As Obama makes history over Cuba, will the Castros be the real winners?

Published December 23, 2014

After 50 years of fractious hostility, America has thrown a dramatic lifeline to the island’s bankrupt economy

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Cuban children and teachers celebrate after hearing Raúl Castro announce the restoration of relations with the US. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP


To the astonishment of even the most seasoned and wired-in of Cuba hands, the half century-long cold (and hot) war between the US and Cuba is over. In what will rank alongside Nixon’s opening to China and Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev, Obama has achieved the diplomatic coup and historic legacy that so insistently eluded his 10 White House predecessors. But the towering question is: what finally drove the Cubans to the bargaining table? Was it political courage, as was certainly the case for Obama? Or was it simply a matter of survival?

Since the untimely death of Fidel Castro’s disciple, Hugo Chávez, the Cubans have been nervously eying Caracas. How much longer – months or weeks? – would Cuba be able to receive its daily subsidy of 100,000 barrels of free Venezuelan crude? Quite simply, the collapsing price of oil, coupled with Nicolás Maduro’s shaky grip on the Venezuelan presidency (not to mention the falling Russian rouble) provided the writing on the wall. Either Cuba had to find a new patron – and one as pliant and generous as the Soviet Union and Venezuela have been – or it would be forced to join the cursed, capitalist free-market economy.

But there was a second issue: the tottering health and diminished capacity of the Maximum Leader, Fidel Castro. Even the bi-monthly staged photo-ops of him with visiting world leaders had come to a halt. Close, trusted friends of mine who have visited the 88-year-old Fidel have confided that he now fully relies upon his spouse, the long-suffering Dalia Soto del Valle. These days, she is Fidel’s wife, his caretaker and, often, his memory.

It is an article of faith that the blame for 50 years of failed diplomacy with Cuba lay with a succession of feckless American presidents who pandered to exile constituents in the key states of Florida and New Jersey. The corollary of this myth had it that the Castros, hats in hand, were incessantly rebuffed by their predatory imperialist neighbour. Truth be told, and borrowing the adage invoked about Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

During the administration of Gerald Ford, a remarkable two-year diplomatic initiative was undertaken by secretary of state Henry Kissinger and his assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, William P Rogers, to normalise relations with Cuba. Had the talks succeeded, the US embargo would have been eliminated, with diplomatic relations between the two countries fully restored as early as 1976. If nothing else, Kissinger wanted to add the notch of Cuba to his diplomatic belt. After China, Kissinger assumed Cuba would be a cakewalk. “Little did we know,” sighed the late Rogers when I interviewed him.

But the potentially historic talks sputtered in December 1975 when Castro decided to intervene in the Angolan civil war. To their everlasting shock, the US team came to the inescapable conclusion that Castro was ready to sacrifice a rapprochement with his most important neighbour to pursue a bizarre military adventure halfway across the globe.

Nevertheless, the talks continued, but it was Fidel Castro who again pulled the plug. The shrewdest of chess players, Castro, who came to power on the irresistible platform of Cuban nationalism, understood that he needed a Goliath if he was to continue to play David – and the imperialist US fitted the bill perfectly. Always, in the Castro rhetoric, America would be El Imperio to denote the evil empire of the north.

Salvador Lew, an attorney, maintains Castro squandered other opportunities including some enterprising rogue diplomacy. After the revolution, when Lew represented the Cuban government in Miami, he was approached by reputable third parties seeking a Cuba-US truce only to be rejected by Fidel. Later in 1959, Lew said he passed on an offer to sell American weapons to the Cuban government through a third party. “Fidel called me the next morning and said that Raúl appreciated it very much but he had a better offer,” Lew recalled. “You see, he felt he had to take on the United States – to oppose a superpower 90 miles away – in order to secure international stature for himself.”

Be it official or rogue diplomacy, what remained strikingly consistent was Castro’s relish at thumbing his nose over and over again at Uncle Sam. In 1976, Jimmy Carter arrived at the White House disposed to resume relations with Cuba. Over his four-year term, Carter would enact the most significant and durable modifications of the embargo, including re-establishing quasi-diplomatic relations. Interests Sections, a euphemism for embassies, in Havana and Washington in 1977, were re-established in the very same pre-1959 embassy buildings – where they remain today.

For his efforts towards normalising Cuba, Carter paid a steep price, a cautionary tale for future presidents about the risks of negotiating with Cuba. Not long after the agreements were signed, Castro unleashed the Mariel refugee crisis. A flotilla of fleeing Cubans, eventually numbering 125,000, headed for the US shores, including hundreds of felons released from Cuban jails. And Carter lost the 1980 election.

Bill Clinton also was keen to defrost relations with Cuba and had none other than the late Gabriel García Márquez, a trusted pal of Fidel Castro, to act as messenger. Those talks went silent in 1996, when Castro ordered the shooting down of two civilian planes of the Miami exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. Four people were killed, prompting international fury. Worse, it led to the enactment of Helms-Burton, which ramped up the US embargo, codifying it into law and placing it squarely under the thumb of Congress. Did the master political tactician Fidel foresee this would happen? Certainly – but it was a price he was willing to pay.

While Fidel and Raúl Castro have proved to be the most successful, political/brother act in history, there have been strains. While it is true that Raúl assumed his brother’s role in August 2006, he was unable to take the reins fully until after his Fidel’s health worsened about two years ago. Until then, he was often second-guessed, overruled and even humiliated, on occasion, by his convalescing sibling.

By the 1990s, Raúl, once a communist stalwart, had begun to moderate his hardline views. Fidel, however, shared none of his brother’s interest in reforms. As far as he was concerned perestroika and glasnost had brought down the Soviet Union. To lose control with open elections and a free media, argued Fidel, was to lose one’s country.

But Raúl had long been impressed with what he has called “the Chinese model” as well as “the Vietnam solution”. He had travelled to China in 1997 to learn more about its emerging new economy. During his visit, Raúl spent a good deal of time with Zhu Rongji, China’s architect of economic reforms under Jiang Zemin. Raúl was so taken with the Chinese programme that he invited Zhu’s chief adviser to Cuba, who went on to enthrall many in the Cuban Politburo over several days of talks. However, there was one person who was decidedly unimpressed – Fidel.

Over the last 18 months, Raúl has proved himself to be a superb negotiator, securing the most prized items on the Cuban wish-list. Although Obama cannot lift the embargo, he has bestowed a plethora of economic and trade goodies to the Cubans, along with full diplomatic relations, thus defanging the most onerous parts of the US embargo.

Although many Republican leaders have been predictably howling, the fact of the matter is that Obama did them a big favour. Not only did he seize the opportunity to dismantle the vestigial restrictions on Cuba, he has taken the pesky, half-century-old issue of Cuba off the table. Other than Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Cuban-Americans, the Republican party is a dedicated pro-business, free enterprise political outfit. Rand Paul’s welcoming comments on the deal, and the polite silence of many in the GOP, speak volumes.

While the Cubans are clearly the big winners, America relieved itself of a 50-year headache. True, the US secured the freedom of Alan Gross, the bumbling USAID worker whom the Cubans had picked up as a chit to trade, and a valued CIA asset, Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, who had done 20 years in prison. But it is the bankrupt Cuban economy that has been rescued.

Moreover, in a swap they badly wanted, the Cubans got the last three members of the Cuban Five who were still in US jails, a vindication for hardliners in Cuba who had long argued for the chit value of Gross. The Cubans also agreed to free 53 political prisoners, something mentioned by Obama on Wednesday but not Raúl in his remarks.

The losers of this deal will likely be Cuban activists. One of the reasons Raúl favours the China model is his admiration for their control over the internet and dissidents, and for their preservation of the Communist party.

And while the US has agreed to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba, it remains to be seen if the Cubans allow all of us in. Will American reporters still be subjected to the capricious issuance of press visas? Will all exiles be allowed to visit? Will the rules change for the lines of grovelling would-be visitors to Cuba at its re-baptised embassy in Washington DC? Will the average Cuban finally be allowed access to the internet?

As this historic deal was announced, the price of oil dropped to a near record low. “Se salvaron en tablitas,” as they say in Cuba – they were saved by the skin of their teeth – and there is widespread euphoria on the island. The Cubans did so well that Yoani Sánchez, the dissident blogger, declared that “Castroism has won”.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue otherwise.


Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba analyst, is the author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential.

U.S. co-opted Cuba’s hip-hop scene in failed attempt to spark unrest in communist nation

Published December 16, 2014

An Associated Press investigation revealed a secret operation to infiltrate Cuba’s underground hip-hop scene was ill-conceived and put innocent Cubans at risk.


Cuban fans sing during a hip-hop concert in Havana on Nov. 30. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that a U.S. agency infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop scene and recruited unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government.

A covert U.S. operation to spark a democracy-spreading youth movement in Cuba by infiltrating the country’s underground hip-hop scene ended up a Looney tune.

An Associated Press investigation blew the lid off the clandestine mission by the U.S. Agency for International Development, revealing it flopped because it was ill-conceived, reckless and executed by amateurs.

Instead of spreading democracy, the mission put innocent Cubans at risk and left unwitting recruits detained and interrogated by Cuban officials.


Los Aldeanos’ Aldo Rodriguez (l.) and EL B (r.) perform in concert at the Acapulco Theater in Havana.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) called the operation “just plain stupid,” while U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) deemed it “boneheaded.”

“The conduct described suggests an alarming lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved, and anyone who knows Cuba could predict it would fail,” said Leahy, chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee.


Click to view video.

“USAID never informed Congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless,” Leahy said after reviewing the AP’s findings.

Uncovering reams of records, the AP found that USAID repeatedly put innocent Cubans and its own operatives in jeopardy despite warning signs.


Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Havana. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that a U.S. agency infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop scene, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government.

Authorities detained or interrogated musicians or USAID operatives at least six times, often confiscating their computers and thumb drives, which in some cases contained material linking them to USAID.

The missions initial point person, a Serbian music promoter named Rajko Bozic, infiltrated a popular rap group known as Los Aldeanos.


People cheer during a concert of Puerto Rico’s band Calle 13 in Havana on March 23, 2010. Calle 13 brought its edgy mix of reggaeton and hip-hop to Havana late Tuesday, rocking thousands of screaming fans from an open-air, concrete stage dubbed ‘Anti-imperialist Plaza’ and built in the shadow of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Cuba.

But When the Cuban government caught wind of the scheme, Los Aldeanos began facing political pressure and had to emigrate to South Florida.

A popular music festival was also banned because of the perception that USAID was pulling the strings for it. So instead of sparking a democratic revolution, it compromised an authentic source of protest that had produced some of the hardest-hitting grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, an AP investigation found.

“These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money,” said Flake.



Published: Thursday, December 11, 2014, 4:55 AM

Updated: Friday, December 12, 2014, 11:29 AM


NYT: Time for U.S. to engage with Cuba

Published December 15, 2014

Ernesto Londoño from the New York Times tells Amanpour why the newspaper thinks the U.S. should end its Cuba embargo



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Vietnam Welcomes America with Open Arms

Published December 9, 2014

By Llewellyn King

No grunt slogging through the jungles of Vietnam could imagine that in 2014, 41 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese would be welcoming back Americans as investors, tourists, advisers and protectors.

Next year is a big year in Vietnam. It is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975. It is also the 20th anniversary of the normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam, a country where so much American and Vietnamese blood was spilled.

The Vietnam War started in the Eisenhower administration, dragged down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and was ended in the Nixon administration amid controversy that tore America apart and has informed its foreign policy ever since.

It will be remembered in the annals of war for the limits it revealed on mechanized fighting, and the challenge of asymmetrical fighting and wrong-headiness. But it also deserves mention in the annals of peace for the surprising speed in which the war has been put aside, especially in Vietnam, where the gory past has been buried and the future embraced.

Today’s Vietnam is a place where the United States is admired and emulated. And the Vietnamese want nothing so much as to be closer to Americans.

Twenty years ago when I traveled from Hanoi, south along the spine of the country, to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, I was astounded by the way the war had been willfully forgotten: people I met did not want to talk about it.

Da Nang still was set about with hardened bunkers, Hue, which had been the national capital until 1945, was a sad ruin, but people were determinedly forward-looking. They wanted to know three things: how could they get American goods, how could they sell their goods in the U.S. market, and what was the United States going to do about China?

A generation later, Vietnam is more passionate in its desire to get close to the United States. The government of Vietnam is making a new push for American investment, particularly in the privatization of infrastructure, which is still government-controlled and beset by inefficiency and corruption.

Vietnam Report, a business and data service, has just released a comprehensive white paper, prepared by Corr Analytics, a New York-based risk management consultancy, that paints an agreeable picture of investment opportunities, particularly in those industries that the Vietnamese government is anxious to hive off to the private sector. Of 432 projects identified by the government, Corr has honed in on what it believes to be the 31 best-investment targets. These range from opportunities — from a few million dollars to over $7 billion — in finance, infrastructure, manufacturing and petroleum.

The backstory is that Vietnam needs more than U.S. investment. As it struggles against China in the South China Sea, over territorial claims on small island groups that are thought to contain large hydrocarbon reserves, Vietnam wants the United States to be a visible friend.

There is even talk that the United States, might establish a naval base at Cam Rahn Bay, its legendary base and deep-water port during the Vietnam War. This, the argument goes, would compensate for the loss of the naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Come back, Yanks.

Several analysts have told me that they believe Vietnam to be an excellent investment opportunity, but there are concerns. The government is nominally communist and there is only one party: the Communist Party. It is avowedly pro-business but faces human-rights issues, press-freedom issues, and the impartiality of the judiciary is questionable. Corruption is widespread and debilitating.

Yet Forbes magazine is looking to Vietnam as the new Asian investment haven. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, according to Corr Analytics, Vietnam is ahead of major investment destinations such as China, India and Brazil. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has made it clear that his country is open for business — particularly American business.

Tourism is growing, especially at Vietnam’s superb beaches. Lauren Graham, who stars in the NBC drama Parenthood, has taken a bicycle trip with her father, a Washington lobbyist and fluent Vietnamese speaker.

Some who fought in Vietnam have joined the ranks of its boosters, like Tom Patterson, the famed Harvard professor, who is helping to develop a high-technology village near Nha Trang and Cam Rhan Bay, where he was once stationed.

The generational change also has made a difference. Much of the Vietnamese population was not born during the war. A new generation of Americans has been shaped by war in the Middle East, not in Asia.



36 Hours in Phnom Penh

Published December 8, 2014


Click on photo above to view video.

On Norodom Boulevard, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest arteries, a huge, new LED screen dramatically outlines the tiered eaves of the Buddhist temple Wat Langka in shadow. Around the corner, the recently erected, towering statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, founding father of modern-day Cambodia, looks on as teenagers dressed like K-pop stars zip by on motorbikes, and uniformed officials in SUVs navigate the thronged streets. It’s this juxtaposition of traditional and modern life, of the enduring and the mutable, that defines the capital today. As high-rises transform the skyline, stylish restaurants serving food and drink that spans the globe have arrived. Yet, the city retains a provincial intimacy found in its tree-lined streets, tranquil pagodas and thriving local markets.


1. Drinking Up History | 5 p.m.

Jacqueline Onassis, Catherine Deneuve, Angelina Jolie: Phnom Penh has been luring the chic for decades. And they’ve all stayed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which has witnessed Phnom Penh’s many incarnations since 1929, even providing safe haven for journalists before the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city in 1975. Nowadays, embassy and workers in nongovernmental organizations gather at its Elephant Bar, lounging on rattan furniture along arched windows overlooking gardens, sipping drinks like the Femme Fatale — Champagne, crème de fraise sauvage, Cognac — which Jackie is said to have enjoyed in 1967 . (A lipstick-stained glass on display supposedly touched the former first lady’s lips.) The bar is named for the 1,396 elephants in its décor, though a renovation is planned.(Drinks, $12; U.S. dollars are the de facto currency in Cambodia.)

2. Dance With the Stars | 7 p.m.

With its tusk-like eaves, the century-old terra-cotta red building housing the National Museum, which displays pre-Angkorean and Angkorean artifacts, is stunning, especially at sunset. Several nights a week, its tranquil garden provides a backdrop to Plae Pakaa, performances organized by Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Khmer song and dance. In ornate costumes and makeup, performers as young as 14 recreate tales and ceremonies, contorting their hands and feet to awe-inspiring angles. Musicians playing traditional instruments provide the hypnotic soundtrack. Tickets, $13.50.

PP Map

3. Cambodian Cuisine | 8:30 p.m.

Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge’s near-total cultural annihilation, Cambodian cuisine has struggled to find a spot among Southeast Asia’s more familiar flavors. Luckily, the food — known for its subdued qualities and expert use of herbs — has its champions. At Malis, the country’s celebrity chef Luu Meng produces sophisticated renditions of traditional recipes in a romantic outdoor setting with water features, dim lighting and a life-size Buddha. Try the green mango and smoked fish salad and prahok ktis, a pungent, fermented fish dip ($7.50 each). At the Common Tiger, the South African Timothy Bruyns creates a five-course tasting menu that stimulates the eyes as much as the palate. Sit on the leafy terrace sampling dishes like a deconstructed tom kha, or coconut soup, with sea bass and cured raw tuna with hot basil gel ($50 per person).

4. Serious About Drinking | 10:30 p.m.

Leading the new wave of sleek bar options is Bar.Sito, a smoky, moody, masculine cocktail bar hidden down a narrow lane off Street 240. Espresso martinis and negronis ($5) go down easily to the lounge and dance beats. With arched brick doorways and spacious booths, the French-run Bouchon is a charming spot for a glass of Médoc or a home-infused vodka martini. Head to the anything-goes intersection of Streets 51 and 178, where the expat party goes late. At the black-and-white-themed dive bar Zeppelin Cafe, order a $2 gin and tonic and dumplings while rocking out to the Taiwanese owner’s vinyl rock ‘n’ roll collection.


5. Sweaty Shopping | 8 a.m.

Every neighborhood market has its own charm, though most are sweaty, labyrinthine obstacle courses. Central Market, a 1937 Art Deco structure, rises like a giant yellow four-legged spider in the city center. Thanks to an upgrade in 2011, it offers a cool, comfortable opportunity to shop for jewelry, clothing and flowers with middle-class Khmers. Farther west is O Russei market, a three-story structure that sells everything from dried fish to minidresses and matching heels. A 15-minute drive south is Toul Tumpuong, or Russian Market, stocked with knockoff DVDs, cheap silk, Buddha statues and palm wood kitchenware. Stall 696 sells film and music posters depicting Cambodia’s swinging 1960s; natural bath products can be picked up at Bodia (Stall 284-285), which is air-conditioned, miraculously. Bargaining is unaggressive.


6. Conscientious Eating | Noon

At Romdeng restaurant, your tourist dollars work double time: Not only is the food excellent, but the place also offers former street children a hands-on training program. Don’t let the large tour groups deter you — the regional specialties are among the best in town, and the setting, in a colonial villa, is lovely. Try the pomelo salad with shrimp, topped with mint and bird’s eye chiles, and fragrant chicken soup with straw mushrooms and preserved limes. If you hear shrieking at any point, don’t fret — it’s just a preview of an adventurous diner’s lunch; fried spiders are a Khmer delicacy (lunch, $15 per person). At the nonprofit Bloom, women enrolled in an economic empowerment program produce the city’s best and prettiest cupcakes ($1.50 each).

7. Mind and Body | 3:30 p.m.

Many young Cambodian men shave their heads, don an orange robe and devote themselves to Buddha not only as a path to enlightenment, but also to get an education. They’re often eager to practice English while offering insight into their lives. On the grounds of Wat Botum, just south of the Royal Palace, there have been spiritual gatherings since the 15th century. Walk a block south to Neak Banh Teuk Park, which comes alive at dawn and dusk with aerobics classes, men playing Chinese hacky sack, and elderly couples on brisk walks. The new bronze statue of Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, near the Independence Monument marks the loss of a beloved figure.


8. Ride the River | 5:30 p.m.

Take a sunset cruise along the Tonle Sap River, which runs parallel to the tourist area called “the Riverside.” Private boats whisk you away for two-hour jaunts near the intersection of Street 100 and Sisowath Quay. Prices start at around $25 for a two-level wooden vessel; splurging for an operator like Crocodile Cruise — from $50 for two hours — will get you comfortable sofas, an acceptable toilet and the option of food and drink. You’ll sail by fishermen, stilted huts and the newly developed waterfront on the eastern bank. Sunsets rarely disappoint.

9. Savory Moment | 8 p.m.

For a taste of la vie en rose, book a table at Armand’s, an intimate French bistro. Run by Armand Gerbié, a French-Cambodian who is accustomed to entertaining from his days at Paris’s famed Lido club, it’s a seductive spot with leather seating, nostalgic melodies and French wine and Champagne. Try the Cognac-flambéed Australian rib eye, which Mr. Gerbié prepares tableside (dinner, $40 per person).

10. Creative Infusions | 10 p.m.

With its soaring ceilings, carved doorways and Chinese-meets-French colonial design, Tepui at Chinese House, a restaurant and lounge not far from Armand’s, offers a mesmerizing environment. Order a 21 Points (rum, Coke, Angostura bitters, sugar cane, $5), sink into a sofa and listen to Latin jazz. Along the new Bassac Lane, an alley off Street 308, you’ll find a half-a-dozen tiny, stylish cocktail bars, including Cicada, where gin reigns supreme, and the Library, which serves daiquiri variations.


11. Corner of History | 10:30 a.m.

French colonial life, which endured here for nearly a century, centered around the northern part of town near Wat Phnom. Though many of the era’s grand structures have succumbed to time or developers, you can glimpse the past at Place de la Poste. Start at the 1890s Central Post Office, renovated in 2004, whose airy space is punctuated by pillars. Commemorative stamps depicting Angkorean dancers and flora and fauna at the Philately Counter make a nice souvenir, as do the hand-carved figurines and silks across the street at Artisans d’Angkor. Van’s Restaurant, which opens at 11:30, in the Indochina Bank building, with stained-glass windows, is a wonderful French establishment. Lunch, about $15.

12. Made in Cambodia | Noon

From water hyacinth baskets to ikat scarves, crafts abound. Shelves at the artist-run Theam’s House are lined with lacquered elephants and fish- and lotus-adorned boxes. Nearby, at Garden of Desire, Ly Pisith, a former Philippe Starck eyewear designer, sets gems in silver settings. The owners of Trunkh, a short walk away, scour the country for forgotten beauties — hand-painted signs, old shutters — and reimagine them as modern-day treasures.


Phnom Penh is full of charming boutique hotels, where you’ll get a stylish, clean room and small pool for between $50 and $100 per night. The recently opened Rambutan (29 Street 71;; from $50) and Teav (14 Street 310;; from $88) are good options in the centrally located, expat area of Boeung Keng Kang.

Down the street from the Royal Palace, the 70-room Plantation (28 Street 184;; from $88), popular among Europeans, is spread across three renovated historic buildings and boasts one of the city’s prettiest pools.

For the ultimate indulgence, look no further than the Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh;; from $195).


Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t

Published December 2, 2014

American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.




When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.

My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.

It’s often said that spending time in less affluent countries teaches Americans never to take anything for granted. To some extent, this is true. During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitos, and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted,” I now rethought taking at all.

My best travel moments came from subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world.” Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road.” The other man responded, “No, look at the people.”

Traveling to these places made me realize that the “advantages” I initially thought I had over others were not necessarily advantages to everyone. Many actually preferred living with the challenges they faced over living in a country like mine, where other things are missing. A professional I met in South America who had turned down a job offer in the United States told me, “I’d never want to move there, even though I’d make more money. The social part of life is better here, I find people happier here, and my quality of life is what matters most.” Rick Steves, the popular travel guidebook writer and television host, expressed similar thoughts in an interview with Salon when he said, “It’s a very powerful Eureka! moment when you’re traveling: to realize that people don’t have the American dream. They’ve got their own dream. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

These were important lessons for me to learn as a young person in the midst of making important life decisions. It was empowering to know I had experienced a wide range of perspectives and could use them to make choices for myself—that I had been in situations with few resources or comforts, and I was still okay.

This past summer, I volunteered as a program leader for Global Glimpse, a nonprofit organization that takes American high school seniors on three-week trips to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.* My students—who came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—visited local museums, cultural centers, and businesses, learned about fair-trade business practices, and volunteered at local nonprofits. They milked goats and carried wood on their backs to experience a day working like a local farmer. They spent an afternoon visiting the city dump where families work sifting through the trash to gather recyclable materials to make $1 to $2 a day. They also learned about the ongoing U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan politics, hearing stories from locals whose families had lives been altered by political instability.

Many of my students admitted that they had not once learned about Nicaraguan history or culture in their 11 years of education. Before I traveled, my own public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, cultures, and history, or how American policy had shaped them. American history classes instead focused on wars fought on our own soil instead of the many conflicts we involved ourselves in abroad. The Advanced Placement program in high school still only offers specialized courses in American and European history, and lumps the rest into the broader topic of “World History.” With this Western-focused curriculum, traveling to developing countries is often the only way of gaining any perspective on less-developed parts of the world.

My public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, or how American policy had shaped them.

Yet, unfortunately, most Americans have not prioritized these kinds of experiences. Unlike the U.K., where 75 percent of citizens have passports, in the U.S. the rate hovers around 45 percent, with some surveys showing that more than half of the population has never traveled outside of the country. When Americans do travel, the most popular destinations are in Europe or resort locations around the Caribbean—places that cater to a traveler’s sense of comfort and luxury. I can only imagine how American culture, business, and politics might change if more young people decided to forgo a comfortable vacation and instead pursue a genuine travel experience—not a short-lived, consumer-oriented “voluntourism” trip, where privileged visitors drop in casually without careful research or consideration of long-term needs—but a trip where people are driven to challenge what we accept as “normal” or “real.”

My parents were on to something when they decided to send me to Ecuador years ago. But that trip did far more than teach me lessons on culture and gratitude. It fundamentally changed my life trajectory and the way I wanted to engage with the world. I hope more American students can have the opportunity to experience the same.