Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Half-Steps to Havana

U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to ease decades-old U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba is a welcome step in the right direction - or, rather, a half-step in the right direction. Politics has been defined as the art of the possible, and with the Republican victories in last November's elections, a slight tweaking of the policy may be all that can be done.

Obama's executive decision, reports Bloomberg in a Jan. 14 report, will allow "educational and church groups greater freedom to visit the communist country. The plans ... will allow higher educational institutions to sponsor travel to Cuba for course work ... American citizens will also be allowed to send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who aren't part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party.''

Otherwise, the broad U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, in effect since 1960 and one of the most stunningly ineffectual trade policies of all time, will stand. The embargo, including the travel ban, is designed to starve the communist island nation of 11 million people of hard foreign currency and generate enough pressure on President Raul Castro, 79, and former President Fidel Castro, 83, to bring down the regime. And that's worked so well, as the past 52 years have shown.

The blunt truth is that U.S. political leaders are afraid to offend the Cuban American community in the south of Florida, an important political swing state. Traditionally, the community has strongly supported the trade embargo; thus, it continues, unaffected by facts. The fact is that the Castros and senior members of their government have everything they need; ordinary Cubans suffer from the embargo and travel ban, not their leaders. So, too, do ordinary Americans, deprived of their right to travel to this nearby and interesting part of the world. The members of what the New Yorker magazine has called "the cult of the constitution'' might consider this infringement on personal liberty the next time they scan the founding document for revealed truth about gun ownership, taxation and human reproduction.

I recently traveled to Spain in a group that included Cuba-born travel journalists who live in Miami. I have not experienced the pain of separation from my homeland that they have. Their antipathy to the Castros comes from hard personal experience. I respect that. I respect them, but I don't think the past experience of exiled Cuban Americans should determine the future experiences of all Americans.

The travel ban - opposed by, among others, the U.S. Tour Operators Asssociation and the National Foreign Trade Council - has always had some loopholes. U.S. journalists can visit Cuba, for example, and ordinary American tourists can and occasionally do slip into Cuba through Mexico and Canada. According to Bloomberg, "Cuban Tourism Minister Manual Marrero said in an interview last year that 1 million U.S. tourists might visit the island annually if the ban on travel is ended.'' He didn't say how many U.S. tourists visit now, but the number is bound to be miniscule. Yet, in my perambulations around Canada, I have rarely encountered a Canadian who hasn't traveled to Cuba at least once.

Americans, so proud of their freedoms, so convinced of their exceptionalism, are almost alone in not being able to travel freely to this near-neighbor.

This feckless policy should end.

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