For reasons that have to do more with domestic politics than logic or effectiveness, the U.S. places tougher sanctions on Cuba than on any other country in the world, including those with poor human rights records like China, Iran and North Korea. Former President George W. Bush once suggested that "trade with China will promote freedom." Perhaps, as Stephen Colbert has noted, the difference is that Cuba is "a totalitarian, repressive, communist state that -- unlike China -- can't lend us money."
The benefits of lifting the travel ban all sound compelling, until you understand how the Cuban government actually works, says Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.
Ditching U.S. restrictions on travel would be good for America and for the Cuban people.
One major, though frequently overlooked, benefit is that Americans would regain the freedom to travel anywhere they want. Cuba is the only country in the world to which U.S. citizens are largely prohibited from visiting. Those few who can qualify to travel need a permission slip from Washington.
Orbitz Worldwide, the travel-service provider, has collected more than 100,000 signatures in favor of restoring travel to Cuba through its OpenCuba.org drive. More than two-thirds of Americans support the idea, according to a recent poll released by Orbitz and Ipsos. Freedom to travel is a fundamental right that the U.S. should not be in the habit of restricting.
Engaging Cuba would also be good for American businesses and workers. The U.S. has already exported $4 billion worth of agricultural goods to Cuba over the past decade, but sales have been constrained in part by self-imposed restrictions on trade. Changes contained in the legislation would help secure and expand exports to Cuba. Removing travel restrictions would also benefit U.S. airlines, cruise ships and travel service providers, as reports suggest up to a million Americans could travel to Cuba annually.
As Human Rights Watch points out, U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions also cause "indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population." Removing restrictions on travel and trade from the U.S. would put more money in the pockets of ordinary Cubans, a majority of whom have access to hard currency through remittances or jobs in the tourism industry. And a new U.S. strategy would remove the excuse the Cuban government has used for the past half-century to explain shortages and deprivation.
While supporters and opponents often frame the debate over U.S. sanctions as a monumental factor in the future of the Cuban government and people, the reality is that the benefits of more travel and trade would be modest. But engaging the Cuban people is a far better approach than continuing to cross our fingers and hope that counterproductive U.S. sanctions will one day coincide with a dramatic change in Cuba's leadership.
Tired old bromides about Fidel Castro and communism have been enough to sustain policies toward Cuba that compound the problems of the Cuban people and restrict the positive influence that American citizens bring when we travel, trade and interact with others. Congress has a chance to change course this year and reverse decades of self-imposed isolation.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez noted recently that U.S. sanctions "represent a blunder in American policy toward Cuba" and argued for the "complete elimination of anything that limits contact between the citizens of both countries." U.S. lawmakers should heed her advice and take a step forward by passing legislation to remove travel restrictions and engage the Cuban people.
Jake Colvin is vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, a business association that promotes U.S. global engagement, in Washington, D.C.
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