More Reasons to Lift the Cuba Travel Ban

Stefan Falke--laif-redux

Nobody would accuse Guillermo Fariñas of being soft on the Cuban government. The psychologist and dissident journalist has staged nearly two dozen hunger strikes to protest state repression. His belly is peppered with needle pricks from all the forced feedings. One stretch without food caused a lung to fill with blood and plunged him into a coma. During his most recent hunger strike—begun in February to press for the release of 25 ailing political prisoners—he nearly died when a blood clot formed in his jugular vein. He resumed eating only after President Raúl Castro announced in early July that he was freeing 52 dissidents, including the 25 sick ones. And yet, in a recent interview with Spain's El País, Fariñas called for something considered heresy in some anti-Castro circles: lifting the U.S. travel ban on the island. "The visits of millions of U.S. citizens would without doubt change this country," he said.

The anti-Castro lobby remains strong in the United States, and wants to keep Cuba isolated. Until now, it's been able to defeat virtually every effort to open the island to American tourists. But Fariñas is one of a growing number of influential Cubans and Americans who see the 50-year policy to completely isolate Cuba as a failure. Now interest groups of all sorts—big business, farmers, human-rights advocates, religious organizations, even many Cuban-Americans—have united to back a new congressional bill that would lift the travel ban and further loosen restrictions on U.S. agricultural sales to the island. "There is significant momentum building," says Carlos Saladrigas, co-chair of the Cuba Study Group, which supports the measure.

Hardline Cuban-Americans will try to defeat the bill by pressuring key legislators. But by combining travel and food provisions in one bill, drafters won over numerous farm-state lawmakers whose constituents are eager to sell to Cuba. The bill passed the House Agriculture Committee at the end of June. Next, it could go either to the Foreign Affairs Committee (whose chairman supports it) or to the House floor for a vote. "They're within striking distance of winning," says Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America.

If the bill succeeds in the House, attention would turn to the Senate, where Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez has vowed a filibuster. Last month, however, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi—sponsors of their chamber's version of the legislation—issued a statement saying they were confident they had enough votes to get it through.

The American business and agriculture lobbies, which have long supported more trade with Cuba, feel they have a potential ally in President Obama, who early in his term lifted travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans. Now the lobbyists are cranking up pressure on Congress. Faced with the threat of a double-dip recession, American producers are desperate to tap new markets. A number of pro-business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council, have declared this a "key vote"—one they'll take into account when compiling their annual scorecards of lawmakers.

The bill would give American exporters a boost by removing onerous financial restrictions on deals with Cuba. Farmers have been selling food products—poultry, soybeans, corn, wheat—to Cuba since 2000, when Congress passed a law permitting such commerce. The U.S. quickly became the island's largest supplier of agricultural imports. Yet because of financial restrictions imposed by American law—like a requirement to use third-country banks for payment—Cuba has been turning in recent years to other providers, such as Brazil and China.

Allowing American tourists to travel to Cuba would also be good for U.S. business, increasing demand for American products while providing Cuba the hard currency to buy them. According to a March study by researchers at Texas A&M University, lifting travel and financial restrictions could increase exports by up to $365 million per year and add 6,000 new American jobs. A 2002 analysis by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, found that the increase in tourism—including more air and cruise travel—could bolster the U.S. gross domestic product by up to $1.6 billion and create as many as 23,000 jobs. "Here's a shovel-ready project to put Americans back to work," says Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association.

The Cuban government needs more business, too, and appears to be making some gestures on human rights in hopes of getting sanctions lifted. Raúl Castro's promise to release the 52 prisoners—which resulted from negotiations among the regime, the Catholic Church, and Spain's foreign minister—earned international praise. Last week a Cuban official raised the prospect of freeing all remaining political prisoners. Many of the island's dissidents, meanwhile, have lent their support to the travel bill. In a May letter to the House Agriculture Committee, Fariñas and 73 others urged lawmakers to approve the measure. "The isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government," they wrote, "while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people."

Of course, congressional opponents of the travel bill also have dissidents on their side, and will make the case that an influx of cash and visitors will simply prop up the regime. They may succeed, as they have so many times before. But probably not for long, in large part because even the views of Cuban-Americans are shifting in favor of greater openness. A just-released poll conducted by Andy Gomez, associate provost at the University of Miami, found that 64 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami now support a unilateral lifting of the travel ban. Notably, all age groups, including the typically conservative old guard, support such a change. If Congress fails to act, Obama could even lift the travel ban by executive order. "I think the chances of that have gone up with the announcement of prisoner releases," says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute. American tourists shouldn't book their tickets to Havana just yet. But they might want to start reading the guidebooks.