By Jane E. Healy
Orlando Sentinel, April 18, 2005
HAVANA—To some, it’s a puzzle to figure out why the Bush administration has tightened travel restrictions to Cuba while at the same time loosened the trade embargo for U.S. agriculture.
But in Cuba, I found the answer crystal clear: The United States is trying to deny Cuba what it wants most. And it believes the tightened travel restrictions will give the U.S. government more leverage in the future—when Fidel Castro no longer is in charge.
This is not to say that the trade embargo is unimportant to Cuba. There are resources such as nickel that the island-nation of 11 million would love to sell to the huge U.S. market. Nickel can be used in a multitude of stainless-steel products. Meanwhile, the United States has quietly allowed agriculture interests to sell some of their products to Cuba.
But interest in opening up trade seems to take a back seat in Cuba to opening up U.S. travel. Loosening travel restrictions for U.S. residents is what Cuba wants most. The trade embargo is secondary. In fact, one Cuban economist said that much of the interest in lifting the embargo has to do with exporting lobster. It’s hard to imagine that change could have much of an impact in either the United States or Cuba, unless we all go on a huge lobster binge.
The United States began severely restricting travel to Cuba in 1962 when it imposed the trade embargo after the Soviet missile crisis. Since then, travel has been limited mostly to journalists, church groups, academics and Cuban-Americans with families on the island.
But last July that changed significantly. Cuban-Americans had been allowed to visit their extended families—including aunts, uncles and cousins—once a year. The Bush administration’s new rules changed that to once every three years and only to immediate family members. Even restrictions on journalists and academics tightened. I—along with Sentinel Publisher Kathleen Waltz and Editor Charlotte Hall—was allowed in because the paper has a news bureau there.
The effect of the latest travel crackdown has been severe. In its first six months, U.S. travel dropped from about 120,000 to 50,000 visitors.
But will this tightening really have the effect the United States is seeking, other than to deny U.S. residents travel to a nearby Caribbean island?
While Cubans clearly want these restrictions eased, there are few signs that they will collapse the Cuban economy and lead to what the United States really wants—the toppling of Castro. What the United States may be ignoring is that politics—not money—always comes first in Cuba.
In the 40-plus years since the U.S. imposed restrictions, Cuba has shown no interest in compromising its communist principles for a stronger economy. Somehow, it continues to survive in spite of the United States. It lost the support of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s but now enjoys a strong relationship with Venezuela.
The latest restrictions just seem to be one more example of a failed U.S. policy.
What the United States also is missing is that Cuban tourism won’t live or die on Americans. Cuba gets more than 2 million tourists a year, mostly from Canada and Europe. So while losing 70,000 Americans hurt, it was not catastrophic and certainly not something that will get Castro to change his ways.
Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are denied a travel opportunity, and Cuban families simply wanting to visit their relatives are hardest hit of all.
U.S. officials seem to think that Cuba could not absorb an influx of U.S. tourists. But the island has plenty of available hotel rooms—42,000, a hefty number. And apparently plenty of vacancies, at least in low season. Orlando, by comparison, has 113,000 hotel rooms for 40 million annual tourists.
And the quality of hotels? While it may be uneven, there are luxury hotels on the island, particularly in Varadero, a sprawling, attractive beach-resort area with 21,000 hotel rooms. Rates are far lower than other Caribbean islands.
If convinced by nothing else, U.S. officials should consider that opening up travel would give Americans a first-hand look at a repressive dictatorship. They would see a nation with no free press and no private property. That would be an education in itself.