Back to the Future in Cuba

Photo courtesy of  Lilia Efimova


By Lissa Weinmann

Last week, the Obama Administration announced its intention to fiddle with the part of our ridiculous Cuba policy (or lack thereof) that deals with American travel to the island. At first glance, these policy intentions seem to significantly loosen current restrictions on travel to the island. But we won't know until next week (January 31 or so) how the intentions translate into actual regulatory changes. For that, we'll have to wait and see. 

The ability of Americans to visit Cuba, one way or another, has ebbed and flowed over the years with successive administrations. President Carter, for instance, lifted all restrictions on travel – a far more liberal approach than Obama has promised.

Two things, though, are already clear. No change to the half-century long U.S. unilateral economic embargo on Cuba has happened or will happen under this administration (nor, certainly, this Congress). And Americans will still be prohibited by law from traveling to Cuba. Traveling, that is, without a "purposeful" intent via affiliation with an academic, professional or (most often) religious entity subject to big-brother scrutiny of your trip. In other words, people will be forced to lie in order to see the reality of Cuba — a wildly fascinating and very, very close neighbor — with their own eyes.

Funny, this approach sounds very…Cuban. Maybe we have more in common with Cuba than we think.

To its credit, the Obama Administration’s enforcement of travel restrictions has been virtually non-existent. This current tinkering basically brings us back to where we were under the Clinton Administration, when "people to people" exchanges and "purposeful travel" exceptions allowed many Americans to travel to Cuba unimpeded, often under false pretenses. During that era, American businessmen in search of cigars and a tropical break could often be found in Havana, carrying a suitcase-full of aspirin and a note from a local church saying they were donating "humanitarian supplies."

On the other hand, Clinton was responsible for perhaps the largest wholesale giveaway of executive power on foreign policy when he backed passage of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which codified the Cuba embargo. Before Helms-Burton, the embargo was simply an executive order (created by President Eisenhower) that could be removed with a stroke of the presidential pen.  

Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, was perfectly content to inherit a strict, Congressionally-mandated embargo. Bush was seriously indebted to the radical right wing Cuban-American embargocracy — for its financial largesse, its support at the polls, and its participation in the outright bullying that stopped the Miami-Dade County vote recount which, if it had occurred, might very well have swung the contested 2000 Presidential election toward Al Gore. Partly as a sop to this small but influential constituency, Bush cut all but the most essential travel to Cuba. He re-defined "family" to exclude aunts, uncles and cousins and forbade visits to immediate family members in Cuba more than once every three years — even in cases of death or extreme emergency. Accounts from Cuban Americans coming back from these rare legal trips indicated a policy of general harassment by the Homeland Security forces Bush assigned to scrutinize returning flights. To adjudicate charges of violating the travel ban and levy fines on those deemed to be traveling illegally, administrative-law judges were "borrowed" from other departments, primarily from the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission— a nice break for mining companies facing much more serious charges. At a critical time in the effort to stem terrorist financing, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) spent up to one-third of its time stepping up enforcement of the Cuba embargo, to the dismay of counterterrorism experts and lawmakers.

Now it's Obama's turn. A tepid approach to easing the travel ban will not punish Cuba — in fact, it directly serves the interests of the Cuban government, now under the presidency of Raúl Castro, the younger brother of Fidel. Cuban government leaders want more tourism. So do all the foreigners invested in Cuba's tourism through a range of profitable public/private partnerships. But the last thing the government wants is a million American tourists at its door tomorrow. Such a change would force the government to initiate its own controls, through increased visa requirements and a general slowing-down of approvals, over the flow of Americans into the island. Right now the Cubans basically allow just about any American in, no questions asked.  Incremental change of the kind Obama has proposed allows the Cuban government to manage the impact of any new policies, to adapt and survive, as it has for half a century.

Obama should seize the opportunity to do something bolder. Views on Cuba are shifting, even within the sclerotic exile communities that have long exerted an outsized influence on American policy towards the island.  According to a poll conducted last year, 67% of Cuban Americans back open travel for all Americans. The community — which is mostly based in Florida but also includes a New Jersey segment that tends to be older, wealthier, and more hard-line — is split on ending the larger embargo against Cuba: 42% believe that it should continue while 43% want it terminated.

Sadly, those views aren't reflected by the elected officials who claim to represent that community — Congressional representatives who cater to the ideological hardliners with deep pockets and supporters who, over the years, have benefited from substantial U.S. taxpayer largesse.

But Obama needn't bow to that pressure group. If he really wants to make some headway on change with Cuba, he should:

·      Push for the repeal of retrograde laws that undermine U.S. relations abroad, such as the the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law which, among other things, penalize third countries for doing business in Cuba and prevent any vessel from coming to the US if it has visited Cuba in the last six months, among other things that tend to be counter-productive to U.S. interests as well as our stated policy goals regarding Cuba.

·      Support direct cash transactions for legal food sales, instead of forcing the Treasury Department to waste valuable time harassing foreign companies on this matter. Under current law, companies selling food to Cuba cannot receive funds directly but must go through a third-country bank, which in turn charges a currency conversion and transaction fee. This red tape raises the sale price and/or reduces the profit margins for American companies.

·      Allow two-way humanitarian trade with Cuba so Americans have access to cheaper and ground-breaking pharmaceutical products developed by Cuba

·      Support the de-funding of Radio Marti and especially TV Marti — American-funded Spanish news broadcasts that are aimed at Cuba but are frequently blocked by the Cuban government and otherwise ignored by the Cuban public. These programs costs American taxpayers millions and achieve virtually nothing.  USAID programs aimed at creating a "transition" in Cuba should also be drastically reduced. Nobody who works with Cuba and has the relationships needed to accomplish anything will touch these tainted funds.

·      Encourage collaboration between American and Cuban oil companies, since Cuba is beginning to drill in the Gulf of Mexico whether we like it or not.

·      Use his presidential authority to end the designation of Cuba as a terrorist state: terrorism experts across the board and a broad array of respected U.S. military leaders are convinced the designation is false. Wasting valuable OFAC personnel time with embargo enforcement takes time away from rooting-out the financial transactions that fund the true terrorist threats we face.  We would be better off joining forces with Cuba on drug interdiction and other security threats we mutually face. 

 Lissa Weinmann is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she has directed a program on Cuba since 1998. 


Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Cuban Americans who travel by air to Havana are processed at a different location than other passengers.  However, that practice was ended last year.  (January 28 2011,  5:33 PM)

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