultural world, in the small business world, with little design shops, that sort of thing – you can have people visit you, and have those people spread the wealth around more equitably. Not everybody has to stay in a big resort on the beach. So many of the students in our course take it because they, like so many Canadians, were Varadero tourists, with their parents when they were younger. They came into the city on a three-hour bus tour and they went, “This place looks cool!” 

…So , many Cubans were getting a little piece of the tourism pie. Maybe through renting out a room in their house….Then Trump took over and the pandemic took over, and everything just collapsed. So, when people ask, “Why are we building these new hotels?,” that could be taken as an “anti-tourism position,” but I don’t think it’s an “anti-visitor position.”

McKay: We’ve both worked on tourism for quite a long. I notice people think it’s quite a funny topic. If you take it into an academic setting, you’ll often meet people who want to present you with their most recent travel anecdotes, all their funny tourism stories. There’s a pervasive sense that it’s almost a silly topic, not worthy of our focused attention. Yet, by many estimates, it’s the largest industry in the world. There’s a contradiction there: an enormously significant cultural and economic activity, often treated as a risible distraction.

In a rather sick way, one of the “happier stories” of the pandemic – with the quotation marks doing heavy work in that phrase – is that tourism is no longer a laughing-stock. Tourism has revealed itself to be an immensely efficient way of spreading a virus. In many respects, Covid-19 as a global phenomenon has been brought to us by mass tourism. The virus could not swim from continent to continent. Global tourism organized on a capitalist basis has been shown to be a very dangerous weapon aimed at humanity itself, allowing a virus emerging in Wuhan to spread worldwide in a month. I think this might well change how academics look at tourism. Would you agree with that.?

Dubinsky: …Where I thought you were going, which is also a disaster, is that, as academics point out,  tourism is a very risky business in terms of sustainability – both environmentally and socially. Tourism can be faddish. Global, capitalist-based tourism does not produce local small-business-type wealth, the way it produces chain-hotel wealth. Even having said that, when it’s gone, it’s gone. And if one’s economy is so heavily based on tourism, then…that kind of eerie dark stillness I saw in Havana in December, and in May as well, shows you how important visitors are, in whatever form. That shows you how important visitors are to the lifeblood of an economy, to the vibrancy of a city, to all of that kind of stuff….

…I don’t know if people laugh at tourism in the same way they did 20 years ago… I think people in the Global North who are really used to getting on airplanes at the drop of a hat, and who have been told, “You can’t do that,” might also change their perspectives. It has certainly demonstrated the power of the critique of global tourism – that it is environmentally ridiculous and globally catastrophic. It certainly gives more fuel to that argument, which isn’t wrong, I have to say.

McKay: Luc Renauld points out that locations in the Global South don’t have the power to say to delinquent cruise ships, “Obey our rules,” because the ship can just select the next Caribbean island. So, in many ways, we have a radically stratified industry, with people in dependent countries unable to say, as they’re saying in Amsterdam, Venice, Lisbon or Barcelona: “Enough is enough. We really want to limit this.” I fear that after the pandemic, we’ll witness a race to the bottom in the Global South, with destinations almost paying you to come to them.

Dubinsky: And that actually speaks to something we were talking about earlier as well. People who go to Barcelona go to Barcelona want to see Barcelona.  They know something of its history. They know it has good art or good food or whatever…Whereas, in this part of the world, it has always really annoyed me when I see places advertised as “sun destinations,” as if Trinidad and Jamaica and Cuba and Belize are all the same. They are all, it seems, just “sun destinations.”

Educated tourists would realize they are all different countries that have different histories and have different art galleries and different food traditions – all the things that one looks for, perhaps, when you’re leaving your own reality and entering another….

 McKay: You write very powerfully in your book about the Canadian tourists’ fantasy: “these are our Mojitos, waiters and beaches.” The classic colonial attitude. Do you think that’s waning, in a world more sensitive to racism and colonialism?

Dubinsky: …I had a studentwrite to me this year, from a first-year intro global studies class… She wrote me and said: “I don’t know if you can help me. My parents are taking an all-inclusive vacation in Cuba this Spring and they want me to go. But, I’ve just learned abut how horrible the world is in my global development studies class. And I have learned that tourism is a bad economic development strategy…Maybe I just shouldn’t go.” I love first year students for their honesty and the guilelessness.

But I think that, even though her response is a bit naïve, and that not going is no more a solution to the problem than going – still, if people were asking those questions, maybe minus the guilt, that would be really useful. And maybe do something about the condition of the world so there could be more actual exchange. There’s no reason to think that Cubans aren’t just as interested in wandering around our streets and taking picture of our curious markets and our curious foodways.

McKay: Tourism scholars before 2020 never dreamt that this tourism mega-machine could ever be shut down. There are just too many moving parts, too many millions of people depending on it, too much corporate capital, too many state interests. Over the last 40 years it has just grown bigger and bigger and bigger. But – Covid-19 did largely shut this mega-machine down. I notice among tourism scholars, especially in the pandemic’s early days, the perception that, now we’ve shut the machine down, at huge costs to people’s livelihoods and even lives, there is a moment of possibility. Not just “thinking outside the box” – in many ways, the tourism “box” collapsed, leaving people to wonder, “If this is where we’ve been for the past decades, and this is where it has led, don’t we have do something entirely different?” There was a sudden opening up of a new sense of possibility, in the early pandemic.

But I’m not getting that sense anymore. It seems much more an atmosphere of “Let’s get this over this, let’s open up again, let’s get the machine running again.” How do you feel?

Dubinsky: What you’re saying has repercussions for all aspects of life. Tourism, for sure, but also social welfare, social equality. I have to say, I didn’t share as much as others did the notion that we were going to be able to build a New Jerusalem out of the pandemic….I don’t think, in general, social change comes as easily from desperation as it does from optimism and feeling like you actually matter. You and your neighbours and your community actually matter…

An interesting lasting impact of the pandemic might be localism. People became way more interested in supporting the local…. People became way more conscious of supporting local initiatives, whether business or otherwise…. Does that mean that people are going to be more willing to change, to switch from patronizing a Holiday Inn to something locally owned? If that’s a consequence, that might be good. It’s obviously about a “reform,” but that’s where we are at,  if we’re lucky….

McKay: Thank you very much Karen for this conversation – and for all your brilliant work on tourism.

Karen Dubinsky visited Syndemic on 15 June 2022,