End an Irrelevant Era: Lift the Cuba Travel Ban

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End an Irrelevant Era: Lift the Cuba Travel Ban

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JoJo Farrell

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed shortly thereafter. The Central American Civil wars are over. The cold war is long dead, yet the United States still enforces a relic of that cold war with an economic embargo against Cuba. With a new administration in the White House ushering in a era of renewed diplomacy and international cooperation, isn’t it about time for the U.S. to do what most other countries around the world have done and normalize relations with its largest Caribbean neighbor? 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Americans defying what is now a half-century-old embargo. In the next few days over 250 Americans are traveling to Cuba. When they return on August 3rd, they will defy the ban on American citizens visiting Cuba. By doing this we all hope to draw attention to what is now an outmoded, outdated and irrelevant blockade of the island nation. We want to convince the Obama administration that now is the time to get rid of the travel ban and embargo. 

During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he was willing to sit down with Cuban leaders without preconditions. Hopes were high for the change that Obama had promised during his campaign for the White House. He has, however, been slow to implement any significant policy shift towards Cuba since taking office, worrying those eager to see a new relationship with the island nation.  

This is why we are challenging federal travel restrictions and protesting the slow pace of change. We are glad that the Obama Administration now allows Cuban Americans to visit their relatives much more easily and send remittances back to Cuba. But what about the rest of us?  

Cuba is often so vilified by politicians and the media in the U.S. that we often forget what it actually has to offer in the way of travel, education and culture. Cuba provides tremendous free medical and other educational opportunities for people from around the world. On a cultural level, Cuban music is one of the most vibrant and innovative forms in the world. Cuba is bursting with history and culture that has been preserved in ways that many other Latin American nations have lost. Finally Cuba can give us some ecological lessons, as it is one of the more innovative and green economies in the world. This policy not only hurts Cubans everyday, it also prevents Americans from better knowing our largest Caribbean neighbor. 

We all had high hopes on January 21, but those hopes are eroding. One of the citizens traveling to Cuba is Diego Iniguez-Lopez a Cuban American who voted for Obama. He said, “I expected him to rescind the excesses of the Bush policies immediately. I applaud the small steps we have seen but he hasn’t gone far enough to address the embargo and how it affects the Cuban people and our ability to travel there.” Iniguez-Lopez has traveled to Cuba legally in the past, but this year he decided to defy the law. 

Pastors for Peace, another group organizing a travel challenge of Cuba, says a full removal of the blockade on Cuba is essential.  “The blockade of Cuba is one of the most nonsensical aspects of U.S. foreign policy,” said Reverend Lucius Walker founder of the Harlem-based IFCO/Pastors for Peace.  “Now that we have a sensible president we have reason to believe that the policies will change-- but we are not waiting for that. We, like all good Americans, are moving ahead with our people-to-people foreign policy between U.S. and Cuba.” This year marks the 20th year that Pastors for Peace have challenged the U.S. embargo by delivering humanitarian aid to Cuba.

Instead of fading away over time various American administrations have strengthened anti-Cuba policies. In 1996 the embargo was strengthened by the Helms-Burton Act, which extended its remit to foreign business.  Penalties can be imposed on other countries that trade with Cuban industries linked to expropriations of former U.S. companies.  “These cold war policies remain in place due to the great influence of the Cuban-exile community in South Florida,” said Bob Guild of Marazul Charters who has helped organize travel to the island for over 30 years. Indeed the Bush administration tightened the screws on Cuba and groups organizing travel to Cuba in the past few years in an effort to curry favor with the Cuban-exiles, without realizing that opposition to the embargo is growing within the Cuban American community.

President Obama isn’t it about time for your administration to take a clear-eyed objective view of U.S. Cuban relations and unilaterally end the travel ban, the embargo and finally normalize relations between the two nations? Isn’t this the change we can believe in and hope for?

JoJo Farrell is the Latin America Fellow for the human rights organization Global Exchange.  He has organized people-to-people exchanges around Latin America and is currently teaching in the New York City public school system

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