Czech Protest Highlights Issues of Tourism with Cuba

(PRAGUE, Czech Republic) – A Czech NGO launched a new campaign called “Hotel Cuba – Two Faces, One Country” on Thursday to draw attention to the complicated nature of tourism in Cuba. Tomáš Hanák, a well known Czech actor, participated in the event by playing Cuba’s aging dictator, Fidel Castro, and pretending to prevent the symbolic prisoners from escaping from the island.

Tourism has increased dramatically between the Czech Republic and Cuba over the last few years. In 2007, there were at least 12,000 Czech visitors drawn to Cuba’s exclusive beach resorts and cultural attractions through travel agencies. The protest was not calling for an end to these types of Caribbean vacations, but was designed instead to highlight that Cubans aren’t free to travel and to inform the general public about the conditions under which most normal Cubans live.

The “Hotel Cuba” campaign’s main goal is to disseminate information that would help future tourists to the island travel more responsibly. The idea of combining social responsibility and tourism is hardly new, but whereas many such campaigns are focused on carbon footprints and environmentalism, this one is much more driven by political and human rights concerns. Even as Cuba has begun promoting tourism more aggressively over the last decade, the major international human rights organizations have tried to remind people that Cuba is the only remaining undemocratic country in the Western hemisphere and that it repressed all forms of political dissent and opposition.

According to the campaign, there are several things an average Czech tourist to Cuba could do to help the local people. People can bring Spanish books, magazines and newspapers to help overcome the Cuban government’s information blockade. They can travel with short wave radios, inexpensive digital cameras and flash drives that are almost completely unavailable to regular Cuban citizens, but are desperately needed to document what life is like there and to get information out about conditions on the ground to the rest of the world. In addition, Czech tourists should talk to the Cubans about how life in former Communist countries is a lot better than they have been lead to believe by the Castro regime. Lastly, travels can bring items that are scarce or prohibitively expensive for locals, such as medicine, toiletries and feminine hygiene products and donated them to ordinary Cubans. Actions such as these present minimal risk to travelers or Cubans, but potentially have a large impact since they addresses two of the basic problems people face on the island – almost no access to news from the rest of the world and chronic shortages of basic consumer items.

The protest consisted of several Czechs dressing up as prisoners, who swam across the Vlatva to freedom as Fidel Castro chased after them shouting communist propaganda. Needless to say, the conditions were far from ideal for such an activity in February, but the symbolic importance was not lost on those who witnessed their ‘successful’ escape. Tomáš Hanák’s participation may have helped generate more media interest, but it also gave him a chance to explain what his experiences were like during the three years he spent in Cuba as a child when his father worked there as an engineer in the 1970s. He gave a press conference afterwards where he discussed some of the similarities between Cuba today and life in the former Czechoslovakia under communism and why he was happy to take part in such an event.

The protests may have been the first action of the Hotel Cuba campaign, but will be followed by others according to the organizers. They encouraged anyone with further questions to take a look at their website, www.hotel-kuba.cz, and to contact them directly if they wish to help.

By the end of the event, ‘Fidel’ and the ‘prisoners’ were happily posing for photos, enjoying hot drinks and discussing what life could be like there if democracy were allowed to take root.