Timothy Ashby | Next Year in Havana? Ending the US Travel Ban Should Be First Step in Normalizing Relations With Cuba

Next year will mark a half-century since the Bay of Pigs, the failed assault on Fidel Castro’s young regime in Cuba that helped ignite the long cold war across the Straits of Florida. Although Castro himself has largely disappeared from the public stage, replaced at the helm by his brother Raúl, most Americans still think of Cuba as the dictatorship that time forgot – a poor, sweltering island of rusted 1950s-era automobiles that clings against all sense to the decaying vestiges of Communist orthodoxy.

Maybe once, but no longer. As the U.S. Congress considers legislation that would lift the 50-year-old travel ban to Cuba – permitting all Americans, not just those of Cuban descent, unrestricted travel to the island – Cuba is positioning itself for a Vietnam- or China-style economic leap forward.

Ending travel restrictions – which already enjoys bipartisan support in Congress – would not only stimulate Cuba’s emergent private sector, but would benefit the U.S. at a time when our economy remains clouded by recession and high unemployment. Cuba, a nation of 11 million, is a hugely untapped market as close to the U.S. mainland as New York is to Philadelphia. Although American businesses are largely sidelined from contributing to the development of the Cuban economy, the government there has made some striking changes.

Acknowledging at last the weakness of its economic state-ism, Cuba’s leadership is letting out the reins on private enterprise. The island boasts 4,500 licensed guest houses, many associated with an umbrella organization that facilitates online bookings, and 1,500 private bars and restaurants. Privately owned taxis shuttle customers among them.

The government has turned over land to a quarter of a million farmers, with more expected. Cuban economists and journalists are openly calling for the government to get out of the retail business and leave it to the private sector. Pressure is growing for private ownership of real estate. Cuban authorities have even green-lighted construction of 14 condominium and golf resorts, part of a massive foreign investment to overhaul the island’s tourist infrastructure. This is how confident Cubans are that if the U.S. government allowed unrestricted travel, American tourists would return in droves. They would also find a more hospitable place: policies that once forbade ordinary Cubans from associating with foreigners have disappeared in the last several years.

News reports of coziness between Castro and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez miss some important points about their obviously warm relationship. Cubans may welcome shipments of Venezuelan oil and gas but have shown no desire to be roped into Chavez’s anti-U.S. orbit – something that is even less likely now that Venezuela is facing economic troubles of its own, undone by wild overspending, nationalization of resources and lower oil prices. What’s more, the Cuban government has reportedly counseled Caracas not to make some of the same mistakes it did in the 1960s, such as confiscating private property.

Ending the U.S. travel ban, would not, as some opponents allege, “put dollars in the Castros’ pockets” – instead it would accelerate the broad economic changes afoot in Cuba. And it would be a huge shot-in-the-arm for our own economy. Independent studies estimate that lifting travel restrictions would increase domestic output by between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion annually, and create between 17,000 and 23,000 new jobs – in tourism, but also real estate, retail, food processing, transportation and other sectors.

The same projections see U.S. airlines, cruise ships and tour operators generating more than $522 million from Cuban business the first year, increasing to $1.6 billion by the fifth year, and creating more than 10,000 jobs. An estimated 60 cents out of every dollar spent by Americans in Cuba would end up back in the United States with travel operators and food exporters. Cuba bought nearly $712 million in U.S. food and agricultural products in 2008, a number that is expected to more than double once hungry American visitors descend on the island.

Meanwhile, Congress is deliberating legislation that would permit American companies to drill for oil and gas in Cuban waters. If foreign direct investment restrictions were lifted, some $2 billion to $5 billion in U.S. funds would be allocated to Cuba in the first year.

Economics aside, Americans should have the right to freely travel to Cuba. It is illogical and counterproductive to our foreign policy interests that Americans can visit Iran, Syria and even North Korea – security threats with far worse human rights records than Cuba – but are banned from visiting an impoverished island a stone’s throw from our shores that is eager for normal relations with its neighbor. Repressing the right of Americans to travel where they want is no way to fight charges regarding the absence of liberties in Cuba. If it’s wrong to travel to Cuba because of lack of freedoms there, then Americans also should not be allowed to visit China, Saudi Arabia, Libya and other countries that do not meet our standards.

Of course, ending the travel ban is just a start in normalizing relations between our two countries. American law requires that claims against the Cuban government for American property seized in the 1960s be resolved before full relations can be established. It will be a slow process to unravel the U.S. trade embargo. And Cuba won’t hold democratic elections any time soon.

Polls show that two-thirds of all Americans, and a majority of Cuban-Americans, want an end to the travel ban. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and major human rights groups say ending the travel ban will help the Cuban people. Political dissidents in Cuba want engagement with the United States and the freedom to travel for American citizens. They prefer the approach the U.S. took toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War – encouraging unrestricted travel so that we could best share our ideas, values, and culture.

After half a century, it is time to rethink our policy toward Cuba – starting with an end to the travel ban. We should send our best ambassadors – American citizens – to engage our Cuban neighbors, thus giving America a much better chance of bringing U.S. ideals and perspectives to the Cuban people, as well as hearing the viewpoints of nationals of that country.

COHA Senior Visiting Scholar Timothy Ashby, is also a practicing corporate attorney in Miami. He previously served at the U.S. Commerce Department as Director of the Office of Mexico and the Caribbean and was acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Western Hemisphere. Dr. Ashby, who travels regularly to Cuba, has extensive experience in Latin America.