No more delay in non-tourist travel to Cuba!
“With all that is at stake today, we cannot afford to talk past one another. We can’t afford to allow old differences to prevent us from making progress in areas of common concern. We can’t afford to let walls of mistrust stand. Instead, we have to find – and build on – our mutual interests. For it is only when people come together, and seek common ground, that some of that mistrust can begin to fade. And that is where progress begins.”
President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, Saturday, April 11, 2009
While Congress can end all restrictions on travel to Cuba, the President has complete authority to allow a wide range of non-tourist travel. The White House planned to do so when it announced unlimited family visits for Cuban Americans on April 13, 2009. However, it withdrew the language after vociferous protest from Senator Robert Menendez (D, NJ).
The rationale was presumably to make a significant reform in line with Obama campaign pledges while provoking only pro-forma objections. The favorable experience of this uncontroversial action creates a precedent for inclusion now of other legal forms of non-tourist travel.
The one year anniversary is the appropriate time for the President to finish the job by allowing unlimited travel for educational, cultural, humanitarian, religious, sports and other people-to-people purposes. Send your message to www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ope/contact/
By acting now, President Obama can reverse the backwards slide of US-Cuba relations!
Why this? Why now?
1) The President sends a signal and sets a precedent that legitimates and is an essential boost to Congress passing freedom to travel legislation.
2) If the legislation is not adopted this year, renewed engagement of opinion leaders and trend setters will energize an effective new constituency to support passage next year.
3) Non-tourist visits are a soft opening for unrestricted travel, renewing links and relationships between American agents, service providers and tour operators with Cuban counterparts.
4) There is insignificant economic impact in Cuba, forestalling the biggest objection of opponents. In 2003 only 85,000 Americans participated before President Bush changed the rules, a drop in the bucket of 2.4 million foreign visitors last year, among them over 250,000 Cuban Americans.
5) Official and unofficial exchanges between influential Americans and Cubans are essential components of mutual understanding, respect and confidence creation.
6) Educational familiarization visits by people from US non-governmental organizations, schools, universities, foundations, music, the arts, environmentalists, religious groups, civil society, professional associations, and businesses, including from the travel industry, lay the practical groundwork and provide motivation for both sides to work for normal relations.
7) Opening this door is an act of nation-to-nation and hemispheric trust building that shows Cuba and our neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean that the Obama Administration is taking the serious initiatives that lie within its power to break the tired negative spiral of offenses and recriminations.
In addition to the symbolism of the one year anniversary, quick action is required if US educational institutions are to restore short term student programs for the coming academic year. This step also improves the regional atmosphere in the run-up to the 40th OAS assembly in Lima in June.
In order to relieve the administrative burden on sponsoring institutions and on the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of the Treasury, implementation ought to be modeled on the policy with Cuban Americans and representatives of agricultural exporters. An executive order can provide general licenses for all IRS recognized not-for-profit organizations to undertake non-tourist travel covered by existing statute. A requirement of simple pre and post travel notification to the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs will allow reasonable protection against inappropriate use of licenses and a means of gauging the range and impact of nation-to-nation interaction.
Broad based nationwide exchanges will also be advanced by ending the near monopoly granted to 191 licensed Travel Service Providers. If all US travel agencies and tour operators are able to book air tickets and accommodations for legally authorized travelers, they will gain valuable experience for the time when regular tourism is permitted.
Consistent with the goal of fostering greater contact, Bush Administration language must be removed from OFAC regulations that prevents US citizens from attending most conferences in Cuba, and from organizing professional and shared interest events there with both American and Cuban participation.
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
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