Article published May 11, 2007 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Lifting restrictions on travel offers benefits for U.S. and Cuba
Prior to the 2004 presidential election, the Bush administration responded to pressure from Cuban-American political leaders in Florida to roll back opportunities for nontourist "purposeful" travel to Cuba that had been opened by the Clinton administration. This action was based on the false accusation that such programs served as a cover for tourism and provided significant economic support for the Cuban government.
The retreat on freedom to travel had devastating humanitarian consequences for Cuban-Americans. Previously they had been able to make one authorized visit per year to their extended family, with unlimited additional opportunities for emergency travel for health or other compelling reasons. Now they can only visit members of their immediate family and must be very cautious about timing. If, for example one's father is seriously ill, and after several months passes away, one must choose between a visit during his final months or for his funeral. If one's mother passes away the following year, tough!
As a result of this draconian policy, a variety of U.S. educational, cultural, people-to-people, sports, religious, humanitarian, professional and foreign affairs institutions no longer were able to obtain licenses for familiarization visits and exchanges with counterparts.
Bipartisan sentiment in the Republican-controlled Congress sought to end travel restrictions via amendment to the Treasury appropriations bill. The goal was to deny funding for enforcement of sanctions against travelers. However, majority support in both Houses was frustrated by leadership maneuvers behind closed doors, justified by the threat of a presidential veto.
Democratic majorities offer a new opportunity for legislative remedy. In particular, a bill submitted in January by Rep. Charles Rangel (HR 654) with Rep. Jeff Flake would end restrictions on travel to Cuba by all Americans. To date it has attracted 103 bipartisan co-sponsors. Because of the ripeness of the issue and Rangel's seniority, prestige and status as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, support will grow. Sens. Michael Enzi and Byron Dorgan have submitted comparable legislation (S 721) that has attracted 20 bipartisan co-sponsors.
In principle, this is a policy in consonance with the traditional values of the United States rather than with the restrictions Cuba places on travel by its own citizens.
In practice, large-scale visits by Americans to Cuba will have a substantial impact on our nation's ability to understand and positively affect the process of transition there.
The Rangel and Enzi bills have been endorsed by over 1,500 diverse representatives of the American academic, religious and humanitarian communities. Not least among the signers of an online statement of support is Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who served the Clinton and Bush administrations as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Much of my professional career has been devoted to bringing about normal relations between the U.S. and its former adversaries in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. When I began my work, suspicion and hostile rhetoric resulting from grievous human and social legacies of war were more pronounced on both sides of the divide than they have ever been with Cuba.
Yet in conjunction with normalization with the U.S., all three countries have moved successfully from command to market economies. The personal freedoms and democratic participation of their citizens have steadily increased, although even now their political cultures are more like Cuba's than ours. Vietnam, in particular, has growing strategic ties to the U.S. Based on visits to Cuba during the past decade, I see no reason that the same mutually beneficial process could not take place between our neighboring countries.
John McAuliff is executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. The online statement and signers may be seen at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/ Cubatravelbill/. To see the full text of proposed legislation, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and type "HR 654" and "S 721" in the box provided.