Progress on travel!

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its “Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving Cuba,” and released them on  April 21, 2011.  Though the president announced new travel and remittance regulations on January 14th, they did not officially go into effect until the “fine print” of the guidelines was released.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports the decision by President Obama to open Cuba to additional categories of non-tourist travel.  The executive order he issued on January 14, 2011 builds on the change in policy he made in 2009 to remove all restrictions on Cuban American travel to Cuba and financial support for families on the island.

The President’s decision on travel, remittances and flights was entered in the Federal Register on January 28, 2011, and the updated OFAC guidelines were released three months later.

While we continue to believe that the right policy is total repeal of the travel ban for all Americans, which requires an act of Congress, we also believe that efforts by the administration to ease restrictions on travel under its existing authority are in the best interests of the United States.

CDA’s executive director, Sarah Stephens, issued the following statement in support of President Obama’s decision (Spanish version available here):

“This is an important step forward for our Cuba policy.

“At a time when Cubans are changing their system in fundamental ways, it is a good idea to have greater engagement, more Americans traveling to Cuba, and more opportunities to learn from each other as everyday Cubans reshape their lives and their country.

“It is my hope that Members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans – a community that can travel to Cuba without any limits at all – will not make efforts to thwart what the president has done.  This step authorizing non-tourist travel is a basic and positive step to take at this time.

“The president is to be commended for taking this step to improve our policy and, ideally, to move forward on reforming U.S.-Cuba relations.

“We will continue to press for the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans.”

Arguments in support of the President’s action

  1. Issuing the executive order now will respond to the political and economic changes taking place in Cuba.
  2. An executive order opening categories of travel fulfills the president’s commitments on policy toward Cuba.
  3. There is substantial support in the current Congress for opening up travel (more than 180 Members of the House, more than 40 Senators cosponsored legislation to end restrictions on travel and to promote trade with Cuba).
  4. There is also broad support for travel in the religious community, among academics, the human rights community, labor, business, and agriculture.
  5. Public opinion research has long shown significant support for opening travel among Cuban Americans and the public at large.

The President is acting within his authority to do this

As detailed in this helpful report by The Brookings Institution, the administration has the authority it needs to open categories of travel (see especially page 4).

This action is consistent with Obama’s statements in the campaign and as president

The president’s decision to open categories of travel lends greater credibility to his policy of linking actions by the U.S. to ease our policy to actions taken by the Cuban government to reform its economy or reform its political system.  Cuba does not accept such linkage, and we believe that U.S. action should be based on the U.S. national interest.

But the Cuban government’s decisions to release political prisoners, layoff 500,000 Cuban workers and implement private sector reforms certainly fit what the president has said as a candidate and since taking office.

He said before the Cuban American National Foundation and in an early op-ed column in the Miami Herald that political prisoners in Cuba required justice, that a goal of U.S. policy was to make Cuban families less dependent on the Castro regime, and that efforts by Cuba’s government to liberalize its system would be met by steps to help solidify openings into lasting change.

In 2009, at the Summit of the Americas, he spoke about getting a response to his reforms on Cuban American travel (“a range of steps that could that could be taken on the part of the Cuba government…”) that would signal an interest by Cuba in progress on U.S.-Cuban relations.

Expect attacks on the President’s decision

If past is prologue, the administration could very well be attacked by Members of the House and Senate – particularly those who oppose reform and represent hard-line interests in Florida and New Jersey – for opening up travel.  It’s important, however, to remember this:  the sternest critics of the President’s Cuba policy represent Cuban Americans constituents who can all visit Cuba without restrictions, and do so because the administration made that possible last year.  They are making an important contribution to the well-being of the Cuban people.  But the door needed to be opened wider.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the right course for the United States is to remove all restrictions on the rights of all Americans to travel to Cuba.  Pending that important step, the decision by the administration to remove certain restrictions on non-tourist travel is an important step forward.

For more news coverage and opinions about the President’s directive, click here.