A Travel Crisis that Shouldn't Go to Waste


Last week thousands of Cuban-Americans, along with a coalition of US groups that advocate a more responsible policy of engagement and dialogue with Cuba, successfully mobilized and dealt the pro-embargo faction a defeat that may be historical. The White House's resistance to Mario Diaz-Balart's amendment, which sought to use the 2012 spending bill as a vehicle to roll US policy on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba back to the Bush era, forced it to be withdrawn.

During the Bush days, thousands of honest Cuban-American citizens and US residents, who pay their taxes and love their adopted country, were forced to violate the law. Cuban-Americans had to go through a third country and lie to the authorities of the democracy in which they live in order to  attend a birthday, a bar-mitzhvah, a christening, a wedding, a funeral or just visit their loved ones. Cuban-American legislators want to send the Cuban-American community, which they supposedly represent, back to that shameful time of constant attacks on American values and frequent violations of Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Diaz-Balart and company do not respect the opinion of the majority. No survey of the Cuban-American community has shown that the majority support limiting their own right to visit their families. Cuban-Americans do not consider it up to the government to decide how often they visit or send money home. But Representatives Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart, Rivera, and Sires along with Senators Menendez and Rubio do not consider the opinion of their constituents to be valid.

Do not waste this Cuban-American crisis.

The crisis caused by the Diaz-Balart amendment paves the way for advances that were unlikely otherwise. It's time to capitalize on the attention generated by the situation to demand travel for all Americans. Cuban-Americans are voting against the travel ban to the rhythm of 400,000 visits to the island per year. If the Cuban-American community is not in favor of limiting their own visits, on what moral grounds or pretext can they ask Washington to limit the rights of the rest of our citizens?

It is also time to rally together the diverse anti-embargo efforts. The Cuban-American defenders of family travel should reciprocate the support for travel shown by several legislators of Midwestern farming states and other representatives such as Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) by offering them Cuban-American support for their interests in streamlining food sales and adding more flights to the island.

The pro-embargo Cuban American right should be made to pay dearly for this failed assault on family travel. The mobilization against the Rubio-Diaz-Balart proposal must continue with donations, however small, letters to editors, articles, blogs, and calls to organizations and politicians who supported the humanitarian agenda in Congress and in the White House.

Obama has crossed a political Rubicon by preventing those Cuban-American legislators who oppose his preference for dialogue and engagement from dictating the bilateral agenda. The White House has directly squared off against the arrogance of the Cuban-American right which seeks to establish itself as the singular voice of all Cubans living in the US. Make no mistake; the pro-embargo faction is at war against Obama.

The president should instruct the Treasury Department to grant more licenses for organized academic, religious and cultural travel. These trips create a "virtuous circle". These travelers encourage openings in Cuba and, upon returning to the US, in most cases, they advocate for full freedom of travel.

The State Department should remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and  begin serious negotiations for the release of subcontractor Alan Gross, who is stuck in a Cuban prison because of the US "anything goes" anti-Cuba policy. This policy does not promote human rights, but rather the property claims of the interventionist Cuban American right wing. It is merely a tool of revenge and corruption. According to a report of the Cuban American National Foundation, quoted by the Miami Herald, "less than 17 % of the $65 million that Washington spend in Cuba programs between 1998 and 2008 went to direct on-island assistance. The rest, it claimed, was spent in the United States on salaries, other expenses and academic studies".

Two to tango:

It is also time to demand that the Cuban government significantly reform its migration policy which is laden with abusive regulations and taxes that hamper Cuban nationals from visiting their country of origin.

With their defense of family visits, thousands of Cuban-Americans have demonstrated a positive attitude towards their country of origin. Many of those who called the White House and the Congress have serious disagreements with the island's political system, but their actions confirm that the gap is growing between the average Cuban-American and the interventionist elite who have wielded control over Miami for decades.

The upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI is a perfect opportunity for thousands of Americans to visit the island (using religious and family related licenses) and reinforce their anti-embargo position. Let's give Mario Díaz-Balart and Marco Rubio exactly what they've asked for: an all out battle for travel rights. The Cuban government should respond to the anti-embargo mobilization that just took place by eliminating or substantially reducing the fees related to visas and passports before the papal visit. Only terrorists and criminals should be prevented from visiting the island during the Pope's visit. The spectacle of thousands of Cuban-Americans travelling to the island some months before the presidential election would make it very difficult for Diaz-Balart and company to continue defending their policy of isolation.

Do not stop now

Obama should respond to Diaz-Balart's fiasco by beginning a rational discussion with the Cuban-American community about American policy toward Cuba. He is now the president of family values and travel rights. The Diaz-Balart attempt against the family travels has given President Obama an opportunity to incorporate into his campaign the new generations of Cuban-Americans, educated in US pragmatism and tolerance, as well as the more recent waves of immigrants who have arrived from the island over the past thirty years. He should not waste it.

Dawn Gable contributed to this article.