November 7, 2003

Commentary:

Keep the barriers against Cuba travel in place

Frank Calzon

A few weeks ago, Cuba’s communist dictator Fidel Castro prohibited Cuban human-rights leader Oswaldo Payá from traveling to Germany to accept an international award. Payá responded by sending a message to the international community: “We have never supported [Cuba’s] isolation, but at this late date it is an insult to be told that foreign tourism and investment can lead to an opening in Cuba.

“Cultural exchanges in Cuba take place under rules set up by a government that in a true apartheid manner excludes, exploits and humiliates the Cuban people. Even if it is not their intention, those who take part in such exchanges help to maintain a government that denies all rights.”

Imagine the despair and sense of betrayal that Payá in Havana and the political dissidents imprisoned in Castro’s dungeons for their efforts to promote democracy will feel as they learn of the recent votes in the U.S. House and Senate prohibiting enforcement of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. Adding insult to injury, the prohibition was attached to a bill that finances much of this country’s anti-terrorism campaign and in disregard of the State Department’s listing of Cuba as a sponsor of international terrorism.

President Bush has said he’ll veto any legislation that weakens U.S. sanctions against Havana. He recently called for more aggressive enforcement of the travel ban, noting that tourist dollars help prop up Castro’s regime.

A House-Senate conference committee is now trying to reconcile differences in the appropriations bill involved. In Washington, some are saying that there is little chance the conference committee will drop the prohibition, and that the president won’t veto an appropriations bill which finances many projects that congressmen want to claim credit for in next year’s election campaigns.

The attached amendments do not abrogate the travel ban. As explained by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., they simply state, “The Office of Foreign Asset Control shall not use funds in this bill to enforce the travel ban with respect to Cuba.” Attaching do-not-spend amendments to appropriation bills is a slovenly way of legislating that, as U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., puts it: “Invite lawlessness! What a slippery slope that is when we begin a process that says the law is the law, but we are not going to allow it to be enforced.”

The right of Americans to travel to Cuba must be weighed against the wisdom and risk of subsidizing an openly venomous, anti-American regime. Not only does Cuba have a record of supporting international terrorists, it currently provides “safe haven” for more than 70 fugitives from American justice, including killers of American police officers.

Those promoting American tourism to Cuba suggest it will promote democracy and break down cultural barriers. But Cubans are already fans of American culture and democracy, and tourists have little opportunity to mingle with ordinary Cubans. That’s because the Castro government sets aside hotels, beaches, restaurants, and hospitals for foreigners. It prohibits Cubans from patronizing businesses and facilities reserved for tourists.

Under such conditions, the money that tourists spend goes directly to government coffers to support the internal apartheid the Castro regime imposes.

The sex trade is a nefarious exception that, according to a March 2002 report by researchers at John Hopkins University, has seen Canadian and American tourists contribute “to a sharp increase in child prostitution and in the exploitation of women in Cuba.” President Bush has denounced this sex trade as “a modern form of slavery that is encouraged by the Cuban government.

“This cruel exploitation of innocent women and children must be exposed and must be ended.”

After the Senate vote Oct. 23, the White House reaffirmed the president’s view that the Cuban-travel ban is “vitally important,” and that “lifting the sanctions now would provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime.” A president is only as good as his word. Neither the House nor the Senate has sufficient votes to override a Bush veto. If the bill that emerges from the House-Senate conference committee still includes amendments prohibiting enforcement of the travel ban, it would be to President Bush’s credit to issue his first veto.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C. www.cubacenter.org

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