Open Letter to U.S. Congress About U.S. Freedom To Travel to Cuba

To: Senator Flake: As an U.S. and Minnesota citizen, I thank you for sponsoring legislation to grant U.S. citizens freedom to travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act). I also thank and copy my Minnesota Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, for joining 52 other senators in co-sponsoring this bill.

To: Representative Mark Sanford: I thank you for sponsoring a similar bill in the House (H.R.351—Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017). I also thank and copy the three Minnesota representatives (Tom Emmer, Erik Paulsen and Rick Nolan) who have joined 21 other representatives in cosponsoring the bill. By copies of this open letter, I urge the other Minnesota representatives (Timothy Walz, Jason Lewis, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Collin Peterson) to join the ranks of cosponsors.

Now is the time to push these bills forward for votes in the two chambers before the Trump Administration comes forward with proposed regulations to implement the President’s intention to eliminate individual person-to-person travel to the island. (A copy of this open letter is also being sent to President Trump.)

In addition to the arguments already advanced for supporting these bills, I submit that the new Trump policy is internally inconsistent for the following reasons:

  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel, by all accounts, will reduce the overall amount of U.S. travel to the island and thereby have substantial negative effects on Cuba’s emerging private sector, which has improved the living standards of many Cubans and is a force for change in Cuba and for friendlier relations with the U.S. Remember that President Trump favors measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
  • Forcing Americans who want to have a person-to-person experience in Cuba to do so only with established tour groups will mean “large tour groups [that] are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their [Cuban] government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others.” This is a direct negative effect on Cubans’ standard of living, which President Trump does not want.
  • According to Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse, “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts.” Again, the Cubans now engaged in these private enterprises will be substantially disadvantaged.
  • The larger groups will by necessity have to stay in hotels, most of which are state-owned, rather than individually owned b&bs, and travel in tour buses (again, state-owned), rather than individually owned taxis. The large-group U.S. visitors also probably will be provided with government-provided guides rather than private guides used by people traveling by themselves or in small groups. All of these consequences are contrary to the President’s intent to stop or limit U.S. persons from doing business with enterprises owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security services.
  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel will increase the cost for Americans’ traveling to the island and thereby reduce the amount of such travel. As a result, the U.S. will lose the impact on Cubans of ordinary Americans, who often are the best ambassadors for the U.S., its government, people and values.

====================================================For more details, see This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017).

This Blogger’s Reactions to President Trump’s Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                                        

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Other posts discussed the reactions to this development in the U.S. and Cuba while this post will set forth this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

Remember that despite all the hostile rhetoric in Trump’s announcement, he made only two changes to be implemented in subsequent regulations: (1) prohibit U.S. business transactions with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security forces; and (2) prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in individual person-to-person travel to Cuba.

As a longstanding advocate for U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, I was dreading the long anticipated announcement of a new Cuba policy direction from the Trump Administration. Thus, I was somewhat relieved that there were only the two previously mentioned specific changes although I was distressed with Trump’s unfortunate resurrection of the rhetoric of the failed U.S. policies from 1959 until the December 17, 2014, announcement of a mutual decision to seek normalization.

Now U.S. citizens who favor normalization and reconciliation need to determine how to go forward. Here are my recommendations for such a strategy.

First, focus on overturning the new ban on individual person-to-person travel. That means supporting S.127– Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act—that is authored by Senator Jeff Flake with 54 cosponsors—and asking the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill as soon as possible. The same should be done for the parallel bill in the House (H.R.351—Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017) authored by Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., S.C.) with 22 cosponsors.

Second, advance the following new argument for such bills. The new Trump policy is internally inconsistent for the following reasons:[1]

  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel, by all accounts, will reduce the overall amount of U.S. travel to the island and thereby have substantial negative effects on Cuba’s emerging private sector, which has improved the living standards of many Cubans and is a force for change in Cuba and for friendlier relations with the U.S. Remember that President Trump and his supporters purportedly favor measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
  • Forcing Americans who want to have a person-to-person experience in Cuba to do so only with established tour groups will mean “large tour groups [that] are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their [Cuban] government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others.” This is a direct negative effect on Cubans’ standard of living, which Trump and his supporters do not want.
  • According to Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse, “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts.” Again, the Cubans now engaged in these private enterprises will be substantially disadvantaged.
  • The larger groups of American visitors will by necessity have to stay in hotels, most of which are state-owned, and travel in tour buses (again, state-owned), contrary to the other policy change announced by Trump.
  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel will increase the cost for Americans’ traveling to the island and thereby reduce the amount of such travel. As a result, the U.S. will lose the impact on Cubans of ordinary Americans, who often are the best ambassadors for the U.S., its government, people and values.

Third, continue to advocate for implementation of other normalization measures—adherence to the many agreements reached between the Obama Administration and Cuba; continued negotiation of the many unresolved issues that have accumulated over the last half century; commencement of international arbitrations over issues the parties cannot resolve by themselves; appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba; and ceasing the inflammatory rhetoric of both sides.

To date, there is a mixed record of the Trump Administration on two of these measures. The head of Cuba’s National Commission on Drugs states that the two countries are still cooperating to intercept drug smugglers while U.S. officials say “day-to-day cooperation on halting U.S.-bound human trafficking and narcotics has improved significantly since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 2015, with the two nations’ coast guards talking directly to each other and cooperating in real time on a regular basis.” On the other hand, the U.S. has halted high-level meetings on stopping the flow of narcotics through the Caribbean and general law-enforcement cooperation.[2]

Fourth, avoid entering into a debate about the recent rhetoric of President Trump or the Cuban Government and its Foreign Minister. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric suggests the possibility of additional reversals of President Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba, and thus we “normalizers” must be ready to combat any such additional reversals.

=====================================

[1] Miroff, Trump’s Cuba policy tries to redefine ‘good’ U.S. tourism. That includes putting visitors back on tour buses, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Kunović, Five things you need to know about Trump’s Cuba policy—and who it will hurt, Wash. Post (June 22, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba Still Cooperating on Stopping Drug Smugglers, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Says Regional Marijuana Liberalization Is Fueling Trafficking, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017).