Next Year in Havana? Ending the U.S. Travel Ban Should Be First Step in Normalizing Relations with Cuba

Dr. Ashby is a practicing corporate attorney in Miami. He previously served at the Commerce Department as Director of the Office of Mexico and the Caribbean and was acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Western Hemisphere. Dr. Ashby, who travels regularly to Cuba, he is extensively experienced in Latin American affairs.

Next year will mark a half-century since the Bay of Pigs, the failed assault on Fidel Castro’s young Cuban regime that ignited the long cold war with the U.S. Although Fidel himself has largely disappeared from the public stage, replaced at the helm by his brother Raúl, most Americans still think of Cuba as the dictatorship that time forgot – a poor, sweltering island of rusted 1950s-era automobiles that clings against all reason to the decaying vestiges of Communist orthodoxy.

This may have been true once, but no longer. As the U.S. Congress considers legislation that would lift the illogical, counterproductive travel ban to Cuba – permitting all Americans, not just Cuban-Americans, unrestricted travel to the island – Cuba is positioning itself for a China-style economic leap forward.

Ending travel restrictions – which today enjoys more bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress than ever before – would not only stimulate Cuba’s emergent private sector, but would benefit the U.S. at a time when its economy remains clouded by recession and high unemployment. Cuba remains a hugely untapped market of 11 million consumers as close to the U.S. mainland as New York is to Philadelphia. Although American businesses are largely sidelined from contributing to the development of the Cuban economy, Havana has made some striking changes.

At last acknowledging the weakness of its economic state-ism, Cuba’s leadership is loosening the reins on private enterprise. The island now boasts 4,500 licensed guest houses, many associated with an umbrella organization that facilitates online bookings, as well as 1,500 private bars and restaurants. Privately owned taxis shuttle customers among them.

The government has turned over land to a quarter of a million farmers, with more expected. Cuban economists and journalists openly call for the authorities to get out of the retail trade and leave it to the private sector. Pressure is growing for private ownership of some forms of real estate. Cuban authorities reportedly have green-lighted construction of 14 condominium and golf resorts, part of a massive foreign investment to overhaul and expand the island’s tourist infrastructure. This is how confident the Cubans are that if Washington allowed unrestricted travel, American tourists would return in droves. They would also find a more hospitable place: policies that once forbade ordinary Cubans from associating with foreigners have disappeared in the last several years.

News reports of coziness between Castro and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez miss some important points about their obviously warm relationship. Cubans may welcome shipments of Venezuelan oil and gas but have shown no desire to be roped into Chavez’s seamless anti-U.S. orbit, particularly now that Venezuela is facing severe economic troubles of its own, and is being strained by wildly overspending on social programs and by lower oil prices. What’s more, Havana reportedly has counseled Caracas not to make some of the mistakes that it did in the 1960s, such as emphasizing confiscating private property.

Ending the U.S. travel ban, would not, as some opponents crudely allege, “put dollars in the Castros’ pockets.” Instead, Washington should encourage the broad economic changes afoot in today’s Cuba, which would be a huge shot-in-the-arm for this country’s economy. Independent studies estimate that lifting travel restrictions alone would increase domestic output by between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion annually, and create between 17,000 and 23,000 new jobs – yes in tourism, but also in real estate, retail, food processing, transportation and associated sectors.

The same projections see U.S. airlines, cruise ships and tour operators generating more than $522 million from Cuban trade add-ons in the first year alone, increasing to $1.6 billion by the fifth year, and creating more than 10,000 jobs. An estimated 60 cents out of every dollar spent by Americans in Cuba reliably would end up back in the United States with the lives of travel operators and food exporters. Even with Washington doing its best to hobble bilateral trade, Cuba bought nearly $712 million in U.S. food and agricultural products in 2008, which could double once American visitors descend on the island.

Meanwhile, Congress is deliberating legislation that would permit American companies to drill for oil and gas in Cuban waters. If foreign direct investment restrictions were lifted, some $2 billion to $5 billion in U.S. funds would be allocated to Cuba investment in the first year, which could bring handsome returns.
Economics aside, Americans should have the right to freely travel to Cuba. It is illogical and counterproductive to our foreign policy interests that Americans can visit Iran, Syria and even North Korea – security threats with far more blemished human rights records than Cuba – but are banned from visiting a neighbor eager for normal relations. If it’s wrong to travel to Cuba because of the purported lack of freedoms there, then Americans also should be barred from visiting China, Saudi Arabia and Libya, amongst others not meeting our standards.

Of course, ending the travel ban is just a start in rehabilitating relations between our two countries. American law requires that claims against Havana for 1960’s-era U.S.-owned property that was seized, must be resolved before full relations can be re-established. It also will be a slow process to unravel the trade embargo if the U.S. continues to insist that Havana stage U.S. style elections any time soon.

But polls show that two-thirds of all Americans, and a majority of Cuban-Americans, want an end to the travel ban. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and major human rights groups are now saying that ending the travel ban will benefit the Cuban people and serve their humanitarian needs. Political dissidents in Cuba want engagement with the United States and the freedom to travel for American citizens. They prefer the approach the U.S. took toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War – encouraging unrestricted travel so that we could best project our ideas, values, and culture.

After half a century, it is time to rethink our policy toward Cuba – starting with an end to the travel ban. We should send our best ambassadors – American citizens – to engage our Cuban neighbors, thus giving the former the opportunity of bringing their ideals and perspectives to the islanders, as well as hearing the heartfelt viewpoints of that country’s nationals in return.

6 thoughts on “Next Year in Havana? Ending the U.S. Travel Ban Should Be First Step in Normalizing Relations with Cuba

  • February 3, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    If by "democratic elections" Ashby means elections in which foreign governments are allowed to influence the outcome by pouring millions of dollars into backing Cuban candidates that oppose the revolutionary project, it is probably true that that is a long way off. Why would the vast majority of Cuban people want that, after all? Many of us in this country are facing this prospect with little enthusiasm, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling.
    If, however, Ashby means to suggest that the Cubans do not now have elections that are at least as "democratic" as elections in the U.S., he's showing his ignorance of the democratic process currently in place in Cuba. It seems to be possible to "travel regularly to Cuba" without understanding much about the political system there.
    As for American citizens being "our best ambassadors" I can only wonder where these great ambassadors are hiding. I regularly see dollar tourists in Latin America, but I can't say they strike me as good ambassadors.

  • February 4, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I want to join Ana J's comment! My husband and I visited Cuba in 1995 for the first time coming from Germany. It was within the worst time of the "special period" yet, after the collaps of the Soviet Union. … Nevertheless, we found another country, different from what we were told at home by our medias. There was no police forbidding us to talk with Cuban inhabitants. All people we met were hospitable, intelligent and aware of their current situation.
    in 1998 we realized growing economy, and from year to year the situation of the people improved significantly.
    There are free election, much more democratical than even in Germany! Please read the Canadian author, Arnold August, who shared them twice and wrote books about them.
    However, beside of the blockade there wore terror attacks against Cuba and Cuban Hotels and Restaurantans carried out by exile Cubans from Miami.
    Those "Cuban Five" being improned in the US until now for preventing more than 170 of them should be release at the first step, not ill then you can talk about improving realtions between US and Cuba, I think..

  • February 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Sorry for my writing mistakes above, I was in a hurry.
    Referring to the "American ideals" mentioned in the article, they doesn't seem to be effective in US foreign policy:
    In 1979 professor of finance Edward Herman and professor of linguistic Noam Chomsky wrote the book, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I, and Manufacturing Consent: [this book wasn't printed, it was forbidden in the "land of the free"] The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
    “Chomsky and Herman cite official statements by State Department planner George Kennan, to illustrate the mindset behind US policy in Latin America and around the world. In 1948, Kennan wrote Policy Planning Study 23, stating that if the U.S. wanted to maintain (and expand) its position of world dominance, it could not truly respect human rights and democracy abroad. The document said:
    We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only about 6 percent of its population…In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity…To do so we will have to dispense with sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization.
    Kennan elaborated on this concept in a 1950 briefing of U.S. ambassadors to Latin American countries. Of prime importance was to prevent the spreading of the idea “that governments are responsible for the well being of their people.” To combat the proliferation of this idea, Kennan argued that “we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government…It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal one if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communist.” (1)
    That concept seems to dominate the USA until now, it puts ideas across why they are resenting Cuba its pioneering task in the matter of independence within their back yard, and why they don’t be afraid of hidden wars carried out by therefore educated terrorists such as Orlando Bosch Ávila and Luis Posada Carriles.
    (1) s., Hans Bennet,… ;
    Because of the "Cuban Five", please visit .

  • February 4, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    US wants to make "peace" with Cuba???……….LOL, US wants the OIL from Cuba.

    Any time anyone tells you "For your convenience" you better check your wallet to see if you still have it.

  • February 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Cuba's oil is not the greatest prize. Most of it is located off-shore and is sulfur heavy, making it more costly to refine. But, I would rather have US Companies invest in the Cuban energy sector rather than having the Chinese, Venezuelans, or some other nation drilling less than a hundred miles from our shores. The Cubans have installed hundreds of diesel generators to increase their electric power capacity since 2005. Most of those generators came from Europe or Asia. US Companies would have been the logical choice to supply the generators if the embargo was not in place. There is no doubt that lifting of the travel ban will have benefits for both the US and Cuban people, but in my opinion, this will also have a negative effect on tourism for the rest of the Caribbean region, decreasing revenue for some locations. The initial influx of American tourists will be overwhelming, given the fact that it will be such a new experience for most. In the end it will be well worth the time we have invested in lifting the travel ban.

  • June 21, 2010 at 12:48 am

    Dr. Ashby I agree that the U.S. embargo should have been lifted years ago. As an American citizen, I don"t want my Government restricting my freedom- like the Government of Cuba does.
    Our embargo has done nothing more than give the Castro brothers a handy excuse for 50 yrs. of failure. I am pleased to see Fidel now agrees with me, and understands Communism does not work.
    As to Cuba holding free and fair elections, that is intellectual dishonesty of the first order. To compare them with elections in the U.S. is absolute nonsense.
    I have never heard of a raft being built in Florida to float to Cuba.
    Fidel Castro has turned Cuba into a beggar nation that has oppressed it"s own people, and if it were not for decades of being kept afloat by the Soviet Union- which eventually imploded under the weight of it"s failed economic system and brutal imperialism- and now by billions in aid from Venezuela, Fidel would have been pushed aside by his own people.
    You are clearly aware of what Chavez has done to the economy of Venezuela. When he came to power 11 yrs.ago, Venezuela had the highest per capita income in Latin America.
    And today? Inflation has averaged 30% since Dec. 2009, he has had to devalue the Bolivar by 50%, rolling blackouts along with increasing shortages of potable water, and in the last 6 months, Venezuelas economy has contracted by 12%.
    Venezuela is in the middle of an extreme food crisis since the government has destroyed Venezuela"s agriculture and taken over the food distribution in the country. Chavez is on the same road that Castro took in Cuba, and he will end up with the same result.
    History has shown over and over again that centrally planned economies controlled by the Government have never worked. They have only destroyed the freedom of their citizens.


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