Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Censorship American Style
By David G. Young
Panama City, March 4, 2015 --
Decades of un-American censorship about travel to Cuba is finally coming to an end.
Delta flight 392 from Panama City to Atlanta flies right over the city of Havana. The fact that it doesn’t stop there is a bit ironic — that is exactly where I wanted to go. In order to get to Havana, I had to fly directly over the top of it, go thousands of miles south, only to board another flight on the Panamanian national airline (COPA) and double back on the same flight path.
Flights from the United States to Cuba are severely restricted, an artifact of the ongoing trade embargo. In a bizarre twist that makes a mockery of American democracy, even information about these flights is restricted. Search the COPA airlines flight for flights to Havana from Washington DC, and it reports that no routes are available, despite the fact that the airline flies to both destinations.
This, to be a clear, is only what happens when you accept the default American flag icon to indicate your home country. Change that flag to Canada or Panama and the flights from Washington, DC to Cuba instantly show up.
This censorship of information is also present on American travel agent websites like Orbitz and Expedia. Searching for connecting flights to Cuba returns a response that no routes are available. This, of course, is Orwellian doublespeak. Plenty of airlines indexed by these sites do offer flights to the country.
Stranger still are the secret flights to Cuba from Miami. These legal, regularly scheduled charter flights using planes from JetBlue, American Airlines and other carriers to not appear on their websites, do not appear on the list of departures and arrivals on electronic displays at the airport. The flights are used by Miami Cubans in exile to visit relatives back in their home country.
In a nation that prides itself on its history of free speech and robust capitalism, what can possibly justify this North Korea-style censorship of information and restriction on commerce? Even if you support the trade embargo on Cuba and restrictions on flights to the island, what justifies such Stalinist censorship of information about what flights are available? Is the justification for the embargo and the ability to enforce it so weak that the mere existence of flights to the island must be a closely guarded state secret?
This censorship is fascinating precisely because it is so unusual in a free country like the United States. In Cuba, regular people can’t even access the web, and all information is filtered through the repressive Communist dictatorship. But when visiting Cuba, people I spoke to were befuddled when told I had to fly through Panama to get to Havana. Why not just take a flight from Miami? they asked.
When I explained that these flights were secret charter flights that we were not allowed not take, they looked even more befuddled. More than one person I talked to had taken these flights themselves in order to visit relatives in Florida. It was unconscionable to them that Americans, who lived in a rich and free country, would face censorship and restrictions that even they, suffering under the thumb of a dictatorship, do not face. Indeed. This should be unconscionable for Americans, too.
Fortunately, the recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States means this is starting to change. Direct charter flights have expanded greatly since the Obama administration loosened travel regulations in January. CheapAir.com became the first airline booking site to list connecting flights from the United States to Cuba in February.1 And several U.S. Airlines have announced plans to resume flights to the island.
Most travel agencies, online or otherwise, continue to block information on travel to Cuba. No matter how you feel about the trade embargo on Cuba, censoring information is completely against the American way. The fact that choosing the American flag on a website serves to activate a censorship filter is an outrage all Americans should agree needs to end.
Related Web Columns:
Surfing Like It's 1999, February 27, 2015
Barely Rattling Along, February 23, 2015
The Never Ending Party, October 16, 2012
Invading the Next Frontier
America Libre, March 24, 1998
1. USA Today, Website now selling flights between U.S., Cuba, February 26, 2015