To be fair to President George W. Bush, he has a legitimate reason for wanting to crack down on American travel to Cuba. If Bush doesn’t do something to “punish” the Castro regime (and, please, no more invasions), he is likely to lose the support of the crucial CubanAmerican vote here in Florida next year.
Bush’s political problem is complicated by the incremental weakening of American economic sanctions that were first imposed by President Kennedy in 1962.
Partially, this is because American agricultural and business interests are tired of standing by while Canadian and European entrepreneurs make money in Cuba.
Thus, Congress already has eaten into the sanctions by permitting the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. Not because Congress is “soft” on communism, but because American farmers are capitalists who want to sell their wares to the island.
In the past three years, Cuba has bought $282 million worth of American agricultural products. Call it a triumph of capitalism over both socialism and politics.
And although travel restrictions remain on the books, more and more Americans are opting to vacation in Cuba, as many as 25,000 last year alone. To placate Florida Cuban-American hard-liners, Bush had promised to crack down on Americans who illegally go to Cuba for either business or pleasure.
Not so fast, Congress is now telling the Bush administration.
Last week, the Senate, on a vote of 59-38, tacked a rider onto a transportation-spending bill that would relax American travel restrictions to Cuba.
As in the past, the pressure to lift the ban is mainly coming from agricultural interests. And since the House has previously approved similar measures, chances are that the rider will survive a House-Senate conference negotiation. Reportedly, however, House and Senate Republican leaders have decided to keep it out of the final bill as a favor to Bush, who is threatening to veto the legislation if the rider is included.
A veto would hold up $90 billion, mostly for transportation improvements. But that’s considered a cheap price to pay for helping Bush secure the Cuban-American vote.
On the other hand, there is good reason to relax travel restrictions. And it’s about more than just being able to peddle produce in the Fidel Castro’s small island nation.
Freedom is an infectious thing, after all. And the more Americans who visit Cuba to spread their infectious ideas, the more it will hasten the inevitable day when the 77-year-old Castro’s iron grip is loosened.
An army of American tourists storming Cuba’s white sandy beaches—bottles of sun tan lotion and portable CD players in hand—will ultimately do more for the cause of liberation than a battalion of Marines storming the beaches in landing craft.
“Unilateral sanctions stop not just the flow of goods, but the flow of ideas,” is the way Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., put it last week. “Ideas of freedom and democracy are the keys to positive change in any nation.”
At the risk of undermining his Florida political base, President Bush ought to let Congress have its way on this one.
Once American tourists and business people establish a beachhead in Havana, democracy will eventually follow.