Hollywood actors can do almost anything—unless they are short on cash. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an essay by the actress Julia Stiles, on her 2009 trip to Cuba. She traveled to the island with a humanitarian aid group, then spent some time doing touristy things in Havana, and suddenly found herself broke and (gasp) unable to use her credit card.
Here’s the lede: “With three days left to go in my trip, I was walking around Havana flat broke.” This could be the beginning of a good story. But what follows is a generic, unremarkable account of a visit to Cuba by a person who clearly didn’t know much about the place before she arrived. The experience of being (briefly) broke in Havana caused her to think hard about poverty, communism, Cuba’s shabby telecommunications infrastructure, and the goodness of humanity. In the end, she borrowed some money from her sister and got herself back to the US without any trouble. Oh, and while she was there, she got nominated for a Golden Globe.
Stiles describes two women she met, who introduced her to the world of rumba in exchange for her buying them some cocktails. This has the potential to be interesting—after she tells the story, she writes, “It’s easy to romanticize the socialist ideals graffitied on every concrete wall, because generosity seems to be contagious. Obviously the reality is more complex.” But instead of confronting that complexity, she writes about the obstacles she faced while trying to increase her cash supply—slow Internet connections, poor phone service, and unreliable custodians of safe boxes. These details may be interesting to a person who has never been to an undeveloped country, but they are hardly unique to Cuba.
In the end, this is an essay about privilege, or the challenge of visiting a country where they do not take credit cards. I guess the story is supposed to be interesting because it’s Julia Stiles—while checking her email, she learns about her Golden Globe nomination. She writes, “There I was, thrilled to have received such a professional honor, yet still unable to barter it for cab fare.” Even her celebrity could not save her from this situation.
The funny thing is that her celebrity may be the thing that got her there in the first place. Stiles says that she traveled with an (unspecified) aid group, and then split off and behaved as like a tourist for the rest of her trip. The US Treasury Department allows aid workers, academics, journalists, and religious to travel to Cuba, but the permissions process (which I’ve been through a few times) is complicated, and the paperwork makes it clear that you cannot just “be a tourist” while you are there. I’m not sure what the policy is for Hollywood actors, but I’ve come to suspect that they have special privileges when it comes to Cuba. The best celebrity sightings of my life (Bill Murray, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, and others) have all been in and around Havana, and I have a hard time imagining them wrangling with the Treasury Department and meticulously documenting their expenses and activities as the rest of us have to.
I believe that the travel ban should be lifted all together, but I think it’s fortunate that in the meantime, Treasury has given some people permission to travel to the island. Writers like Achy Obejas, Roger Cohen, and Jon Lee Anderson have all shown grace and determination in their efforts to understand and articulate the complex realities of life in Cuba for readers in the US, and I am grateful for their work. By comparison however, Stiles’ piece reads like a college application essay.
I know what it’s like to have been in Cuba for a short time, and to feel completely overwhelmed by the abundant beauty and decay and strangeness of the scenes, the walks on the malecón, the sound of Radio Rebelde drifting through the humid night air. It’s a powerful experience for anyone, regardless of what they know about the place. So I understand why Stiles might have wanted to write this essay. What I can’t figure out is why WSJ wanted to publish it.