A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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Fidel’s 86th Birthday; U.S. and Cuba in the Present

August 10, 2012

On Monday, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86.  For decades, every milestone he celebrated and every difficulty he encountered was an intense source of interest in the United States.  When illness forced his retirement from office, U.S. officials gave him only a couple of months to live and some in Miami planned a party to celebrate his demise.  Six years later, even as the aging former president has largely faded from view, U.S. policy remains stubbornly Castro-centric.

The conversation in Cuba has changed enormously since Fidel Castro stepped down as president and was replaced by his brother Raúl.  Read the news items that follow:  they are debating how fast and how effectively Cuba is reforming its economy, what are the bottlenecks to expanding non-state jobs, how can Cuba support its aging population as it searches for an economic model that works.  These are ideas worth discussing, and some represent developments worth supporting.

Despite welcome but modest reforms, in areas like travel for Cuban Americans and people-to-people exchanges, President Obama has kept the essential architecture of U.S. policy in place.  The goal remains using diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to force the Castros from power and to cause Cuba’s economy to fail.  We cannot even directly discuss the human rights or political problems that divide us, because it’s our policy not to sit down and talk to Cuba.

For Fidel Castro, having both countries bound together in antagonism suited his outlook just fine. Six years into his retirement, we find it odd that U.S. policy continues to dance on a string he no longer even holds. On his 86th birthday, that is quite a testament to his longevity.   What it says about U.S. policy is something else indeed.

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