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The Freedom to Travel to Cuba

By Jesús Arboleya Cervera

During the past 40 years, Americans have had to endure government restrictions to travel to Cuba. These were established under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, which gives the government the authority to prohibit commercial transactions with enemy countries in times of war.

Under this premise, even though the United States never declared war on Cuba, the administration of John F. Kennedy established the economic blockade in 1961. In July 1963, the government published the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, which forbade American citizens to spend money on their trips to Cuba.

Supposedly, Americans have not been deprived of their legal right to travel to Cuba, but such travel is possible only if someone outside U.S. jurisdiction pays the traveler's expenses. In the complicated bureaucratic language of the American government, this category is called “fully hosted travel.” In this instance, the invited person cannot travel on a direct flight to Cuba or use the services of Cubana de Aviación – even if the ticked is paid by a third party – or return to the U.S. with Cuban products, unless they are of an informative nature. In addition, the traveler is subject to a detailed investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department, to which the traveler “must prove” that he or she did not spend a single cent in Cuba.

If the American citizen in question does not receive external funding, the citizen is not free to travel to Cuba but must do so with the government's authorization. To this end, the government issues licenses that authorize the citizen to travel and spend money within certain limits, which also are investigated by the authorities. The licenses can be general or specific, but in no case cover touristic, recreational, or commercial activities. To see the country, to attend a cultural event, a sports event or to do business are not legitimate reasons to travel to Cuba. 

General licenses do not require previous consultation with or approval from the U.S. Treasury Department and cover the trips made by government officials or foreign diplomats, scientists and professionals to attend events and exchanges in fields that have previously been authorized. Journalists employed by a press organization are also covered. Conversely, an independent journalist cannot apply under this license.

The specific licenses are issued by the government on a case-by-case basis and are intended for travel in the framework of educational events or cultural and sports exchanges. In such cases, the petitioner, be it an institution or a person, is subject to the arbitrariness of the Treasury Department officials, who decide whether the application abides by the restrictions imposed. Logically, determinant factors in this decision are the political temperature of the moment and the state of relations between the two countries.

Within the specific licenses, the most sought after were those granted under the category of “people-to-people exchange.” This was established by the Clinton administration in 1999 for the purpose of broadening and facilitating cultural (though not academic) exchanges and was in line with the philosophy expressed in the Torricelli Law, which saw exchanges as subversive and therefore assumed that exchanges would weaken the Cuban regime as it “exposed” Cuban citizens to the democratic values of the United States.

However, it seems the Bush administration does not trust the influence of these values and rather fears that the Americans will be “intoxicated” by Cuban communism. So, Washington eliminated the category outright from the new regulations.

In 1977, the Carter administration made the unprecedented decision to eliminate all restrictions for travel to Cuba, which helped to reestablish the trips made by Cuban émigrés and even gave a slight boost to American tourism to the island. Although at that time tourism was not a priority in the island's economic plans, and the structure of promotion and attention to tourism was extremely precarious, many Americans would jump from the Bahamas or Cancún to spend a night at the Tropicana nightclub.

Reagan stopped the fiesta and imposed even more severe restrictions on the trips to Cuba. Ten years later, the Torricelli Law, while promoting certain forms of exchange for the reasons mentioned above, gave the U.S. Treasury Department the power to impose fines of up to $50,000 to those who violated the established rules, a measure that turned the government into prosecutor and judge in any case against an alleged lawbreaker. The process culminated with the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which enacted into law all the previously administrative measures for the enforcement of the blockade, including travel restrictions.

From that time on, any changes would supposedly have to be made in Congress, where the Cuban-American ultrarightists presumably were a lot more influential than in the Executive branch. However, things have not turned precisely thus and both premises can be questioned today. Neither the Cuban-American right has the control over Congress it once had, nor Congress has been able to make the changes most of its members demand.

In the past three years and by ever-larger margins, the House of Representatives approved amendments to suspend the restriction of travel to Cuba. Last year, the voting in the House was 262 in favor, 167 against, and the Senate included the amendment, without a specific vote, in the bill that covered the Treasury Department's and the Postal Service's budgets.

In all cases, the amendments have died in the Conference Committee, controlled by the Republican leadership, which in this manner has foiled the decision of the majority in both chambers. This opposition by the Republican leadership reflects the intransigence of the Bush administration on the subject.

This is, therefore, a policy maintained by the government against the legislative majority. National security interests are not involved – it is evident that Cuba does not constitute a threat to United States in this regard – and it's not a reflection of an ideological bent, because – unpleasant though the Cuban Revolution may be to some – an important sector of the U.S. conservative movement advocates the changes.

It is simply the result of the electoral interests of the Bush family in South Florida and the economic advantages the links with the Cuban-American far right give the Republican leadership.

These premises make the maintenance of the current policy very fragile. They go against the interests of the U.S. agribusiness sector, for whom an expansion of travel to Cuba would imply more sales and better opportunities for business. They also go against the majority position within the Cuban-American community, which – as shown by recent polls – favor greater facilities for travel to Cuba.

In addition, we must take into account the recent creation of the Association of Travel-Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP), an organization whose stated purpose is to defend the right to unrestricted travel and whose central theme is precisely to eliminate the existing restrictions in the case of Cuba.

This political platform rests on an obvious commercial interest. According to research done on the subject, the elimination of travel restrictions would mean a volume of tourism of 2.8 million people per year, $250 million more in revenue for U.S. air carriers, and $1 billion in additional revenue for other American businesses.

In this manner, an important sector of the travel industry, which until now had not publicly joined the lobby against the travel restrictions to Cuba, now joins the coalition of economic and business entities that this year supports the introduction of new amendments on the subject. Republican Senator Mike Enzi, Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Congressman Jeff Flake are among the promoters of these initiatives, whose text has already been discussed in both chambers.

The way things are going, there is hope that in the not-too-distant future Americans will no longer need a foreign friend to pay for their vacations in Varadero and the cheerful Yankee tourists will again enjoy a night at the Tropicana. For the Cubans, that's a far better picture than seeing the Marines land in battle gear, looking like extraterrestrials.

Jesús Arboleya, who holds a doctorate in Historical Sciences, is an alternate professor at the University of Havana. He has published several books on the topic of Cuban emigration to the United States of America.


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