Tim Wood | May 12, 2016 12:30 PM ET
Progress Only Shows That All Cuba Travel Restrictions Must End Now
We're still a little less than a half year away from an election and so many of us have hit the wall of political overload.
So I won't hold it against those who haven't heard what U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) announced this week. He is co-sponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would end U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba. It’s not new legislation – it was first introduced in 2015 by U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). But garnering bipartisan support gives this bill new life in Congress at a time when U.S. commercial travel to Cuba is increasingly becoming a reality.
Carnival Corporation’s Fathom cruise line became the first commercial U.S. cruise ship to port in Cuba in four decades on May 2. U.S. airlines are salivating, each attempting to play cut-sies in the line waiting for government approval to earn routes to Cuba. Travelers are creating this demand by consistently showing they want to see the last great U.S. travelers’ forbidden destination.
Flake is an outlier in his party, as the bulk of Republicans are looking to reverse the moves of President Obama to loosen trade and commerce embargos with Cuba. Party leaders are using Cuba as leverage with Obama in the fight over naming a new Supreme Court justice.
The politics here are very complicated, or at least politicians want you to believe that. In the middle of all this, Flake and Casey are saying this is a very simple fix. Cuba should never have been a restricted travel space for U.S. citizens in the first place.
"Decades of isolation have not brought the profound change for which many hoped. I believe it is time to take incremental steps towards a more open relationship with the people of Cuba, starting with allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba for Americans,” Casey said in a statement May 10. "The United States does not prevent Americans from traveling to any other country in the world, including countries governed by repressive regimes and with horrific human rights records, like Iran and North Korea.”
“Well, yeah, but …” That’s the reply to this line of thinking. Politicians are left with blank stares and empty brains trying to finish that sentence.
The argument has always been that we are taking a stand against the Castro regime’s vicious reign of terror and oppression of the Cuban people. But if you simplify the debate, have the restrictions really moved the needle one bit in forcing change in Cuba?
The watchdog organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) tracks more than 90 countries with alarming levels of human rights violations. Cuba is the only country on the list that U.S. citizens are restricted from visiting.
There are travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State – which are the government’s way to CYA in case of any international incidents, but citizens are not restricted from visiting the regions highlighted in these warnings. It’s more of an advance “I told you so.”
Casey makes the sound argument that opening up the country to visitors will put more focus on the atrocities committed daily by the Castro regime.
“I believe that people-to-people engagement is one of the best ways to build ties and promote U.S. interests. It also sends an important signal to the Castro regime about how an open, pluralistic society treats its citizens,” Casey said.
Take away the diplomatic phrasing and what he is saying is this: It’s better to bring the cockroaches into the light.
Many in this politically correct world run away from that kind of logic. There’s always a group that will protest and make common sense seem like insensitivity.
So again, it’s refreshing to see a group like HRW stand on the side of logic here.
"Many Cubans and Cuban-Americans have suffered significantly at the hands of the Castro regime. I have heard from many who are now cautiously optimistic, ready for the U.S. government to turn the page in this bilateral relationship,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the group’s Americas Division. “I believe allowing Americans to travel to Cuba, free of restrictions, is a prudent first step."
A more defensible argument is that Cuba’s infrastructure can not handle the kind of influx that restriction-free travel would bring to the country. To put it very bluntly, that’s their problem to deal with – and Cuban officials have already begun to reach out for help in supporting increased tourism to their country.
U.S. government officials scoff at Casey and Flake’s bill, in essence acting like defiant parents to boundary-pushing teens.
“As long as you live under my roof, you live by my rules.”
U.S. citizens travel to every corner of the world on relief and humanitarian missions or to see the substandard living conditions of underdeveloped countries. Travel isn’t always about all-inclusive resorts and poolside pampering. Many travelers just want to experience other cultures, no matter how restrictive the government or how impoverished its people are. Because in this increasingly tech-driven, anti-social global landscape, face-to-face contact still fosters the most impact and change.
To be fair, there was not a complete travel blackout. But before 2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury oversaw an arduous application process just to obtain a travel license to Cuba. Over the last year, 12 broad categories of travel activities were allowed, but traveling just as a tourist wasn’t one of them.
Fathom’s culturally immersive focus qualifies under the current exceptions. But why should travel suppliers or wannabe tourists have any hoops to jump through?
The travelers who are part of the historic trip — including our company's founder, Mark Murphy — all have said the same thing. The outpouring of love from the Cuban people made it clear that what was once seen as a noble stance against oppression is now an outdated, ironically oppressive means to block citizens of both countries from progess through understanding.
Frankly, it’s amazing that this embargo has held up through eight different presidential administrations and six political party changes without someone truly examining its effectiveness, and when it comes to travelers, challenging the common sense of restricting commercial travel.
The more we talk about finally traveling to Cuba, the more we realize how absurd it is that we couldn’t before now. No one is arguing that the Castro regime is suddenly trustworthy. But by placing travel limits on our citizens, we’re limiting the freedoms we want for so many other countries and exercising the same kind of tyranny the embargo was meant to protest.
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