Members of Congress who want to lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba -- and there are many -- aren’t motivated by a desire to help its infamous dictator Fidel Castro (search). They simply want to stop “imposing limits on the American people’s right to travel,” in the words of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
But any changes in U.S. policy toward Castro should be tempered with the realization that there are no easy answers to the Cuban conundrum. Lifting the travel ban could make it easier for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help Cuban dissidents -- but at the cost of doing business with Cuba’s state enterprises, thus propping up the regime.
Besides, Castro isn’t about to let in hordes of tourists, anyway, especially if he thinks they may provoke a situation that might get out of his control. U.S. officials aren’t the only ones interested in limiting one’s “right to travel.”
On the positive side, sanctions signal continued solidarity with the captive Cuban populace, who continue to suffer under the heel of one of the world’s last remaining communist dictatorships. They serve to protect American security, which is one reason President Bush recently reaffirmed his strong stance against Castro. Restricting credit and potential income can prevent Castro from regenerating his efforts to support insurgents and terrorists abroad.
On the negative side, though, Americans aren’t used to being told they can’t go places or sell services and goods to whomever they like.
A year and a half ago, on Cuban Independence Day (search), President Bush put the ball in Castro’s court. Announcing his New Cuba Initiative, he challenged Castro to allow free and fair elections, permit citizens to freely assemble and express themselves, and ease restrictions on private enterprise. In exchange, Bush promised to lift sanctions on trade and travel, matching Castro step-for-step.
Castro’s response was to ignore the president’s proposal and jail some 80 independent human rights activists and journalists. These actions drew criticism from the European Union, whose aid Castro renounced, and derision from former supporters worldwide.
To date, Castro hasn’t changed his policies. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. travel industry and agribusiness from pressuring a growing number of federal lawmakers to lift sanctions against the Cuban regime.
In contrast, President Bush has been putting some teeth into his Cuba policy. He recently announced measures that would:
--Tighten enforcement against unlicensed U.S. travel to the island through the Department of Homeland Security,
--Institute a new lottery system to encourage legal immigration to the United States,
--Initiate more effective public diplomacy to reach the Cuban people, and
--Establish a new commission, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, to develop a post-Castro engagement policy.
Such measures may not hasten Castro’s downfall any more than other strategies attempted throughout the 44 years Castro’s been in power, but they serve a critical purpose. They will cut off some cash flow to the regime and send a signal of solidarity to European and Latin American allies, who are now beginning to take stands against Castro’s continued captivity of the Cuban people.
But for that hard-line approach to work, the Bush administration must be honest. While couched in terms of helping Cubans gain freedom, the only legal basis for travel restrictions is to keep the regime from regenerating its ability to become a security threat.
That capacity withered with the end of the Soviet Union and its $5 billion annual subsidies to the island. Nonetheless, cheap oil flowing from Venezuela and rhetorical support from neo-populist leaders in Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina have given top Cuban officials hope that the time is ripe for a return to Marxist (search) revolution.
Congressional backers of lifting restrictions on Cuba also hold out hope. They believe that American tourist dollars and loans will soften the regime and coax it into America’s sphere of influence.
That’s unlikely, since past trade and aid from Canada and Europe have not made Castro any more tractable. Only sustained pressure on a broad scale can safeguard space for Cuba’s democrats and contain the potential security threat that Castro’s regime continues to pose for the hemisphere.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice recently noted that the United States must “hold the flame for those who are not yet free.” But even more is at stake. Cuba still supports terrorists and revolutionaries, and Castro’s underlings still think their dictatorship can be exported elsewhere. It’s time to prove them wrong.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.