July 5, 2011
On June 23, South Florida Congressman (and Appropriations Committee member) Mario Diaz-Balart successfully added an amendment to the 2012 Financial Services Appropriations Bill that would nullify recent steps by President Obama to ease travel restrictions and money transfers to Cuba. The move—which would disproportionately affect constituents in Mr. Diaz-Balart’s own district, many of whom regularly visit family in Cuba—is the latest attempt by hardliners in Congress to block people-to-people contact and prevent Americans from traveling or sending money to Cuba.
Although the amendment may be gutted before the bill’s final passage (this has been the fate of similar prior efforts), the tactic is a stark reminder that some in Congress still believe that the only way to facilitate democracy in Cuba is to prevent Americans from spending money there, where some of it inevitably winds up in Castro government coffers.
Moderates disagree. Shortly after the measure passed, the Washington DC-based Cuba Study Group issued a statement condemning the amendment saying, “transitions from authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe, apartheid South Africa and even the Arab Spring…have proven that contact with the outside world has played a crucial role in promoting those changes.”
There are numerous compelling arguments for freedom to travel. One often-raised belief is that the U.S. government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding where Americans can and cannot travel. U.S. citizens can travel to Iran and North Korea (far scarier adversaries by any objective measure)—just as we were allowed to travel to apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union—so why not Cuba?
Others think travel restrictions are a strategic blunder. If U.S. policy toward Cuba is designed to foment political transition, the thinking goes, then the soft-power punch dealt by iPod wielding Americans comingling on Havana’s famous Malecón far outweighs any profit the Cuban government derives from cash those gringos spend there.
All of this aside, the simple reality is that ending the travel ban, which requires an act of Congress, is a political non-starter—at least through the end of 2012. It just won’t happen! And this raises an interesting question: Why are Diaz-Balart and his colleagues making such a tremendous fuss over low levels of family, academic and cultural travel?
Even those of us who watch Cuba news closely struggle to understand this one.