By Merle David Kellerhals Jr.
Washington — The U.S. Congress is looking at removing a decades-old policy that restricts travel by Americans to Cuba.
“U.S. law lets American citizens travel to any country on earth, friend or foe — with one exception: Cuba. It’s time for us to scrap this anachronistic ban, imposed during one of the chilliest periods of the Cold War,” two influential members of Congress said in a recent opinion article in the Miami Herald newspaper.
Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat, said legislation was introduced in both chambers of Congress this year to abolish travel restrictions to Cuba.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on the proposed legislation November 19. However, action on the legislation likely will be delayed while Congress grapples with health care reform and other pressing legislative issues first.
Lugar and Berman argue that the travel ban, first instituted in 1963, has prevented direct contact between Cubans and ordinary American citizens that has stifled the sharing of values and cultural interaction.
“Our current approach has made any policy changes contingent on Havana, not U.S. interests, and it has left Washington an isolated bystander, watching events on the island unfold at a distance,” Lugar and Berman said in the newspaper. “The Obama administration has already made a move in the right direction by lifting restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans and opening the way for greater telecommunications links with the island.”
In April, President Obama announced that the United States would allow unlimited family travel and remittances (sending money to families), and also authorized travel to Cuba related to the marketing and sale of agricultural and medical goods to the island nation.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who is the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the November 19 hearing that the current policies to restrict travel and commerce with Cuba were put in place to assure U.S. security interests. “Promoting tourist travel to Cuba does not advance the interests of the U.S. or our constituents,” she said.
Former Army General Barry McCaffrey, who once directed the U.S. Southern Command that oversees U.S. military activities in the area that includes Cuba, testified that the travel ban on American citizens to Cuba has been part of a long-term U.S. policy designed to force political change in Cuba by restricting commerce, communications, travel and other normal nation-to-nation transactions that most countries enjoy with the United States.
“The bottom line is that this embargo policy has failed to precipitate regime change in Cuba, will not do so in the future, and harms long-term U.S. interests by limiting the ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships that will transcend the inevitable political transition that will occur in Cuba,” McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey said the stringency of U.S. policies on Cuba has been increased and decreased over much of the 60 years since the regime of Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and, for the most part, has been driven by ideological tendencies of different U.S. presidents rather than effective policymaking.
McCaffrey said Congress in 2000 voted to allow the export to Cuba of U.S. agricultural products because agricultural concerns championed the change. “Over the past decade, the United States has become Cuba’s most important food and agricultural product supplier, accounting for more than one-fourth of the country’s total food and agricultural imports,” he said.
McCaffrey told the committee that between 1977 and 1981, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, all travel restrictions were lifted. He said that there has been no indication that restricting travel has forced any change in the political regime or its “reprehensive repression of political freedom.”
McCaffrey also said the U.S. government does not restrict Americans from traveling to the other communist nations — China, North Korea and Vietnam.
“The restrictions on travel to Cuba and the enduring embargo are the legacy of the antagonism that has characterized the U.S.-Cuban relationship for the past half century,” he said.
Retired Ambassador James Cason, who served as chief of mission to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told the committee that lifting the travel ban now will amount to giving away future leverage against the political regime for nothing in return. He said the travel ban should be held in reserve until the Castro regime ends, or until there is a major change in the government.
“An end to the travel ban should be used as leverage, as a carrot, in support of those in a future transitional regime who will have a voice in whether Cuba goes toward more or less freedoms,” Cason said. “Nobody’s policies have been able to bring democracy, prosperity or hope to the oppressed Cuban people.”
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the comprehensive trade embargo imposed against Cuba in the early 1960s does not prevent actual travel to Cuba, but the embargo does place restrictions on any financial transactions related to travel to or in Cuba, which creates an effective travel ban. Under the current laws, the president could lift travel restrictions without changing the law, the research report says.