Life is a carnival
The passionate controversy that recently erupted around the Carnival cruise line reminded me of the immortal Celia Cruz song "La vida es un carnaval." A foolhardy decision by said company sparked criticism from the Cuban-American community, amongst both those not interested in travelling to the island at this time, and those who so regularly, although most preferring to fly.
The explanation is simple. They were defending a universal and inalienable right: that of freely entering their country without asking for permission, whenever and however they like, and for as long as they wish. The fact that Carnival initially caved in to the Cuban government's demand, refusing to transport Cuban passengers on their trips to the island, was the last straw, after a long list of abusive commercial practices and violations of the rights of Cuban exiles. What made this last insult really sting was the attempt to apply, this time extraterritorially, travel restrictions on nationals living abroad.
Some of the company's lawyers and managers initially failed to understand the situation, and probably interpreted it in political terms: "these are among the few who oppose the rapprochement between the two countries." Their ignorance led them to misinform senior company executives about what was really going on.
By refusing to sell tickets to people of Cuban origin, Carnival was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that no one can be denied accommodations - cruise ships are not only means of transport, but also floating hotels - to anyone because of their belonging to a particular group. Carnival had crossed a red line. In doing so it had insulted not only Cuban Americans, but any social group - Jews, blacks, and even Muslims or any other - that could be the object of discrimination in the future.
The Cubans were not alone. International law (Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), said US legislation and, the solidarity of other potentially vulnerable groups were also on their side. The company reversed its position, announcing that it would resume the sale of tickets to people of Cuban origin and postpone their departures until the island's Government authorized their entry into the country. A few days later the Cuban government announced it would allow those Cubans holding entry permits allowing them to visit the country in which they were born to travel to the island on passenger and merchant ships. In three words: they backed down. The tourism industry, which rakes in considerable revenue for the State, is staring at thousands of empty rooms. Cruise ships bolster their market and fill their facilities.
It is certainly legitimate to celebrate Carnival's corporate rectification and the Cuban government's political surrender. But a further detail has been overlooked.
Unlike airplanes - which are exclusively means of transport, from which passengers must disembark, with visas in order for the aircraft to be serviced and for the company to avoid fines - cruise ships are floating accommodations whose occupants are not required to get off the boat. They can remain on board if they prefer. A boat is considered the territory of the nation under whose flag it sails, even when in the waters and ports of another country. Port authorities have the right to formally object to activities on vessels only if they pollute or do damage to the environment.
Although it seems illogical from an economic point of view, if a Cuban wishes to buy his ticket without an entry permit to the island because the regime in Cuba has denied him one, he should be able to buy it on the condition that he not disembark from the ship when it arrives at any Cuban port. If in a US territory he were denied the right to acquire "accommodations on board" under these conditions, this would again constitute a violation of his rights, for discriminatory reasons.
I do not doubt that, among the hundreds of thousands of people who over the course of these decades have been denied entrance to the country where they were born, there are some who wish to see their home city, if only from a cabin. Whether that is logical or not, and whether there are five or five thousand who wish to exercise that right, that should be their personal decision. The cruise company should not refuse to sell them accommodations on board because they do not have an entry permit for the island.
Carnival never was "the enemy," although initially it took the side - out of ignorance and/or the arrogance of some careless advisors - with it. The enemy of Cuban exiles and their rights is the regime in power on the island. And the ban preventing them from travelling by sea to the country of their birth is just one of the many abuses currently being perpetrated.
The collective determination and intelligence successfully mustered to address this insult now ought to be extended to the long list of demands by Cubans living abroad: the continued existence of entry permits, under another name ("enabled" passports); the exorbitant costs of consular services, travel and communications; arbitrary treatment when dealing with Immigration and Customs; insensitivity and mistreatment by consular representatives in response to human tragedies (like the current exodus), and an endless series of other outrages.
Often there are Cubans abroad wondering why those who live on the island do not rise up en masse to demand their rights. However, it is high time that those who live in countries with democratic freedoms ask themselves when they are going to organize and mobilize at the international level to defend their particular rights as part of the Cuban diaspora. Inspired by this partial victory with regards to travel on cruise ships, the possibility of scoring much greater victories in this area would emerge.