Stick to the Facts on the Cuba "Travel Ban"

Wednesday, May 18, 2016
By Mauricio Claver-Carone in The Hill:

Stick to the Facts on the Cuba "Travel Ban"

The Obama Administration is leading a full-scale lobbying effort in the U.S. Congress to lift the so-called “travel ban” to Cuba. If this sounds disingenuous, particularly as Carnival cruises and the Kardashians descend upon Havana -- well, that's because it is.

While supporters of Obama's efforts, led by U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), resort to misleading catch-phrases and philosophical arguments, few stick to the facts. Consider:

• There is no ban on travel to Cuba -- only on transactions with Cuba's military-owned tourism monopolies. The Department of Treasury's responsibility, under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA), is to prohibit or regulate commercial "transactions'' related to tourism, not travel per se.

Travel to Cuba is authorized for a variety of reasons, ranging from educational, religious and family visits to visits in support of civil society. Hundreds of thousands of Americans legally travel to Cuba for these purposes every year.

• Tourism is a main source of income for the Castro regime. Cuba's tourism industry is operated and owned by the Cuban military, the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces ("MINFAR").

According to Hotels Magazine, a leading industry publication, Cuba's MINFAR -- through its subsidiaries -- is by far the largest regional hotel conglomerate in Latin America. It controls more hotel rooms than The Walt Disney Company.

These MINFAR tourism assets are also mostly located on properties stolen without compensation from Americans.

This is the same Cuban military that has recently been caught twice internationally-smuggling heavy weaponry, including the worst sanctions violations ever to North Korea; that oversees the most egregious abuses of human rights in the Western Hemisphere; that allows Russian military intelligence ships to dock in its ports; that has subverted democracy in Venezuela; that shares intelligence with the world's most dangerous anti-American regimes; and of which three senior Cuban military officers remain indicted in the United States for the murder of four Americans.

Just as the U.S. Congress focused sanctions on Iran's petroleum-refining capability, which is that country's foremost source of income, the United States has sanctions against tourism transactions in Cuba to prevent an exponential increase in funds directly to Castro regime's repressive machinery.

It would be much more forthright to label legislation to lift restrictions on tourism to Cuba as the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces Stimulus Act.

• We constantly hear the argument that tourism transactions are permitted with other repressive regimes, such as Iran, Sudan and North Korea, so why not with Cuba? While undoubtedly rich in culture, Tehran, Khartoum and Pyongyang are not appealing tourism destinations or easily accessible to Americans.

Cuba, with its sunny beaches and proximity, is an appealing vacation destination for American tourists, but so, too, are many other Caribbean islands with democratic governments. Should U.S. policy beggar friendly democratic neighbors to court an unfriendly repressive neighbor?

Or here's a novel concept. Why not save American taxpayers money and instead promote tourism to the financially troubled U.S.-territory of Puerto Rico?

• Current U.S. policy toward Cuba has not failed. In order to label a policy as a failure, there needs to be evidence of the success, or likely success, of alternatives.

The fact is that decades of Canadian and European tourism to Cuba -- with over three million visitors per year -- has not eased the Castro regime's repression, improved its respect for basic human rights or helped Cuba's civil society gain any democratic space. To the contrary, it has increased repression and stabilized Castro's regime. Even supporters of lifting tourism sanctions concede this. Senator Flake has himself said that "there are no guarantees that this will bring democracy to Cuba.''

What lifting restrictions on tourism transactions will guarantee is that the Cuban military will double its income. To spend on what? Guns to rein in civil dissent? Technology to further censor Cubans' access to the Internet? Intelligence assets to support anti-American activities?

The question to be answered by Senators Flake, Leahy and other supporters of lifting sanctions is: Do they trust the Cuban military with an exponential rise in income?

The answer leads to only one fact, with real consequences:

For Cubans, the consequence of lifting restrictions on U.S. tourism is more repression; for the United States, it's having financed that repression.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and editor of in Washington, D.C.