Prior to the 2004 Presidential election, the Bush Administration responded to pressure from Cuban American political leaders in Florida to roll back opportunities for non-tourist “purposeful” travel to Cuba that had been opened by the Clinton Administration. This action was based on the false accusation that such programs served as a cover for tourism and provided significant economic support for the Cuban government.
The retreat on freedom to travel had devastating humanitarian consequences for Cuban Americans. Previously they had been able to make one authorized visit per year to their extended family, with unlimited additional opportunities for emergency travel for health or other compelling reasons. Now they can only visit members of their immediate family and must be very cautious about timing. If, for example one’s father is seriously ill, and after several months passes away, one must choose between a visit during his final months or for his funeral. If one’s mother passes away the following year, tough! And if an aunt who had actually reared you because your parents were in Miami took gravely ill? Also tough!
As a result of the same draconian policy, a wide variety of American educational, cultural, people-to-people, sports, religious, humanitarian, professional and foreign affairs institutions no longer were able to obtain licenses for familiarization visits and exchanges with counterparts.
While some specific and general licenses are still granted, the authorized categories and total number have been drastically reduced.
Anthony Zamorra, a prominent Cuban American lawyer with Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP who formerly served as Counsel to the Cuban American National Foundation, reports the antipathy to travel by hard line leaders in his community is based on two factors. First, the substantial growth of visits by Cuban Americans and non-partisan mainstream US citizens was undermining the one dimensional negative image of Cuba they needed to maintain control over US policy. Second, the traffic was generating resources to travel agents and charter flight operators being used to push for further liberalization of US policy toward Cuba.
Bipartisan sentiment in the Republican controlled Congress sought to end travel restrictions via amendment to the Treasury Appropriations bill. The goal was to deny funding for enforcement of sanctions against travelers. However, majority support in both Houses was frustrated by leadership maneuvers behind closed doors, justified by the threat of a Presidential veto.
Democratic majorities offer a new opportunity for legislative remedy. In particular, a bill submitted in January by Representative Charles Rangel (HR 654)* with Representative Jeff Flake will end restrictions on travel to Cuba by all Americans. To date it has attracted 103 bipartisan cosponsors. Because of the ripeness of the issue and Rangel’s seniority, prestige and status as Chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, support will continue to grow. Two months later Senators Michael Enzi and Byron Dorgan submitted comparable legislation (S 721) that has already attracted twenty bipartisan cosponsors including Chuck Hagel and Jim Webb.
In principle this is a policy in consonance with the traditional values of the United States rather than with the restrictions Cuba places on travel by its own citizens. As Justice William.O. Douglas wrote for Supreme Court majorities in 1964 and 1965:
“Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society…Once the right to travel is curtailed, all other rights suffer. “, and
“The right to know, to converse with others, to consult with them, to observe social, physical, political, and other phenomena abroad as well as at home gives meaning and substance to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
In practice large scale visits by Americans to Cuba will have a substantial impact on our nation’s ability to understand and have a positive impact on the process of transition that is underway.
Visits by tens and even hundreds of thousands of Americans will not have a big economic effect on Cuba in the short term. Hotel rooms that are currently full with Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans will simply change their clientele. Any overflow will fuel a boom economy in the private sector of private homes that rent one or two rooms (casas particulares). Informal interaction by average Americans with average Cubans will be diverse and unsupervised. Structured interaction with professional counterparts will build on relationships established during the late Clinton and early Bush Administrations and contribute to the surprisingly open discussions of economic change and culture that have begun to take place under Raul Castro.
The Rangel and Enzi bills have been endorsed by over 1500 diverse representatives of the American academic, religious and humanitarian communities. Not least among the signers of an on-line statement of support* is Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who served the Clinton and Bush Administrations as head of the US Interests Section in Havana.
Ending travel restrictions can help bring the US to a position more in accord with our allies in the Western Hemisphere and Europe, who regard us as at best obsessed and at worst mean spirited in our fruitless efforts to isolate and punish Cuba. If the US wishes to support and engage with exponents of more moderate modes of social change in Latin America than that proffered by Hugo Chavez, ironically it can best do so by ceasing its own extremism and moving toward a rational less vindictive relationship with his closest ally Cuba.
Much of my professional career has been devoted to bringing about normal relations between the US and its former adversaries in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. When I began my work, we enforced unilateral embargoes and had no diplomatic relations with the first two, and very limited contact with the third. Antagonism, suspicion and hostile rhetoric resulting from grievous human and social legacies of war were more pronounced on both sides of the divide than they have ever been with Cuba.
Yet in conjunction with normalization with the US, all three countries have moved deliberately and successfully from command to market economies. The personal freedoms and democratic participation of their citizens have steadily increased, although even now their political cultures are more like Cuba’s than ours. Viet Nam in particular has growing strategic ties to the US. Based on visits to Cuba during the past decade, I see no reason that the same mutually beneficial process could not take place between our neighboring countries.
Executive Director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development
* The statement and signers may be seen at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/Cubatravelbill/ To see the full text of proposed legislation, go to http://thomas.loc.gov Type in "HR 654" and “S 721” in the box provided.