This past New Year's Eve in Havana, 74-year-old Fidel Castro celebrated his42nd year in power. It wasn't supposed to be this way, especially after theSoviet Union's demise put Cuba on the brink of economic collapse andWashington 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 thatCastro 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 agood time," he said.
Yet Castro remains in control, and U.S. policies remain unchanged. It isnow clear that if anything, the tough embargo policy strengthens Castro. Itallows 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'sleading human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez calls it "an odd way todemonstrate support for human rights." Cuba's Catholic bishops call it"cruel." And in the hundreds of interviews I have conducted across theisland, I have never met a Cuban citizen who supports it.
Faced with this failure, most pragmatic Americans would say that it's timeto try a new approach, even as we continue expressing stark disagreementwith Cuba's human rights practices. But as much as it would make sense toend the embargo entirely, Congress seems inclined to take small steps, andthe new Bush administration has not articulated a detailed Cuba policy.
So here's a start: Congress and the president should end the travel ban sothat all Americans may exercise their right to travel freely to Cuba,without having to seek a special license from the federal government. Thispolicy, which aims to deny hard currency earnings to the Cuban government,may have made sense when Cuba and the Soviet Union were threateningcountries in this hemisphere. It makes no sense today when, according to a1998 Pentagon report, Cuba poses no national security threat and itsmilitary capabilities are "residual" and "defensive."
The travel ban is unevenly applied. While all others are barred from travelwithout a special license, Cuban-Americans may travel once annually in thecase of a family "humanitarian emergency" – a restriction that is notenforced in practice, and that leads to huge numbers of late December andNew Year's visits to supposedly sick relatives.
The travel ban is also arbitrary. It targets this source of hard currencyearnings when other flows remain open. Together, family remittances andrevenues 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 Cubais that it would serve our national interest. In the past decade Cuba'seconomy has made small turns toward free-market policies: allowingmicroenterprises to open, allowing farmers to sell produce on the openmarket, 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 socialistideology – but each has allowed many thousands of workers to gain skills andexperience in market settings and to lift their families' earnings above theCuban average. As American travelers rent rooms in private homes, hiretaxis, dine in family restaurants, and buy artists' works, they will boostthese entrepreneurs' earnings – and they in turn will fuel demand for theproduce that private farmers bring to market. Cuba's emerging privatesector will expand.
Finally, an end to the travel ban would transmit American ideas and valuesas students, churches, cultural and sports groups, and individual Americansmeet their Cuban counterparts. Strong links between our societies may nottopple Fidel Castro any sooner than the trade embargo – but as Cuba makesits way in a post-Soviet world, they will encourage free-market development,help individual Cubans and their communities, and build links to thegeneration of Cubans that will succeed Castro's generation. All of thisserves our national interest.
"There's nothing positive in isolating a people," a Havana priest once toldme. America should heed his advice.