The Bigger Picture of the Cuban Embargo and Travel Ban

As the end of all U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba seems imminent, it is clearer than ever that a progressive opposition to U.S. Cuba policy needs to focus on ending the entirety of the embargo. Otherwise, momentum for U.S. Cuba policy reform will be co-opted by representatives of the tourism, agricultural and telecommunication industries. And an influx of U.S. tourists with the embargo still in place could mean more hardships for average Cubans and other problems on the island.

April 29, 2009

Last week, on the eve of the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago, President Barack Obama announced new measures to permit unlimited Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island. These relaxations immediately set off predictions that the entire travel ban would soon be lifted. And in fact, there are bills in both the House and Senate that aim to do just that.

The excitement over these new possibilities, however, should be tempered with a note of caution.

Although there have always been important voices raised in the United States over the injustice of the embargo, much of the progressive mobilization effort of recent years has focused on a complete end to the travel ban, demanding the right to travel “for all, not for some.” The campaign has generated support partly by casting the embargo as a violation of U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel.

But as full liberalization of travel now looms, it is clearer than ever that a progressive opposition to U.S. Cuba policy needs to focus on ending the entire embargo, and for the right, big-picture reasons: The embargo violates Cuban sovereignty and is patently imperialist. Otherwise, the momentum for U.S. Cuba policy reform will be co-opted by representatives of the tourism, agricultural and telecommunication industries.

The new relaxations announced by Obama are, of course, mostly positive and welcome; any measures that diminish the daily hardships endured by Cubans would be. But these changes will also ensure that money and goods sent to Cuba will go through private hands and family networks, rather than allowing the Cuban state to guide the distribution of those resources. While the socialist government has a decidedly mixed record on overturning historic inequalities based on race and class, we nevertheless know, based on what happened during the Special Period, that resources funneled through private channels greatly exacerbate existing class and especially race tensions.

Obama's reforms will play out differently among Miami's increasingly diverse Cuban community. Recently emigrated, less educated, darker-skinned migrants will likely use the reforms to help improve their families' situation back on the island, primarily at the level of everyday purchases like food, clothes, and home repairs. However, assistance sent by Miami's more established and affluent Cuban-Americans could help their relatives on the island acquire centrally-located property on the black market or proffer the substantial bribes that have increasingly become necessary to secure small business licenses and sometimes even to obtain plum jobs in the tourist sector.

Thus, the new measures will not benefit all Cubans equally. They will raise the consumption levels of those with family abroad and, less directly, of those employed in the service sector in Havana and other tourist destinations. But the embargo, which remains firmly in place through the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, will still block things like the importation of badly needed modern farming equipment and key infrastructural improvements.

Fully ending the travel ban is necessary and desirable, but doing so while leaving the embargo in place is one way that Washington is trying to scuttle Havana's ability to guide its own internal affairs.

The capital’s youth population is already particularly frustrated with the inaccessibility of certain consumer goods and the difficulties of receiving permission to travel abroad. An avalanche of iPod-toting U.S. spring-breakers will only exacerbate this frustration. A U.S.-induced tourist boom also stands to increase the steady stream of migration from places like the impoverished easternmost province of Oriente toward Havana. These migrants already face difficulty legalizing their residency in Havana and are often forcibly deported back to their place of origin. In either case, tensions with their Havana neighbors and police could grow.

Anyone who has spent time in Miami knows that Bush’s draconian restrictions, imposed during his campaign for reelection in 2004, never managed to fully contain visits and remittances. Countless small outfits sent money through unofficial channels and paid “mules” to carry goods to the island. Cuban-Americans flew through third countries to visit their relatives and friends. Such endeavors were costly and complicated, but they were rarely if ever prosecuted.

The embargo has never been about fully blocking all movement of people and goods. Instead, it has sought to define which channels are legitimate. Goods distributed through individuals, family, church, and the rare humanitarian assistance effort were deemed acceptable. Exchanges promoted by political solidarity movements or formal bilateral trade relations were off limits. In other words, give Cubans charity, not solidarity; give them sporadic aid, not trade.

It has been clear to U.S. authorities ever since the early 1960s that economic pressure alone would not topple the Cuban government. The embargo has been more about making a lesson out of Cuba, showing the rest of Latin America the kinds of consequences that would accompany a socialist revolution. Despite Washington's rhetoric about using sanctions as leverage to promote democracy, the embargo has always harbored a cruel subtext of punishing Cubans for supporting Fidel Castro.

This intentional targeting of a civilian population constitutes a moral abomination. This much was clear to some State Department officials as early as 1959 and 1960, but they were drowned out by sterner voices. The last U.S. Ambassador to Cuba warned in 1959 that if Washington turned to economic reprisals, “we would be permanently diminishing the resources of the entire Cuban people and would open a wound which would be a long time in healing.”

Time has painfully proven him right.

Michelle Chase is a doctoral candidate in the history department of New York University. She is writing a dissertation on the gender politics of the Cuban Revolution.

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