On the eve of Congressional consideration of amendments affecting U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, the State Department has released a 20-page “white paper” to bolster its point of view. The paper may well reveal the Administration’s real reason for wanting to deny Americans the right to travel freely to Cuba: it does not want Americans to see how distorted is their own government’s presentation of Cuban reality.
The paper warns that “Americans [sic] travel abroad can have significant foreign policy and national security implications and can damage the national interest.” It does not explain why travel is not restricted to countries that pose significant security risks, such as China or Iran.
Instead, the paper argues that tourism “props up the Castro government,” but “if U.S. tourists could stay where they liked, and had real contact with average Cubans, it might be different.” Supposedly because a state travel agency books hotel reservations, “virtually every tourist booking is under government control, and most tourists are effectively confined to a few tourist ghettoes.” President Bush, at a May 20 rally in Miami, said that trade with Cuba “would do nothing more than line the pockets of Fidel Castro and his cronies.”
None of these claims are true.
Visitors to Cuba can and do book their hotel reservations in the location of their choice. American travel agencies that serve licensed travelers offer a wide variety of hotels in various locations. European and American visitors also stay in private homes, taking advantage of a form of entrepreneurship that has been legal in Cuba since 1994.
Visitors are not restricted to “tourist ghettoes” without “real contact with average Cubans.” They circulate freely in Havana and other cities; they rent cars and travel through the countryside. Simple observation shows tourists meeting “average Cubans” in a variety of settings.
Visitors also benefit the Cuban people financially. In addition to renting rooms in private homes, they use private taxis, eat in private restaurants, buy art, and otherwise use the services of Cuba’s 150,000 legal entrepreneurs. It bears noting that the Administration proposes to provide taxpayer money to organizations in the United States to promote “entrepreneurial activities” in Cuba; yet it denies that foreign visitors benefit this sector today and that greater numbers of visitors would make this sector expand. Moreover, while supporting grants of tax dollars to promote this sector, it opposes a simple measure (ending the travel ban) that would help Cuban entrepreneurs by boosting their revenues.
Tourism is Cuba’s top foreign exchange earner, so it is true that tourism provides revenues to state enterprises. Yet the claim that tourism “props up the Castro government” is unfounded. Even with today’s economic troubles, the Cuban government is not on the brink of collapse, nor was it visibly threatened during the horrific economic crisis of 1992-1993. Factors other than government revenue explain its longevity.
Trade and the Cuban economy
The paper belittles the importance of recent agricultural sales to Cuba, even if these sales were to reach $400 million annually, which is a curious statement from an Administration that says it wants to promote exports. The paper refers to “$35 or $40 million in purchases” when $101 million in sales have in fact been delivered or contracted since last fall. They say these purchases are a “political gesture,” which may be true, but they are also saving money for Cuba and increasing the quality of food supply.
To discourage trade, the paper says that Cuba is guided by “economic nationalism defined by hostility to the U.S.” It claims that Cuba might demand restoration of its 1958 sugar quota, a demand that Washington is free to reject, and that is in any event unlikely as Cuba downsizes its sugar sector. It says that trade would “write-off the concerns” of Americans whose properties in Cuba were expropriated. In fact, like its predecessors, the Administration has done nothing to seek redress of these claims, an action that could be taken independently of any decision on trade.
Last year, President Bush said:
Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative….When we negotiate for open markets, we are providing new hope for the world’s poor. And when we promote open trade, we are promoting political freedom. Societies that open to commerce across their borders will open to democracy within their borders, not always immediately, and not always smoothly, but in good time.
The white paper’s most glaring omission is that it doesn’t admit that American travel and commerce would bring any flow of information, ideas, or influence to Cuba. If the “moral imperative” of trade applies to the world at large, why does it apply not at all to Cuba?
— Philip Peters, a State Department official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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