Washington is awash in rumors that the administration is about to make another move on Cuba in response to Cuba’s announcement that it will release all remaining political prisoners who were detained in 2003. If these rumors prove to be true, it would be welcome news indeed. It is particularly important that the administration exercise its authority to restore options for Americans to travel to Cuba that were available before 2003, when former President George W. Bush began to curtail travel severely. These travel restrictions have had no positive effect in Cuba, but they have certainly had negative effects for the United States by limiting the ability of Americans to engage with the Cuban people at this time of historic transition. People-to-people contacts have historically been one of our most important tools in opening up closed societies; it is highly counterproductive to drop this tool from the toolkit with respect to Cuba.
Today, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), together with 12 other organizations, sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to remove these travel restrictions.
The most important action that the administration can take is to restore the ability of American students to study in Cuba. Most study abroad programs in Cuba that were in effect before 2003 were forced out of business by regulations issued by the Bush administration in 2004. Our government does not place restrictions on study abroad in any other country in the world, except Cuba. Cuba impacts us, and its transition will impact us. It is madness to discourage our students from learning about this important country.
A brief history: The 2004 regulations issued by the Bush administration curtailed academic travel, family travel, and remittances to Cuba. In his presidential campaign, Senator Obama promised to restore family travel and remittances, and he did so shortly after assuming the presidency, leaving the academic travel restrictions in place. He said that further action would depend on positive actions by the Cuban government, and specifically, on progress in releasing political prisoners. Now that such progress is a reality, it would be anomalous, to say the least, if the President failed to remove the remaining restrictions in response. That is the minimum that he must do. He should also restore nonacademic people-to-people travel, which the Bush administration stopped in 2003.
President Obama has the authority to restore all non-tourist travel to Cuba without legislation. Meaningful steps in this direction will be welcomed by Cuban dissidents, who recognize that this will help open up their country; by Latin Americans, who view U.S.-Cuba policy as the last vestige of an era when the United States asserted the right to determine what kind of political system Latin American countries could have, and who have been sorely disappointed at the paucity of U.S. moves to put U.S.-Cuban relations on a more constructive footing; and by all Americans who believe—correctly—that they have a constitutional right to travel anywhere they want.
Travel is not a favor to the Cuban regime. If anything, it’s a threat, as it is to all regimes in closed societies. We’re not doing this for them. We’re doing it for us—and it is long past time.