Fred Burks could have lied, like the more than 20,000 Americans who annually engage in unauthorized travel to Cuba. He didn’t, and his trouble hasn’t stopped. Coming back to the U.S. by way of Mexico, Burks acknowledged that he and his girlfriend had traveled to Cuba. They both like Cuban music and far-flung travel. Burks speaks four languages and has worked on contract for the State Department for years, in recent months translating for President Bush on a trip to Indonesia.
Although the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 does not directly forbid Americans from traveling to Cuba, it does so indirectly. It bans spending money there, which before the law’s passage had been forbidden by executive order. In this election year, the White House has enthusiastically opted to enforce the restrictions as a favor to conservative Cuban-American voters in Florida.
The Bush administration says money spent by American tourists fills Fidel Castro’s coffers, propping up his oppressive regime. However, the administration allows Cuban-Americans to send at least $1 billion annually to their relatives on the island.
Such remittances from the United States are the No.1 source of revenue for Cuba. Leading Cuban democracy activist Oswaldo Paya has welcomed tourists, urging “all foreigners who visit our country to show solidarity, hold demonstrations and speak out for an opening in Cuba.”
Faced with these contradictions, many Americans have shrugged and boarded planes to Havana, often from Canada or Mexico. Out of the 150,000 or so Americans who visit the Caribbean island annually, about 130,000 are authorized by the U.S. government, including Cuban-Americans, journalists, scientific researchers and people in other, often flimsy, special categories.
Burks and his girlfriend got caught and, two years later, the U.S. Treasury Department fined them $7,590 each. Unwilling to continue struggling with government bureaucrats, the woman cut a deal and paid a $1,100 fine. Burks didn’t.
Burks is not alone in wanting to see the 1992 law changed. The House has passed bills to lift the ban on travel four times. The Senate did so once, last year. Business people, academics and tourists argue that the policy is ineffective as well as unfair to U.S. travelers. Cuba’s harsh crackdown on democracy advocates last year understandably slowed pressure to reform U.S. policy. But in the long term, U.S. citizens who travel to the island increase the flow of ideas and democratic influence.
Letting Fred Burks and thousands like him play tourist in Havana may not oust Fidel Castro. But it is certainly more in the spirit of freedom that the United States ought to embody.