Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Cuba Travel Restrictions in the Spotlight in Brooklyn and Beyond

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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.

Part of the answer lies just beneath the surface of other recent news . On the same day that Diaz-Balart was trying to scuttle any expansion of travel to Cuba, 3,000 miles away at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Cuban National Ballet was holding one of its last performances in a nearly month-long tour of the United States. It is widely acknowledged that there has been an increase in visiting artists, musicians, athletes and academics from Cuba over the past two years, but the National Ballet’s international prominence, its significance in Cuba (troupe leaders are as revered in Cuba as NFL and NBA superstars are in the United States), and its iconic 90-year old artistic director Alicia Alonso, make this particular visit an especially symbolic milestone in bilateral cultural exchange.

What do the Cuban dance troupe’s tour of the United States and Mr. Diaz-Balart’s actions have in common? I attended one of the ballet’s performances during their June stopover in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—part of a city-wide Sí Cuba! cultural festival featuring dozens of Cuban and Cuban-American artists. As a policy analyst who can’t tell the difference between a pliés and a pirouette, I’m in no position to critique the troupe’s performance. But witnessing the audience’s reaction may have provided a glimpse into the mindset of those wishing to prevent greater people-to-people contact between the U.S. and Cuba.

On sold-out nights, Brooklyn’s renowned opera house hosts nearly  1,000 of the most diverse spectators in the world—people of every age, race, religion, political persuasion, socioeconomic background, and national- and linguistic-origin imaginable. Even hushing that boisterous crowd before the show seemed a herculean task. But before long, silence descended, and spectators sat transfixed—transported to a place where embargoes and a half century of acrimonious relations seemed like some faint memory. The troupe of young men and women on stage performed with poise and pride to the delight of their yanqui onlookers.

After the enthusiastic applause of curtain call, two male leads snuck briefly offstage and returned moments later with (the legally blind) Ms. Alonso in tow. Then, the audience truly brought down the house.

Under most circumstances, it is probably fair to say that foreign policy and ballet don’t mix. But after this particular show I couldn’t help but think: “There go another 1,000 ordinary Americans who’ll head home and ask themselves, ‘If those young dancers can come visit my country, why is it again that I can’t visit theirs?’”

Opponents of ending travel restrictions to Cuba have long relied on the ambivalence of everyday voters for whom—under the decades-long policy of isolation—visiting the island has never been a practical possibility. For much of the past five decades, most Americans have never questioned the rationale for restricting travel. But, as academic and cultural ties grow, thousands more are bound to ponder that very question. Diaz-Balart and others will find it increasingly difficult to come up with convincing answers—and that might be the reason for all the fuss.

Matthew Aho is Manager of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Editor at Americas Quarterly.


Matthew Aho is a consultant in the corporate practice group at Akerman LLP.

Tags: Barack Obama, Brooklyn academy of music, Cuba, Cuba Study Group, Mario Diaz-Balart
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