The Other Travel Ban
Oh, the glories of being a tourist. The long plane rides spent squished in a middle seat; the demeaning airport security checks, the exorbitant baggage fees and bad food. But then there is, of course, the redemption that comes with being reunited with friends and family living abroad, or simply becoming acquainted with new places and sights that provide us with that injection of wonder we seek from time to time to rejuvenate the soul.
Yet for the vast majority of Cubans, leaving their country at all is virtually impossible. Under current regulations, Cubans must obtain a “tarjeta blanca” or exit visa, in order to leave. To get it, applicants must jump though a number of bureaucratic hoops and pay exorbitant fees: a de facto travel ban. Along with preventing ordinary Cubans from simply visiting family in the U.S. or elsewhere, the ban has been used as a political tool to prohibit opposition figures such as Yoani Sanchez or Dr. Oscar Biscet from traveling abroad to accept awards or other honors that confer international recognition and legitimacy on their anti-government positions.
So it is encouraging that the final version of the Lineamientos, Cuba's set of policy reform guidelines, mentions the possibility that Cubans may one day be permitted to travel abroad as tourists. The actual language reads, “Study a policy that facilitates Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists,” (Num. 265). But given the enormity of the injustice that is the de facto ban, this vague statement of intent is hardly satiating to advocates of greater freedom and human rights.
While the Cuban government has for several years hinted it was entertaining such a policy change, ( President Raul Castro said as much back in 2008 shortly after his first formal inaugural address as president), it appears the idea hasn’t progressed much beyond that. Cuba’s incipient reform process has instead been defined by policy changes with comparatively lower political cost/higher economic returns. And if you are calling the shots in Cuba at this critical moment, it’s rather obvious why.
For citizens to enjoy such a fundamental freedom would be completely antithetical to the basic goal of any authoritarian regime: control. The implications would be transformative both for Cuba and the U.S. The exceptional treatment the U.S. affords to Cuban migrants under the Cuban Adjustment Act or “wet foot, dry foot,” would finally be forced to undergo much-needed review. A migration policy that has essentially been defined by domestic politics would be forced to be treated with the seriousness it warrants if the potential migrant flow suddenly increased from a few hundred a year to more than 11 million.
While it is highly unlikely such a dramatic policy change will be introduced in the near future, the door to change is beginning to open in Cuba. As Arturo Lopez-Levy writes in the recently-released New America Foundation Report, Change in Post-Fidel Cuba: political Liberalization, Economic Reform and Lessons for U.S. Policy,
“Although the current phase of party debate is focused on the economic and social dimensions of reform, and while the party would like to prevent the economic changes from producing pressure for a transition to multi-party democracy, it would be naive to assume that these economic changes will not have profound political implications.”