By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
A prominent human-rights group Wednesday urged the Bush administration and the Cuban government to lift restrictions on travel that have divided Cuban families and caused “immeasurable” hardship.
In a 69-page report, Human Rights Watch criticized Cuban officials for refusing to allow Cubans to leave the island without government permission and often preventing those who have left from returning. The report described the restrictions as a “powerful tool for controlling” political dissent.
The rights group also took aim at the Bush administration, which in recent years has sharply reduced the number of visits Cubans living in the U.S. can make to their homeland in an effort to deny the Cuban government hard currency and topple President Fidel Castro.
The report said the travel restrictions—along with the 4-decade trade embargo—have failed in their political objective while undermining family unity and trampling on the right of Cuban exiles to return to the country of their birth.
“The U.S. and Cuban travel restrictions reflect an utter disregard for the welfare of families,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Both countries are sacrificing people’s freedom of movement to promote dead-end policies.”
The report’s harsh tone reflects the sharp deterioration in Cuba-U.S. relations.
In addition to the travel restrictions, President Bush has limited the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island while spending millions of taxpayer dollars on programs critics say have failed to help Cuba’s struggling dissident movement.
For their part, Cubans officials have continued an internal crackdown begun in 2003 with the arrests and imprisonments of 75 opposition activists, independent journalists and others. The United States, the 25-member European Union and human-rights groups have condemned the crackdown.
“Every time you think that relations can’t get any worse, they do,” said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group. “It makes you wonder when this is going to hit bottom.”
In its report, Human Rights Watch described a situation in which Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait are being victimized by travel restrictions imposed by opposing governments desperate to gain the upper hand in one of the last Cold War conflicts.
The report said it’s a crime in Cuba for residents to leave the island without government authorization and that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Cubans are denied the right to travel overseas each year. Many who are denied exit permits are health-care professionals.
Cuban authorities regularly prevent the children and other relatives of Cubans who leave illegally from joining them abroad and prevent “deserters” from returning to the island, according to the report.
“The forced separation that results from these travel restrictions can be devastating for families,” the report said.
The report also said the Bush administration’s decision to reduce the number of visits by Cuban-Americans to the island from once yearly to once every three years has damaged ties between Cubans in the U.S. and family memberson the island.
The report called on Cuban and U.S. authorities to ease all travel restrictions.