If you’re an American citizen, you’ve got one of the most valuable passports in the world. You can travel nearly anywhere, including countries Uncle Sam doesn’t always get along with.
If the local authorities let you get through customs, you can take an excursion to Iran to see Persepolis, the ancient capital city of the Persian Empire. The same goes for a trip to North Korea to see the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which houses the embalmed corpse of Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
But if you want to scuba dive in the coral reefs alongside Cuba’s Varadero Beach, you could face civil penalties, rack up thousands of dollars in fines, and even endure a criminal prosecution once you get home from your vacation.
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In fact, Cuba is the only country in the world where the US government restricts travel.
Travel to Cuba did get easier recently, as part of the thawing of relations announced by President Barack Obama last December.
Under the new regulations, you have to sign an affidavit affirming that your trip fits within the 12 categories deemed to further US humanitarian and policy goals.
These include visits to close relatives, academic and educational programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in public performances or sports competitions.
That sure beats the days when travelers had to go through the cumbersome process of applying for a license from the Treasury Department. But you still can’t go as a tourist, and US authorities can demand proof of the stated purpose of your visit up to five years later.
Cubans and Americans alike would benefit from allowing more US visitors to the island.
The Caribbean nation could use a boost in its tourism business, especially now that Cuba’s key trading partner, Venezuela, is experiencing an economic and political crisis.
And despite 55 years of US attempts to sabotage the island’s socialist experiment, Cubans feel a great affinity towards Americans. They love American jazz, movies, baseball, and Apple computers.
US visitors, meanwhile, adore Cuba’s salsa, cigars, rum, beaches, vintage cars, and — most of all — its outgoing, fun-loving people, highlighted by TV personality Conan O’Brien’s foibles when he taped a special from Cuba earlier this year.
Without a full lifting of the travel restrictions, Americans still can’t join the throngs of Canadians, Europeans, and other vacationers already enjoying Cuban beaches. The prospect of removing the restrictions anytime soon is dim, since Congress’ policies towards Cuba remain mired in the Cold War era.
But change could come from a surprising bipartisan coalition.
The Cuba opening has an unlikely champion in the Senate in Jeff Flake — a conservative, Mormon Republican from Arizona who introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. Liberal Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern — along with another strange bedfellow, Republican Mark Sanford from South Carolina — has introduced an identical bill in the House.
Still, these bills are likely to encounter serious opposition, particularly from lawmakers who insist that tourism would only put more money into the pockets of the Castro-led government, which owns the bulk of the island’s hotels and restaurants.
But tourism also helps spread more money into the general Cuban economy, including the private sector. Private restaurants and homestays are now scattered throughout the island. And greater interaction between Americans and Cubans is positive for the people who live in both countries.
The US government has no business restricting the movement of American citizens. Wading into warm Caribbean water might leave you with a sunburn, but it shouldn’t land you in hot water with Uncle Sam.