PRESIDENT BUSH, unwilling to tackle the difficult issues between the United States and Cuba, has imposed new restrictions on Americans’ travel to the island. This will do nothing to loosen Fidel Castro’s grip, but it will diminish the contacts that might, in time, lead to better Cuban-American relations.
“I’ve instructed the Department of Homeland Security to increase inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba,” Bush said in a speech this month. But Cuba does not pose a threat of terrorism to the United States. Bush’s speech was a sop to Cuban-Americans in Florida, a likely swing state in the 2004 election, as of course it was in 2000.
The number of people violating travel restrictions is small compared to the thousands of Cuban-Americans who visit the island and who will still be permitted once-a-year trips to help out their relatives. For the last six months, however, the Bush administration has been cutting back on the “people-to-people” tours first allowed by the Clinton administration in 1999. Alumni associations and other groups of like-minded people are now denied an opportunity to interact with Cubans. Some participants, to be sure, were mainly interested in sampling Cuban cigars, but even the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce could not get government approval to go to Havana for its annual city-to-city goodwill mission.
Last month, as it has for two previous years, the House approved a proposal that would effectively allow travel to Cuba by preventing the Treasury Department from enforcing the restrictions. This proposal was pushed forward by a bipartisan coalition led by Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, and William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts. The US Senate has never endorsed an end to travel restrictions, and Bush has promised a veto should that ever reach his desk.
The 227-188 House vote was less decisive than one on a similar proposal last year because of Castro’s crackdown on human rights activists last April. He was trying to disrupt the work of Oswaldo Paya, whose petition calling for human rights and democracy was signed by 14,384 Cubans, an increase of 3,364 over the first campaign last year. Paya presented the petition for consideration by the National Assembly, where it was ignored, but his movement constitutes a powerful challenge that the regime eventually will have to address without resort to police-state tactics.
As with China, engagement is more promising than isolation, which for 44 years has only burnished Castro’s David-vs.-Goliath image. Argentina conceded as much this month when it reestablished full diplomatic relations. If restrictions were ended, some Americans would go to Cuba for the cigars and the beaches, but many others would make contact with Paya or in other ways support the creation of a free society.