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

By: COHA Visiting Senior Scholar Timothy Ashby, PhD.

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.