This week, as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona got ready to reintroduce his legislation to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, the bill had 54 cosponsors. He then got the word that Senator Dean Heller of Nevada had just agreed to formalize his support, growing the list of cosponsors from 54 to 55.
One additional cosponsor? What does it really mean? It means the bipartisan Freedom to Travel legislation written by Sen. Flake (R-AZ) and principal cosponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) needs only five more votes to make the bill unstoppable in the U.S. Senate. It means the momentum behind normalizing relations has grown substantially. Most of all, Senator Heller’s decision to sign up as an original cosponsor is a reminder that it’s never too late to stand up for what’s right.
Now is the time.
As President Trump wraps up his trip to the Middle East and Europe, we’re told he will focus next on the results of his administration’s long-anticipated review of Cuba policy, making this an especially important moment to take a strong stand for normalization before he makes up his mind.
The President, it must be said, constructed the ideal framework for U.S.-Cuba relations during his speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, although he almost certainly did not have Cuba at the front of his mind.
“America,” he said, “is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
Since the President started with security, it is right to remind him that reforming the rules on travel to Cuba will advance our national security. Laws enacted in 1996 and 2000, as Senator Flake said this week, which impose “restrictions that do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world,” require layers of security, policing, and threats of prosecution that are serious and costly distractions from the real threats the U.S. faces.
As 46 prominent Cuba travel providers wrote the President this week, actions taken by the Obama administration for family and people-to-people travel “has allowed U.S. officials to spend more time focusing on real national security threats, such as organized crime and terrorism, and not waste resources on investigating Americans who simply wish to exercise their right to visit our island neighbor.”
If the President meant it in Saudi Arabia when he said, “We are not here to lecture,” that is a principle that certainly should apply to the U.S. government’s relationship to its own people. That is why the White House needs to hear Senator Leahy’s statement about the 55 cosponsors of the travel bill: “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida.”
Since the President tied the pursuit of shared interests to values, it is right to remind him, as Senator Flake says, that “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government.”
Travel is a perfect expression of President Trump’s idea of “partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
After President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and began systematically lifting travel restrictions applied by the U.S. government on American travelers, visits to Cuba “exploded,” as Market Watch put it Friday.
Last year alone, as Reuters reported Thursday, “the number of U.S. visitors rose 74 percent…boosting business for Cuban hotels, BnBs, restaurants and taxis but also U.S. cruise operators and airlines that entered the market over the past year.”
This burst of business strengthened the fortunes of the U.S. travel and tourism industry, making their businesses more profitable and better able to generate more jobs. Travel reforms have also strengthened the bonds of families on the island with their kin in the United States. Increased travel from our country has put more money into the pockets of Cuba’s growing small-business sector and its tourist-facing businesses. It has also put U.S. visitors in greater contact with the Cubans whose diverse organizations and associations across their country are adding to Cuba’s growing pluralism.
Because American tourism is still prohibited by law, many of these benefits have been accrued by American visits within narrow categories of permissible travel, and made possible by warmer, respectful relations with Cuba’s government.
This is the choice framed by the administration’s policy review, and it is the message we want the President to hear. His administration can revert to the policies that poisoned our relations with Cuba, lecturing the Cuban people on how to live, what to do, and who to be. Or we can offer Cuba’s government a real partnership, as the President said at the Summit, “based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
If the President can be encouraged to channel the man who spoke in Saudi Arabia as he makes the decision on Cuba in Washington, we’ve got a deal.
Has your senator signed on to the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act? Make your voice heard!
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