Commentary

End the Travel Ban to Cuba

By Philip Peters
January 30, 2001
This past New Year’s Eve in Havana, 74-year-old Fidel Castro celebrated his 42nd year in power. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, especially after the Soviet Union’s demise put Cuba on the brink of economic collapse and Washington passed tough laws in 1992 and 1996 to tighten the U.S. embargo.

One sponsor of those laws, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), predicted in 1996 that Castro would not survive. “In a few short years, there will be freedom, democracy, and human rights in Cuba, and we’ll all go down there and have a good time,” he said.

Yet Castro remains in control, and U.S. policies remain unchanged. It is now clear that if anything, the tough embargo policy strengthens Castro. It allows him to portray Cuba as a victimized David to Washington’s Goliath, and himself as the defender of Cuban nationalism.

Usefully for Castro, the embargo also alienates the Cuban people. Cuba’s leading human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez calls it “an odd way to demonstrate support for human rights.” Cuba’s Catholic bishops call it “cruel.” And in the hundreds of interviews I have conducted across the island, I have never met a Cuban citizen who supports it.

Faced with this failure, most pragmatic Americans would say that it’s time to try a new approach, even as we continue expressing stark disagreement with Cuba’s human rights practices. But as much as it would make sense to end the embargo entirely, Congress seems inclined to take small steps, and the new Bush administration has not articulated a detailed Cuba policy.

So here’s a start: Congress and the president should end the travel ban so that all Americans may exercise their right to travel freely to Cuba, without having to seek a special license from the federal government. This policy, which aims to deny hard currency earnings to the Cuban government, may have made sense when Cuba and the Soviet Union were threatening countries in this hemisphere. It makes no sense today when, according to a 1998 Pentagon report, Cuba poses no national security threat and its military capabilities are “residual” and “defensive.”

The travel ban is unevenly applied. While all others are barred from travel without a special license, Cuban-Americans may travel once annually in the case of a family “humanitarian emergency” – a restriction that is not enforced in practice, and that leads to huge numbers of late December and New Year’s visits to supposedly sick relatives.

The travel ban is also arbitrary. It targets this source of hard currency earnings when other flows remain open. Together, family remittances and revenues from U.S. phone calls pump about $60 million each month into Cuba, much of which reaches the government.

But one of the most important reasons to allow Americans to travel to Cuba is that it would serve our national interest. In the past decade Cuba’s economy has made small turns toward free-market policies: allowing microenterprises to open, allowing farmers to sell produce on the open market, opening over 300 freely priced farmers markets across the island, opening joint ventures with foreign companies in tourism, mining, communications, and other sectors.

Each of these reforms is limited by Cuba’s still-prevailing socialist ideology – but each has allowed many thousands of workers to gain skills and experience in market settings and to lift their families’ earnings above the Cuban average. As American travelers rent rooms in private homes, hire taxis, dine in family restaurants, and buy artists’ works, they will boost these entrepreneurs’ earnings – and they in turn will fuel demand for the produce that private farmers bring to market. Cuba’s emerging private sector will expand.

Finally, an end to the travel ban would transmit American ideas and values as students, churches, cultural and sports groups, and individual Americans meet their Cuban counterparts. Strong links between our societies may not topple Fidel Castro any sooner than the trade embargo – but as Cuba makes its way in a post-Soviet world, they will encourage free-market development, help individual Cubans and their communities, and build links to the generation of Cubans that will succeed Castro’s generation. All of this serves our national interest.

“There’s nothing positive in isolating a people,” a Havana priest once told me. America should heed his advice.

Philip Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia and author of a Cato Institute study, “A Policy toward Cuba that Serves U.S. Interests.