A group of tourists observe from a yacht (foregound) the sinking of a battle frigate (background) near Havana. Educational study groups are expressing dismay over newly-tightened US travel restrictions to Cuba.(AFP/File/Adalberto Roque)
WASHINGTON (AFP) - Organizers of educational study groups that travel to Cuba are expressing dismay over newly-tightened US restrictions that will soon make it even harder for Americans to travel to the island.
Currently Americans seeking to travel legally to Cuba must do so under the aegis of an educational, humanitarian and religious organization possessing a special license from the Treasury Department (news - web sites).
In March the Bush Administration announced it would not issue new licenses and would not renew the existing licenses to organizations currently authorized to lead such study tours.
Organizers say the exchanges—designed to foster “people-to-people exchanges”—are the latest casualty of worsening relations between Havana and Washington.
“It’s so unfortunate,” said Kirsten Moller, an official with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which arranges study and travel tours to Cuba and other destinations
Under the new rules “75 percent of the people who travel with us will no longer be able to,” said Moller.
Without such contacts “it will be much easier for Americans to demonize Cubans and for Cubans to demonize Americans,” she said. “It’s keeping people and ideas apart.”
Some 100,000 US citizens have traveled legally to Cuba under the educational exchange program since former president Bill Clinton (news - web sites) expanded it in 1999, US officials said.
One US lawmaker announced that he would try to fight the new rules.
“I will be introducing a formal resolution of Congressional disapproval that would altogether undo the new travel restrictions implemented by the administration and reinstate people-to-people exchanges,” said Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, a longtime advocate for freer trade with, and travel to, the communist island.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both the US House and Senate introduced legislation calling for an end to the US-imposed ban on travel by US citizens to Cuba.
The lawmakers said any American ought to be able to travel to Cuba.
“The current policy is a total failure,” said Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, announcing the House version of the bill, called The Export Freedom to Cuba Act.
“If we are serious about bringing democratic reform to Cuba and undermining (Cuban President Fidel) Castro, we need to take a new approach,” he said.
“Right now, Castro has complete control over what Cubans hear and who they meet. By flooding the island with Americans bringing with them American ideals, Castro’s stranglehold on the country will be greatly lessened and Cubans will be exposed to the freedoms they’ve been denied.”
The lawmakers proposed the new legislation one day after the United States expelled 14 Cuban diplomats for alleged spying.
The Bush administration was also mulling diplomatic steps to punish Havana for a recent crackdown on dissidents, but lawmakers called such moves against Cuba counter-productive.
“The incidents of the past two months—the arrests, the executions, even the new travel regulations—demonstrate the truly dangerous conditions under which the Cuban people live,” said Senator Max Baucus, a sponsor of a Senate bill that would enable Americans to freely travel to Cuba.
“They also highlight the dangerous role US policy plays in provoking these conditions. The crisis should serve as a catalyst for a new and genuine debate in Washington over US policy,” the Montana Democrat said.