Cuba Travel Ban: Is the End in Sight?


Luisita Lopez Torregrosa

Over a year ago, in a gesture of conciliation, President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to visit their relatives on the island. Havana lovers, tourists and travel agents looking for fresh markets jumped for joy. Soon we would all be planning holidays in Varadero and Cayo Coco.

Well, if there was ever a thaw, it iced over pretty fast.

Relations between Havana and Washington seemed to have regressed in the past year. Cuba has fallen off the political radar and off the news, not that it was ever a Top 10 item for an Obama administration that has much bigger targets on its wish list.

But quietly, without fanfare, there's been some tilting toward lifting the travel ban entirely and hints that some substantive talks may be going on between the two countries. Little-publicized meetings have taken place in the past few months between high-level officials while working-level talks are continuing on such safe issues as direct-mail service, dealing with hurricanes, fighting drug smuggling and the Gulf oil spill disaster that might spread to the beaches of Cuba's northern coast.

At the same time, both chambers of Congress are seriously considering bipartisan legislation to end the travel ban and loosen some embargo restrictions. But high hopes on anything having to do with Cuba have often been dashed in past decades, so sponsors of the legislation are not making too much noise.

In the Senate, Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who announced he will not run for another term, has been a vigorous champion of the bill and said recently it could pass this year. The measure (S428), which Dorgan and Republican Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming introduced in March 2009, has wide support from a variety of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Human Rights Watch.

The tourism industry – hoteliers, cruise lines, tour operators, charter companies, travel agencies -- has long been clamoring for an end to the ban, enacted along with a partial trade embargo in October 1960, after Cuba expropriated American properties on the island. Known as el bloqueo in Cuba, the ban restricts Americans from doing business in or with Cuba, although thousands make the trip illegally every year by way of Mexico, Canada or the Bahamas.

As far back as 2005, when I went to Cuba on assignment, every major hotel and cruise operator admitted they could not wait to plant their flag in Cuba. Some envisioned resorts, daily ferries from Miami, cruises, and restored hotels in Old Havana.

Everyone I interviewed saw the travel ban as a relic of a long dead past while in Havana, where tourism development is a priority, government officials told me they wanted Americans back, the sooner the better for their coffers.

"There are the votes to pass in the Senate,'' Dorgan's communications director, Justin Kitsch, told me recently. That means they have at least 60 votes, what's needed to stop any sort of filibuster. But first the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will have to schedule hearings. The committee's spokesman, Frederick Jones, declined to say earlier this week when that might happen.

In the House, the Agriculture Committee has paired the end-the-ban bill with an easing of restrictions on American farm exports to Cuba. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the committee chairman, expects the bill to pass in the full House, according to an aide familiar with the bill and his thinking. "He is confident it will pass out of the committee and in the House,'' she said in a phone interview. "Chances are better than they've ever been for a vote ending the travel ban."

Kirby Jones, a longtime Cuba expert, told me that "in the 35 years that I've been following this issue, I've never seen Congress so close and so active in pursuing a change in Cuba policy. Progress has never been this close. We're somewhere between 205 to 210 votes, and that's very close. Now, all of this has been going on very quietly. There are several tracks going on a parallel basis, hard policy in public while talks go on quietly."

Drawing little press attention, the chief of staff of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has met with top-level Cuban officials in the past few months. Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl D. Mills, met with Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, on March 31 in New York while attending a United Nations forum on aid to Haiti. According to Politico, Mills raised the case of a USAID subcontractor, Alan P. Gross, who has been in detention in Cuba on suspicions of espionage. Mills has also met with an unidentified Cuban Foreign Ministry official in the Dominican Republic and with Dagoberto Rodriguez, the deputy foreign minister, in Haiti in April. And last fall, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Bisa Williams, held extended talks with Cuban officials on the island.

The Gross case is among many complicated issues -- like the status of Cuban political prisoners symbolized lately by the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a jailed dissident who died in February after fasting for 83 days -- that could make or break a deal between Havana and Washington. (On Thursday, two Cuban Roman Catholic prelates who held talks with President Raul Castro to discuss the release of some political prisoners described the talks as "positive," Reuters reported.)

"People are more optimistic than I have been about the current legislation in Washington," said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters Inc., a travel agency based in Weekhawken, N.J., and Miami which is authorized by Washington and Havana to arrange legal trips to Cuba for educators, journalists, families and others who meet U.S. Treasury guidelines. Guild is a veteran Cuba analyst who favors the end of the trade embargo and lifting the travel ban.

"The president's recent statement demanding that Cuba respond positively to his initiatives and that Cuba, instead, has used 'the clenched fist' against dissidents reflects familiar rhetoric from the Bush years and does not reflect the 'new beginning' the president promised with Cuba,'' he said. "Instead the president has demanded that Cuba respond through a change internally -- through a change in its economic and political system -- a change required and demanded of no other country in the world."

The fierce debate over Cuba, now 50 years long, has cooled off in recent years as younger generations of Cuban Americans adopt a more benign view of the Castro years, but there is still a good number of Cubans and their American-born offspring who feel no trust or love lost for Castro Cuba.

Antonio Gayoso, a Cuban-born economist and longtime exile, has little patience for the rose-colored view of Havana coddlers. Gayoso, a retired USAID official who was a junior economist in Fidel Castro's regime when he was in his early 20s, keeps a close eye on Cuba today and believes that the brief Washington-Havana flirtation last year has ended.

"I do not believe the Obama administration will try again to offer an opening,'' he said. "The Cuban government, despite the early statements by Raul Castro concerning change, has not done anything truly substantive neither in the economy nor the polity. Rather, repression and physical abuse of dissidents have increased."

On the other side, Julia E. Sweig, the director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a foremost academic expert on Cuba, reflects the dilemma opponents of the U.S. embargo and travel ban face. While advocating for better relations with Cuba, she acknowledges the Castro regime's systemic oppression. In her book "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know" (Oxford University Press, 2009), Sweig cautions that under the transition government of Raul Castro, "the regime continues to issue warnings, make arrests, and deny space to Cuban activists and artists seeking to express their dissent outside of formally sanctioned state channels."

As to how things are changing on the ground for ordinary Cubans, Kirby Jones, a longtime consultant with U.S. corporations, organizations and media wanting to do business in and with Cuba, had just returned from a weeklong visit there when I spoke with him. He sensed "widespread frustration and impatience" among Cubans. But he also saw "small but fundamental changes." Barbershops, beauty parlors and taxicab operators are now allowed to run their businesses on a more capitalist style, for instance. "The direction is clear," he said. "You're going to see more and more of the state getting out of the retail business altogether. There are signs that the paternalistic role of the state is changing. That's a beginning."

Perhaps the most interesting cultural phenomenon is the growth of the blogosphere, which has opened channels of communication with the outside world among the young, who are the most restless demographic group in Cuba today.

"The access to technology is the biggest change," said Felice Gorordo, founder and president of Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a Miami-based, non-profit youth-centered organization of Cuban-Americans which has 3,100 volunteers in campuses across the United States. "More than ever, we can peek into the bubble,'' he said, "and they can peek out."

A young engineering student at the University of Havana foresaw this when he told me in the summer of 2008, during my most recent visit to Cuba, "It's our turn now."