For over 20 years, you have been denied the right to travel freely to a country less than 100 miles from our borders. Americans know little of this country and what information is publicly disseminated is often done so with the goal of painting its government in an ugly light. Having traveled to that country this past summer, I can report that the reality of Cuba is much more complex than the stereotypes spoon fed us by the popular media. By banning travel to Cuba, our government is denying us access to its gracious people, exciting music, and beautiful vistas.
Perhaps more importantly, Cuba offers innovative ideas on how to improve how we structure services and how we make and deliver goods in our economy. For example, approximately a third of Somerville High School students could not meet MCAS English test standards in 2008. Cuba, which has the highest literacy rate in the world according to the United Nations, might have some lessons to teach us about how to model our educational system. (Even the CIA acknowledges that Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States.) And while we’re struggling with reforming our health care system, wouldn’t it make sense for Americans to be able to go to Cuba to see how theirs, which provides free care to all, offers free medical school in geographically dispersed locations, and has one doctor per every 20 people, practically operates?
The embargo against Cuba began some years after the Cuban people threw out the vicious General Batista, who in cahoots with the Mafia and American corporate conglomerates, had robbed the country’s wealth and left the majority of the island’s population in extreme poverty. In 1961, an embargo was imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA). The TWEA prohibits any type of trade or financial transaction, including those related to travel, in times of war or when a national emergency has been declared in relation to a specific country. In practice, these prohibitions impose a ban on among other things, travel to and from Cuba. TWEA was amended in 1977, but Congress permitted the temporary continuation of presidential authority to maintain economic sanctions on countries as a result of a “national emergency” declared by the President before July 1977. The amendment also allowed the President to extend the restrictions for one-year periods “upon a determination for each such extension that the exercise of such authorities…is in the national interest of the United States.” Cuba is the only country that faces economic and trade sanctions from the USA under TWEA. While family members may travel to Cuba, other people may not. In September 2009, President Barack Obama faces the option of issuing a determination that would continue the “national emergency” for another year under the TWEA with respect to Cuba or simply letting it expire.
Many voices have been raised calling for an end to the embargo, calling it inhumane and ineffective. Amnesty International issued a report this month calling for an end to the embargo saying that U.S. sanctions “are particularly affecting Cubans’ access to medicines and medical technologies and endangering the health of millions.” While both food and medical imports from the United States are permitted, according to Amnesty, Cuba purchased only $710 million in agricultural products and only $1.2 million in medical products last year. It blames the low level of medical imports on a U.S. requirement that vendors monitor the end use of their products. Even the ultra-conservative CATO Institute supports ending the embargo. General James T. Hill, a U.S. Army Retired Four Star General, and former Combatant Commander of U.S. Southern Command, has argued that engagement with Cuba would provide the island with an important alternative to Venezuelan and Russian influence. A secondary reason to lift the travel ban is that its enforcement wastes U.S. tax dollars. In a 2008 report, the GAO found that after 2001, OFAC opened more investigations and imposed more penalties for embargo violations, such as buying Cuban cigars, than for violations of other sanctions, such as those on Iran, which are more likely to constitute security threats.
A bill to end the travel restrictions to Cuba has been introduced by Massachusetts Rep. William Delahunt: “H.R. 874, “To allow travel between the United States and Cuba.” It calls for lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans, restoring our right as citizens of the United States to travel freely. Human rights organizations are asking people to call Congress, particularly by Wednesday, September 30, to ask them to support H.R. 874.
Your congressperson’s office, including that of Rep. Capuano, can be reached through the Capital Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or you can find your representative’s information at www.congress.org. You can also email Rep. Capuano by going to his official website: http://www.house.gov/capuano/contact/email.shtml .