Cuban-born singer megastar Gloria Estefan has long been an outspoken critic of Cuba’s Castro government. The Miami Sound Machine singer, whose family fled the island after the Revolution (her father later served time in prison after participating in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961), said that she will never return to the island nation as long as the Castro regime remains in power. Not least, she says that she’s persona non grata in Cuba for her outspoken critiques of the Castros, as she explained in a wide-ranging interview with Fox News Latino this week.

Understandable. I empathize.

However, Ms. Estefan appears a little confused. As is often the case when Cuban-Americans speak about Cuba, she conflates the issues.

Firstly, she said: “For me, it’s tough to go to Cuba and be able to do things that the Cubans can’t do – go to restaurants they’re not allowed in, go to beaches that they can’t use, watch them going through such lengths just to try to feed their family, seeing the human rights abuses that still are there.” (Ms. Estefan is a very active supporter of freedom of speech issues in Cuba, including in defense of the Damas en Blanco–the Ladies in White.)

Gloria Estefan Ladies White Miami

Let’s clarify this statement: Cubans are NOT barred from any restaurants (never were). Cubans are NOT barred from any beaches (although certain restrictions did previously exist for a few tourist-only beaches).

Perhaps she meant to state that Cubans are economically disadvantaged and therefore are barred by their relative impoverishment from using the expensive private restaurants or paying the tolls (which apply to everyone) to access the offshore cays of the Jardines del Rey. That would certainly be more accurate.

Nonetheless, since Raúl lifted all restrictions (his first reform, in 2008), the beach resorts are full of Cubans.

Last month during my visits to both the Bay of Pigs and Varadero, a majority of clients in the hotels–yes, even the “expensive” all-inclusive where I stayed during a motorcycle tour–were Cubans. Some, no doubt, were drawn from the privileged governmental elite. But the country’s middle-class (as we might define it) is burgeoning quickly, and bumping into my friend Elias Asef–a tour guide–and his family vacationing at the Memories Varadero hotel evidenced the fact that the tourism boom is fueling a rising middle class sector capable and desirous of holidaying like you or I.

Fortunately, Ms. Estefan encourages Americans who wish to visit Cuba to do so. And she does so for a honorable, and logical, reason: “Whatever makes life in any way better for the Cuban people living there, I think we gotta try,” she said. “I think that people to people contact is excellent. I know that the best way that they can survive is actually getting dollars from tourists, because that takes the government out of the equation.”

But here’s the rub.

Ms. Estefan has also had a long history as a supporter of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “I’m pro-embargo… the only embargo in Cuba is Fidel’s embargo against the people,” Estefan told Miami Herald journalist Michelle Genz in 1998. “Cubans cannot go into hotels. Cubans cannot eat at the restaurants. Cubans cannot go into clubs.”

As well-meaning as she clearly is, Ms. Estefan needs to update her facts and stop playing disingenuously by repeating out-of-date and somewhat inflated info.

More importantly, as I’ve said almost like a mantra during my radio and TV interviews, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. While it’s easy (and justifiable) to blame the Castro government for Cuba’s economic woes, you cannot do so at the same time as favoring the embargo, the prime purpose of which has been to isolate Cuba, ruin the Cuban economy and, as a consequence, make life for the ordinary Cuban that much harder.

I was very heartened by Ms. Estefan’s words during an interview last week with Huffington Post Entertainment, in which she stated that political change must come from within the island and not be imposed. “It has to come internally, the leaders of Cuba have to be the ones that have struggled,” Estefan said. “You can’t come from outside, having lived a comfy life somewhere else, and suddenly tell them what to do. I just think that wouldn’t be right or I don’t think it would work.”

Meanwhile, Estafan has no plans of following the Rolling Stones to Havana anytime soon. Yes, she’d love to return to her birthplace to perform a concert. But she remains firm to her commitment not to do so until it is “truly free.”


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Christopher P Baker


Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.