On the freedom to travel

October 5, 2012

For months, supporters of people-to-people travel to Cuba, renewed by President Obama in 2011, feared the administration was burying the program in paperwork, stalling license renewals, and could even end it, due to unyielding election year pressure by opponents who always have opposed the freedom to travel.

At least for now, these worst fears may not be realized.   As USA Today reports, “the trips appear to be back on track,” and cites the renewal of Insight Cuba’s license which plans to offer more than 100 departures from now through 2013.

When it comes to Cuba policy, nothing seems to be permanent, and this good news is no guarantee against future reversals. Still, it might be a good time to think about how we get from where we were – to where we are now—to where we might be going.

President Obama came to office with a pledge to end punishing Bush-era restrictions on travel.  In 2009, he provided unlimited travel rights to Cuban American family members, and two years later offered broader changes:  opening up people-to-people travel, restoring non-family remittances, and giving more airports in the U.S. the opportunity to serve the Cuban market.

This was not the full freedom to travel to Cuba that most Americans support (in fact, we support the freedom to travel for citizens of both countries), but these changes in U.S. policy were meaningful to a lot of people.

Cuban dissidents embraced the changes.  The Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support as did Human Rights Watch. Educators celebrated the restoration of travel following Bush era restrictions that cut the number of U.S. students studying in Cuba from 2,000 to 60.

Even the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, once the center of support for the embargo, released a statement endorsing the President’s actions: “It is significant that these measures do not represent a concession to the Castro regime, but rather form part of a continuing series of unilateral measures that the US is taking which demonstrate a concern for the well-being of ordinary folks.”

But the hardliners were buying none of it.  Before the reforms were announced, Senator Marco Rubio said on Spanish language radio that he’d educate his colleagues and rally Congress to block them.  Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the new rules “will pump much-needed money into the desperate Cuban economy, boosting the Castro regime.”  Senators Rubio and Menendez prepared an amendment in the U.S. Senate to derail the changes.  Rep. David Rivera authored legislation to repeal travel rights and to stop green card holders from visiting the island.  Exile critics even denounced family members for traveling to Cuba by sponging off their welfare payments.

Their activities culminated in votes by Congress to repeal the family travel and people-to-people rules.   After hardliners threatened to use a 2012 budget bill to cut off travel, President Obama issued a rare statement promising a veto if it reached his desk.

Thwarted in efforts to move legislation, critics directed their fire at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  They accused OFAC of weakening the rules.  They started a Congressional investigation of trips by the Smithsonian Institution.  After some providers of the new services used language in their ads inconsistent with rules against tourism, OFAC issued an advisory to get them to pay attention.

Late in 2011, Senator Rubio in an angry floor speech denounced the trips as “an outrage. They’re grotesque.  And they’re providing hard currency to a regime that oppresses its people, who jails people because they disagree with the government.”  To exert more pressure on travel, he out a temporary hold blocking the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to serve as Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Latin America.  She was confirmed, but then OFAC tightened the rules.

The new restrictions put in place last May required organizers to provide detailed itineraries of every trip and to explain how activities would “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

As license approvals slowed to a crawl, the program looked in real jeopardy, and nothing would change until at least after the election.  So, it is a relief to read now, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “American travel to Cuba…may soon be surging again.”

We’ll know more in about four weeks.  Governor Romney promises to repeal the travel reforms.  His advisors include Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, who wrote recently “More liberal guidelines for travel by non–Cuban Americans allows thousands the chance to smoke Cuban cigars, dance a Cuban rumba, visit Old Havana, or indulge in sexual tourism,” Eric Edelman, a former national security aide to Vice President Cheney, and Richard S. Williamson, who organized opposition to Cuba working for the Reagan Administration at the U.N. and who still refers to Russia as “The Soviet Union” twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Here, in the U.S., the travel saga continues, and it could go either way.

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