During a speech in Miami to the conservative Cuban American National Foundation on May 23, 2008, candidate Obama boldly told the virulent anti-Havana group that he would almost immediately resolve travel restrictions that had been placed by a Bush administration hand-chosen group, the anti-Castro Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, immediately prior to the 2004 election.
Obama’s speech foreshadowed the first major switch in White House strategy towards American travel to Cuba since former President Bush had announced new restrictions in a speech he delivered in 2004. At the time, Bush insisted that he would “prevent the [Castro] regime from exploiting hard currency of tourists and remittances to Cubans to prop up their repressive regime.” In delivering his speech, Bush held to the thinking of the majority of Florida’s hard-line Cuban American constituency, that American travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island would in fact fuel the Castro regime. As time passed, many exiles no longer had close ties with those they had left behind on the island. They therefore were growing somewhat removed from the reality faced by a new group of recently arrived Cuban refugees to the U.S., who still retained strong family ties to the island, and who now make up the majority component of Florida’s Cuban population.
Another marked difference between 2004 and today was the unrest prevalent in Miami’s Cuban-American population at the time after Janet Reno, the Attorney General under President Bill Clinton, favored the father, an island resident, in the handling of the Elian Gonzalez custody case. According to resident headlines, the saga of Elian displayed an unwillingness by the Democrats to stand up to Castro by insisting that Elian should be sent back to Cuba to live with his father after his mother drowned trying to bring her son to the U.S., where they planned to live with relatives. A segment of the Miami Cuban-American population was outraged by Reno’s actions, with this event helping to tip the scale in favor of Bush and his anti-Castro platform in the 2000 election.
The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
When Bush stood for re-election in 2004, he was swamped with support from enthusiastic Miami embargo-backers, which proved to be decisive for his victory. At the time, Bush had little to lose politically from tightening the U.S. barrier around the island and had no problem in persuading himself to believe that the Castro regime, which already had outlasted ten U.S. presidents, could be unhinged. All that was needed for it to be toppled over was a final bump from Washington. With these self-deluding circumstances in place, Bush formed the anti-Castro Cuban exile-dominated Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, to achieve “an expeditious end of the dictatorship.”
The ill-fated project was led by Colin Powell and produced a 500-page report detailing the steps it deemed necessary for the U.S. to take in order to accelerate the demise of the Castro regime. Needless to say, this document was not a best seller. One of the steps which the commission outlined was to limit Cuban-Americans from traveling to the island to only one trip every three years, and qualified that they only could visit immediate family members, as opposed to the former regulations which allowed annual visits that could encompass a larger category of relatives.
What the Bush administration seemed to have in mind was that the restriction would only be used to ensure that this right to travel would be limited to family emergencies, but it turned out to be not broad enough for people who had children and elderly relatives still living on the island.
Throughout his tenure in office, Bush policy makers also tried to revive a series of nettlesome anti-Cuba policies, yet today a Castro still holds power on the island, making Obama the eleventh U.S. president forced to engage in adversarial relations with the communist country. Looking at it another way, Washington’s policies of attempting to isolate Havana diplomatically and asphyxiating it economically have left the U.S. not only bereft of diplomatic victories, but also saddled with repeated diplomatic setbacks in its completely botched effort to isolate Cuba.
The augmented harsh regulations Bush introduced in 2004 against Cuba suffered several reverses almost immediately. Also, some of the provisions restricting travel were poorly thought through. They did add to the island’s hardships but their implementation also helped to discredit the merit of White House diplomacy. They were supposed to take effect shortly after the commission was created, but the White House was forced to grant a special waiver authorizing a one month reprieve to accommodate Americans who already had made plans to travel to Cuba, or who were already there.
This short grace period created an instant stampede of those anxious to complete travel plans to visit their families, which was not what Bush had in mind. On the last day of the month, sixteen planes were boarded and ready to make the trip to Havana, but shortly before their scheduled take-offs the State Department ruled that the last-minute purchase of tickets had been unauthorized. The consequence was that eleven of the planes left the U.S. without passengers.
The old travel restriction issued by the State Department allowed for students on scholarship to visit and live in Cuba during their studies. However, Bush’s new policies did not allow for any academic travel to the island. When the new legislation took effect, eighty underprivileged U.S. medical students were attending school in Cuba funded completely by the Cuban government, including housing and living expenses. After two dozen Black and Latino members of Congress berated the White House for devising policies that would force the students to terminate their studies, then Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a special reprieve to go into operation after the original month grace period had expired. Both of these examples demonstrate that the Bush administration, to its embarrassment, was unprepared to deal with the consequences of its own hastily conceived regulations.
Prompting no little measure of surprise, travel restrictions to Cuba became a central component of Florida’s 2008 presidential campaign. Polls of the local Cuban American community have highlighted a dramatically changing attitude toward engaging with the island, especially regarding travel provisions. An April 2007 report issued by Florida International University (FIU) found that 55.2 percent of Cuban Americans said they favored “unrestricted” travel to Cuba for all Americans and 64 percent wanted a return to pre-2004 rules, which permitted one trip per year. These findings contrast with those of three years ago when 53.7 percent of the cohort said it was opposed to “unrestricted” travel. The older anti-Castro generation of Cubans who immigrated to the U.S. after the 1959 revolution, no longer comprise a majority of that highly charged ideological group, which today is reflected in the eight seats it holds in the Congress. U.S. voters as a whole echo these views, according to a Zogby poll released in October 2008. In the poll, 68 percent of Cuban-American voters believe U.S. nationals should be allowed to travel to Cuba.
The 2007 FIU poll shows a direct positive correlation between the views of recently arrived Cuban Americans regarding the matter of unrestricted travel and terminating the embargo. Therefore, it can be noted that the more time that passes from when the revolution occurred, the more likely the majority of the surveyed Cuban-American population favors entertaining the more traditional routes for U.S. diplomacy towards Cuba. However, one thing that many Cuban Americans are wary over is removing all immigration restrictions, which might work against new immigrants seeking asylum in this country.
Time for a New Beginning
At the present time, 99 percent of Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba, and those who do must be visiting immediate family members in the country. Even so, they still face additional and severe restrictions. Obama recognizes that Americans are ready for a change. The existing restrictions force recently-arrived Cuban American immigrants to choose between missing major family milestones and searching to find ways around the law, which promotes a lack of respect for this country’s legal proceedings. Currently, more than 120,000 Cubans travel back to the island annually, many illegally through third countries. The more stringent restrictions announced by Bush certainly has not had the desired effect of ending or even undermining the Castro regime.
Sgt. Carlos Lazo, who was prevented from visiting his two sons in Cuba during his two-week break from fighting in Iraq as a result of the Bush White House’s new restrictions, has been lobbying to remove travel restrictions since 2004. He welcomes Obama’s promise of a “policy toward Cuba…guided by one word: ‘libertad.'” Past restrictions have proven ineffective in creating change in Havana and with the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and Raul Castro’s strong recent backing of Obama on January 21- calling him a “good man”-it may be time to revisit and then void an increasingly irrelevant stand on Cuba. By deferring to new ideas and new leadership in the matter of trade and remittances, Washington will be able to find a new compass to steer by in its relations with Havana, beginning with a loosening of restrictions on travel as the first of a number of moves on a new, long awaited and sensible initiative.