Vietnam vs. Cuba
August 23, 2007 12:20 PM   Subscribe

I am an American citizen. If I want to travel to Vietnam, all I need is a valid passport and visa; if I want to travel to Cuba, I either have to sign up for a special tour, be part of some pre-approved humanitarian/scientific/educational group, or be willing to break U.S. law. I know that there are extralegal ways for U.S-ians to travel to Cuba; this is not my main question.

The State Department describes Vietnam as a “developing, mainly agrarian country in the process of moving from a centrally planned to a market economy.” Cuba gets “Cuba is a totalitarian police state, which relies on repressive methods to maintain control.” Last time I checked, Vietnam was still Communist, and they beat us badly in a war, which Castro’s Cuba hasn’t.

I don’t know when or why travel by U.S. citizens to these countries began to be treated differently by the U.S. Please help me understand – recommend articles, books, blogs, etc.
posted by rtha to Law & Government (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The short answer is that there are a lot of voters in Florida who want the embargo against Cuba to continue, and no concentration of voters anywhere in the US who care about relaxing the embargo. (Some farmers might like it, but not really enough to flex their muscles.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2007

Best answer: If you really want to go to Cuba, then go. There is very little the American government will actually do to individuals unless you are planning a business venture. The other issue is that Vietnam has a far less complex relationship with America. We fought their government, we lost, they produce products we want, they have a larger and less politically active in stopping the regime community in the US; and they have put in place a myriad of reforms to move closer the free market. In all, Vietnam is a good test case for continuing relationships with communist countries. Also, this is not an old relationship, we only started up again with them in 1996. One of the first pieces of business was MacNamara admitting the Gulf of Tonkin never happened. We admitted many mistakes to the Vietnamese, and they welcomed us. Our relationship with Cuba is complex because of a community that is much more interested in returning to a different despot (our own choice) than the one currently in place. The Cuban-Americans face a real challenge in that many of their issues are based on ownership, rather than of power. But the power of ownership is an extremely delicate one for the American government. Also, the Vietmanese did not necessarily seize American-owned industry after the transfer of power. that is a major issue for America in Cuba.
posted by parmanparman at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2007

The Republican party has strong support from Florida's Cuban community because of their support of the embargo.

This is politically important to the Republicans, nationally, as without this support Florida would generally go to the Democrats. As evidenced in recent elections, this would be a travesty to the GOP.

As such, one can always expect the GOP to viciously attack anybody who makes serious overtures towards ending the embargo. This also means that the consequences for an individual opposition party member are too dire, and the reward too small, so the Democrats quietly mumble, but do little.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2007

Funny, I was just reading this article about Barack Obama's much-criticized stance on opening up US relations with Cuba, including easing travel restrictions.
posted by junkbox at 12:55 PM on August 23, 2007

Best answer: PDF report giving background on normalization of Vietnam-US relations. Lots of baby steps... the US would set a condition, and the Vietnamese would eventually meet it. There was also the whole POW/MIA thing, so there was a lot of political pressure to talk.
posted by smackfu at 2:20 PM on August 23, 2007

Steven Den Beste is right. There are no concentrated pockets of rabidly anti-communist, Vietnamese exiles in swing states. That's why.
posted by ewiar at 3:01 PM on August 23, 2007

See: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and both of the Diaz-Balarts.
posted by awesomebrad at 3:26 PM on August 23, 2007

Response by poster: What a weird world we live in.

I'm not going to Cuba (or Vietnam) any time soon - if/when I go, it will likely be on some sort of birding trip. I started thinking about this when Vietnam's president visited the U.S. recently, and there were protests from the U.S.-resident Vietnamese community. That, and Bush's Iraq-as-Vietnam speech yesterday.

The .pdf that smackfu linked to is interesting - I've not finished it yet - and this in particular struck me: "Vietnamese actions in 1978 in particular had a long-term negative effect on U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Vietnam expelled hundreds of thousands of its citizens (many of Chinese origin) who then became refugees throughout Southeast Asia; aligned itself economically and militarily with the USSR; and invaded Cambodia, deposing the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge regime and imposing a puppet Cambodian government backed by 200,000 Vietnamese troops." Weren't the Khmer Rouge busy making killing fields? I mean, whatever Vietnam's actual motive for invading - proxy fight w/ China, or whathaveyou - kicking the Khmer Rouge out was a good thing, yes? But I digress, and I'll perhaps save this for another askme.

Thanks to all so far for information and insights, and keep them coming if you have them.
posted by rtha at 3:31 PM on August 23, 2007

a better illustration of the dissonance is why we are allowed to go to china but not cuba. vietnam is communist, but only nominally, and although its government is far from perfect, i would much rather be a vietnamese dissident than a chinese one.

but i agree with what has been said before--there is a strong anti-castro voting base in southern florida that is virtually impossible to dismiss.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:30 PM on August 23, 2007

someone asked about cuba a while back when i was waiting for access and i wrote the following but couldn't post - i think it's vaguely relevant here, since you're asking about book recommendations:

not exactly what you are looking for, perhaps, as it is set in the 70s, but for intelligent background reading on cuba i would strongly, strongly recommend jorge edward's "persona non grata". it's a very nuanced memoir of time spent in cuba by the chilean ambassador for allende's government (those evil communists the usa later saved chileans from via pinochet). so it's a left-wing view of the left. that could be valuable or awful - left on left can easily become doctrinaire obsessing over stupid details - but the ambassador is from a wealthy chilean family (i assume the "black sheep") and is pretty clear eyed. that also means there's a class-based undercurrent and, for extra tension, the author was a recognised writer at a time when castro was cracking down on "intellectutals".

so there are a whole pile of levels to the book, lots of nice details (urbane descriptions of prostitutes, spies etc) and a pretty surreal climax where edwards and castro argue through the night.

(if you're interested in chilean politics it's even more interesting because you can catch a glimpse of the regime in santiago, reflected in the attitudes and comments).

i read the spanish language edition which was recently re-issued - i found the spanish clear, relatively simple, and easy to read (in fact i think it's the first book in spanish i ever read through to the end). so if you speak spanish at all, you might consider that. the extra info in the new issue isn't important - the basic message is unchanged.

anyway, i suggest it not just as an enjoyable read, but because it illustrates the compromises, ideals and trade-offs that play a critical role in (revolutionary) politics.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:46 PM on August 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

There are certainly domestic political reasons why diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba are different from those between the US and Vietnam. Cuba is also a mere 90 miles off the coast and was pivotal to US security during the Cold War ("a missile is a missile is a missile", anyone?). Vietnam is less proximate, though certainly also important to Cold War politics. The real answer to your question however, is that diplomatic relations are idiosyncratic; the search for consistency is largely futile.
posted by B-squared at 6:38 PM on August 23, 2007

Answer to your actual question: because politics is retarded.

Answer to not your question: lot of no-nonsense facts on illegal travel to Cuba. You can break some more inane US laws on your layover through Jamaica.
posted by nanojath at 9:47 PM on August 23, 2007

Strange that this was not brought up, but Cuba is very close. There was that missile crisis and it's still remembered by republicans. They are helping Venezuela and Venezuela is helping them, and basically inciting anti-imperialistic sentiment in latin and south americas. Vietnam is far, US government thinks that we should meddle in anything that happens far off, but if it's close, it deserves even so much more meddling.
posted by rainy at 11:49 AM on August 25, 2007

nanojath's link above, if indeed (c) 2003, may be way out of date. Since then at least two major things that have happened that would affect a visitor from the US:
1) "Study" trips are somewhere between "endangered" and "on indefinite hiatus" even when connected with degree-granting programs in the US and in Cuba.
2) the US dollar economy has been more thoroughly replaced by the peso convertible.
There could be more but I just wanted to mention that 2003 is getting too old.
posted by whatzit at 10:51 AM on August 26, 2007

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