Crenshaw chairs a House Appropriations Subcommittee with authority over the U.S. Treasury Department budget, which includes spending to enforce U.S. sanctions against Cuba. This week, his panel approved a $17 billion budget bill that funds the department, but also proposes rewriting the rules for people-to-people travel to Cuba.
To prevent a Jay-Z/Beyoncé trip to Cuba from happening again someday, Crenshaw marshaled majority support in his subcommittee to prohibit legal travel to Cuba“for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program.” In other words, U.S. travelers would have to be enrolled in a degree program for their trip to be approved.
Of course, it is unlikely that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are going to return to the island anytime soon, so the legislation is not aimed at them, but against millions of other U.S. travelers who would like to take advantage of what is already a tightly regulated program to visit Cuba. The Crenshaw bill would end, for all practical purposes, people-to-people travel.
On January 14, 2011, President Obama reopened categories of travel to Cuba to increase people-to-people contacts. The president both restored rights for scholars and students to travel to the island for coursework that offered academic credit, and provided “specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.”
These are not tourist programs masquerading as academic study. The Treasury Department made clear that “a requirement for licenses issued” under the program “is that each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
As Treasury reported in April, this is how Jay-Z and Beyoncé went legally to Cuba; but, more important, it is how many U.S. travelers who are not Cuban American can visit the island at all.
In 2009, President Obama also reopened family travel to Cuba which, according to estimates by The Havana Consulting Group, enabled upwards of 475,936 visits by Cuban Americans in 2012 alone.
This means that roughly 5,000 of Rep. Crenshaw’s constituents, and upwards of 260,000 of Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart’s constituents (he serves on the Crenshaw committee, too), already get a free pass to travel to Cuba on an unlimited basis and their freedom to travel will be undisturbed if this legislation becomes law. It’s the rest of us who would lose the chance to visit the island if this provision is enacted.
Understandably, the subcommittee action prompted Rep. José Serrano, the ranking Minority Member of the subcommittee, to say, “This is the Jay-Z, Beyoncé Bill. “Absolutely [it’s a response to the trip], and it’s playing to the audience in Miami.”
Mr. Serrano is a heroically consistent supporter of the freedom to travel to Cuba. But, we say with respect, he is conceding too much. We know from polling data gathered in 2011, gathered by the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University that the audience in Miami isn’t so enamored by this policy either.
When 648 randomly selected Cuban-American respondents polled in Miami-Dade County were asked, “Should unrestricted travel by all Americans to Cuba be allowed or not?,” 57% said yes and 43% said no. But, support levels among respondents of Cuban descent who arrived in the U.S. after 1994 topped 75%. It’s a fact that Americans broadly support ending the travel ban, and it’s a myth that there’s a big audience in South Florida for keeping this failed policy on the books.
So what happens to the Crenshaw bill now?
Congress is bad at enacting budget bills on time, if ever. But, if this one gets close to enactment, the administration should issue a veto threat against it, just like it did the last time Congress threatened to mess with the president’s travel reforms. More to the point, the administration should be looking for ways to create a general license for all travel to Cuba, so the U.S. government could save money by foregoing the enforcement of sanctions that restrict our liberties and injure U.S. interests.
Earlier this year, Forbes.com published a reminder that 10 different federal agencies have enforcement roles in the embargo, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent enforcing Cuba sanctions annually, and that “70 percent of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control inspections each year are centered on rooting out smuggled Cuban goods even though the agency administers more than 20 other trade bans.
Rep. Crenshaw is a sworn enemy of waste. Just ask him: “I’m happy to stand on the side of the American taxpayer and their strong desire to cut wasteful spending.”
He can save the taxpayer a lot of money and free his mind to think about problems larger than Beyoncé and Jay-Z by using his post to expand rather than restrict travel. This is a message he should hear from Florida and across the country, as our colleagues at the Latin America Working Group advocate here. His proposal should not become law.