The Obama administration has taken historic actions to restore relations with Cuba, including the normalization of diplomatic relations, announced in December 17, 2014, the reopening of the American Embassy in Cuba, a number of executive actions to ease U.S.–Cuba relations, and President Obama’s own celebrated visit to Havana this year.
Congress will soon vote on three critical amendments to the financial services appropriations bill that would help open travel and enhance trade with Cuba. Unfortunately, these amendments are expected to be highly contested on the House floor by representatives of powerful Cuban-American hardliners looking to push back against President Obama’s policies of engagement with Cuba, particularly the bipartisan amendment by Congressman Mark Sanford that prohibits the use of federal funds to enforce the travel ban to Cuba for the next year.
As a Cuban emigre, I welcome this further thawing of one of the last vestiges of Cold War era policies. I look forward to the full normalization of relations between the countries and our citizens, for which lifting the travel ban is absolutely necessary.
Travel restrictions to Cuba are inconsistent with current and past U.S. policies. Although American tourists are generally free to visit countries with questionable human rights practices like North Korea and Iran, if they want to visit Cuba, the purposes of their trips must meet one of twelve travel categories authorized by President Obama through executive action.
Moreover, in the past, U.S. strategy has involved engaging with communist countries like the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam, in part because of the mentality that American citizens can serve as ambassadors of democratic values. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once put it: “Travel is a device that opens closed societies. American travelers are our best ambassadors . . . There is no reason to make this exception for Cuba. We want Americans to go down and exchange ideas, to show them the taste of freedom.”
Despite this broad minded sentiment expressed by Ryan, his party’s policy platform announced last month with much fanfare that opening relations with Cuba is “misguided,” reflecting the party’s cowering to its hardliners.
Breaking Down an Archaic Argument
The primary argument to keep these restrictions in place is that American visitors—like tourism in general—provide an influx of dollars that would strengthen the Cuban government, the military, and its repressive apparatus. However, this is an outdated argument that has failed to keep up with recent economic developments in Cuba.
Around 1.2 million workers (24 percent of the labor force) are now in the private sector, a number that has more than doubled since 2010.
While it used to be that tourist destinations in Cuba were government owned, that is changing. According to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, around 1.2 million workers (24 percent of the labor force) are now in the private sector, a number that has more than doubled since 2010. What’s more, that’s only counting the number of people in the national statistics, overlooking Cuba’s large black market and informal economic sector. A great number of workers in the underground economy have nothing to do with the government, do not pay taxes, and are therefore not counted in the statistics.
Most activities in the growing private sector in Cuba are tourism oriented. For example, there are thousands of rooms for rent in casas particulares—similar to bed and breakfasts—in Havana, and a rapidly growing number of privately run restaurants, bars, cafes, and taxi drivers.
The money funding this incipient private sector is not coming from government banks. Most of it is remittances, mainly from the U.S., brought to the island by Cuban-American visitors. Once Cuban entrepreneurs have started a small business, often under severe credit constraints, they depend on realized revenues in order to expand their operations and pull more workers into the private sector. American tourism and its dollars would be extremely beneficial for this segment of the population, making them better off financially and, ultimately, more independent from the Cuban government.
This private sector is already putting pressure on the government to keep up its development. In the past three years we have seen transformative changes in property law, economic policy, immigration (see here and here), and internet service. Soon they will also start demanding more government transparency, when they inevitably start thinking about where their taxes are going.
It seems that a smart U.S. policy would promote a vibrant private sector economy in Cuba as a means for driving democratic and economic reforms.
Lifting the Ban Could Reconcile the Nations
More than 8 in 10 Americans support lifting the travel ban, according to a 2015 CBS News poll. It’s time for U.S. foreign policy to greater reflect the overwhelming public opinion on this matter. U.S. policy toward Cuba should not be held hostage by a declining constituency of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami, looking to go back in time to 1958.
When I lived in Havana, for two years I was among the people working at the margins of the centralized economy. I had no involvement with the government and earned money by showing tourists around, doing taxi service to and from the airport, and occasionally helping my uncle run his B&B. Those activities allowed me to get by financially, but it was the people-to-people contact that gave me a much greater benefit.
I had no idea at the time, but it was these contacts that allowed me to learn the language, history, and culture of the country where I would end up living.
At a time when I had been banned from attending college in Cuba and from traveling abroad, frequent contact with American citizens allowed me to practice English and have regular access to foreign books, magazines, and newspapers. From Havana, I was also able to discuss study opportunities with faculty from schools like the University of Richmond and City University of New York. And it was through people-to-people networks that I was able to leave the country and eventually make it to Bard College, from where I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree. I had no idea at the time, but it was these contacts that allowed me to learn the language, history, and culture of the country where I would end up living.
The people-to-people contact that lifting the travel ban could facilitate should not be underestimated. Above political differences and economic systems, the citizens of both countries share our humanity, emotions, and our basic material needs. We all share the need for security and dignity. Interactions between people of different backgrounds transcend politics and puts humanism at the core of any conflict in the reconciliation process. Like President Obama said when he visited the island, “a policy of isolation designed for the Cold War [makes] little sense in the 21st Century.”
U.S. policy towards Cuba doesn’t have to be about a regime change.
U.S. policy towards Cuba doesn’t have to be about a regime change. It could build shared values directly among citizens: the American people, who must not be denied their right to freely travel and to act as ambassadors of democratic values, and the Cuban people, the ones who are really suffering the impact of the economic sanctions that hinder the development of a potentially dynamic and autonomous private sector that one day might impress every American.