Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sun Sentinel Op Ed

U.S.-Cuba policy: Time for reform, easing restrictions

By John McAuliff

Sun Sentinel, November 9, 2008

In his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, President-elect Barack Obama recognized that there are "alliances to repair." The Democratic Party platform plank on Latin America pledged "We must turn the page on the arrogance in Washington."

United States policy toward Cuba is the easiest place to demonstrate that these words are more than rhetoric.

Five days before Obama spoke, national leaders at the Ibero-American Summit in El Salvador urged the United States to repeal its 47-year-old unilateral embargo against Cuba, saying it "is unacceptable and harms the Cuban people."

The week before, the UN General Assembly for the 17th time insisted with a virtually unanimous voice of 185-3 that the United States should end the embargo.

All our friends and allies in the Caribbean, the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia opposed us. Israel is our only significant supporter but actually follows a contrary policy as its citizens manage Cuba's largest citrus groves and are major investors in property development.

It is not enough for the president-elect to take the humanitarian step of unrestricted visits and remittances by Cuban Americans.

If he wants to restore U.S. regional and international credibility, he must quickly initiate a more significant policy change.

Obama cannot end the embargo without Congress. But he can unlock the logjam in both countries by using his legal authority to restore in a non-discriminatory fashion the constitutional right to travel to every American who wants to make "non-tourist" visits.

By regulatory fiat, the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department can restore and expand by general license the kind of journeys that took place before 2004 by world affairs councils, museums, Elderhostel, Semester at Sea, religious and humanitarian groups, sports teams, musicians, artists, professional and business associations, students, alumni, people-to-people exchanges and serious individuals.

Most such trips were blocked by the Bush administration, ostensibly because they provided funds to Cuba's government, but the peak number of 84,500 opinion leaders and curious Americans hardly counted among two million European, Canadian and Latin American tourists.

The cost of U.S. self-isolation was confirmed when Washington's role model for responsible hemispheric leadership, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, announced in Havana last week that Raúl Castro will travel to Brazil in December "to participate in the first meeting of Latin American and Caribbean nations, without interference from any other power."

John McAuliff is executive director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development,,0,2832224.story

Why Obama Should Open Travel

Reasons for initially focusing on the power of the Executive to revitalize travel

1) President Obama has to deliver quickly on family travel given his many statements, the Party Platform and the pent up pressure for visits, some urgent due to hurricane damage and illness.

2) The 84% of his supporters that want more are not likely to be happy if he stops their travel. Cuba offers an easier accommodation to the base than Iraq, Afghanistan or the economy.

3) It is anomalous for a post racial administration to accept a right to travel based on ethnicity or national origin.

4) Brazilian President Lula and virtually the whole membership of the UN are making it clear that the end of US hostility to Cuba is an important factor in improving our reputation.

5) The reelection to Congress of the three Cuban American Republican hardliners may hamper us on the House floor, but not with the Obama loyalists they fought so bitterly.

6) Growing numbers of Americans, largely Obama voters, will ignore restrictions and just go, perhaps as soon as the 50th anniversary observances at the end of 2008. If Bush's OFAC had no moral authority or legal ability to enforce travel restrictions , Obama's will be even less able to.

The primary focus is to enable the wide range of non-tourist travel that could begin this winter with Cuba by directing the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to issue general licenses for twelve categories of "non-tourist" travel that were codified by Congress in 2000.

Publicly the Obama campaign addressed only the question of Cuban American travel, but nothing was said that precluded non-discriminatory support for visits by other Americans.

President Obama has a lot of room to go further. A Zogby poll commissioned by the Miami Herald released October 16th confirmed results of earlier Gallup and AP/Ipsos surveys, that 68% of Americans favor allowing all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. An awesome 84% of "Obama supporters favor revising US policies toward Cuba".

An immediate move by the new President to allow travel to the maximum extent permitted by law will forestall a long diversionary battle with the US-Cuba Democracy PAC and their beneficiaries, both Democrats and Republicans, who decisively defeated Representative Rangel's pro-travel amendment to the Agriculture bill last Spring.

As importantly, new or return visits to Cuba in 2009 by tens of thousands of people with a serious purpose will engage and energize an important non-Cuban American constituency of opinion leaders. The Obama Administration will need them to successfully overcome the more contentious problems associated with direct negotiations and the embargo.

While I sympathize with the humanitarian and political reasons the campaign stressed the value of Cuban American travel and remittances, I believe there will be a significantly greater impact on economic and political evolution within Cuba (and the US) from mainsteam non-tourist visits.

There also may be no easier way for President Obama to quickly signal to his supporters, the general public, the Western Hemisphere and allies and adversaries internationally that a new era is really upon us than by decisively moving beyond the hoary anachronism of US policy on Cuba.

As with Vietnam and China, obstacles to normalization appear overwhelming only until it is done. Expansive travel properly authorized by the President is the essential first step so Congress can finish the job.