Why Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba Now?

Waves of Canadian, European and Latin American visitors haven't changed a thing.


WSJ JUNE 28, 2010


Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Honduran Supreme Court's decision to order the arrest of Manuel Zelaya, a power-hungry Hugo Chávez acolyte who tried to remain president for life. It's something to celebrate: Thanks to the bravery of the court and the Congress, which voted to remove him from office, democracy was saved.

Yet a nagging question remains: Why were the Obama administration and key congressional Democrats obsessed, for seven months, with trying to force Honduras to take Mr. Zelaya back? Why did the U.S. pull visas, deny aid, and lead an international campaign to isolate the tiny Central American democracy? To paraphrase many Americans who wrote to me during the stand-off: "Whose side are these guys on anyway?"

Such doubts about the motivations of the party in power in Washington will be hard to ignore this week as the Democrats try to put U.S. Cuba policy back on the legislative agenda. Specifically, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson will try to pass a bill in the House Agriculture Committee that would lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba without any human-rights concession from Castro.

The end of the Cuba travel ban would mean a bonanza in tourism to the island at a time when Fidel and Raúl are in desperate need of new revenue. But the push to lift the ban has anti-Castro supporters too. They argue that it is isolation that preserves the dictatorship and that a barrage of gringo tourists would weaken the dictatorship.

Proponents of the ban point out that a wave of European, Canadian and Latin American visitors since the mid-1990s hasn't changed a thing. They worry that American sun-seekers will only prop up a dictatorship that is most famous for slave labor, jailing dissidents and sowing revolution in the hemisphere.

With so much risk involved, any policy change will depend heavily on being able to trust the motives of U.S. leaders. Recall that it was Nixon who went to China. That's why efforts to change policy that are being led by the current crop of Democrats make so many Americans uneasy. After all, if Mr. Peterson wants to boost commerce why not push for passage of the Colombia free trade agreement? Why is he so interested in doing business with a dictator?

The dictatorship is hard up for hard currency. The regime now relies heavily on such measures as sending Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for marked-down oil. But according to a recent Associated Press story, "Cuba's foreign trade plunged by more than a third in 2009," perhaps because Caracas, running out of money itself, is no longer a reliable sugar daddy. A sharp drop in nickel prices hasn't helped, and neither did three hurricanes in 2008, which devastated housing.

Cuba owes sovereign lenders billions of dollars, according to the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, and according to a June 23 Reuters report, it is so cash-strapped that it had "froze[n] up to $1 billion in the accounts of 600 foreign suppliers by the start of 2009."

Now there is a serious food shortage. This month the independent media in Cuba reported that a scarcity of rice had the government so worried about civil unrest that it had to send police to accompany deliveries to shops.

This has the regime scrambling. Several sources reported to me that the Roman Catholic cardinal from Havana, Jaime Ortega, was on a secretive trip to Washington last week to lobby for an end to the travel ban. One of his meetings was rumored to be with the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela. The State Department declined to tell me if this was true or not.

Other sources said that the cardinal reached out to members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman and his staffer Peter Quilter. I queried Mr. Berman's office but got no reply. Regular readers of this column know Mr. Quilter's politics. As I reported in April, he traveled with Sen. John Kerry's staffer Fulton Armstrong to Tegucigalpa to warn Hondurans who backed the removal of Mr. Zelaya that they are still in the doghouse.

While Castro relies on the embargo to explain Cuban poverty, he does, it seems, badly need gringo tourism, which he could control. And if Cardinal Ortega has decided to intervene on behalf of the regime's needs, it would not be surprising. He has long been viewed by human-rights advocates—such as former political prisoner Armando Valladares, a practicing Catholic—as more a tool of the regime than a champion of the oppressed. A kinder assessment of the cardinal suggests that he's trying to boost the Church's power on the island. In either case, acting as an emissary to Washington right now would make sense.


But for those interested in Cuban freedom it is bizarre. For the first time in history the Castros are cornered. Yet rather then negotiate from a position of strength, Democrats seem to want to give relief to the dictatorship.


Write to O'Grady@wsj.com

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A19