01/18/2011 07:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Opens Door for Travel to Cuba

The White House announcement on January 14 of reforms in policy affecting purposeful travel to Cuba is an important step forward.

The Obama administration overcame resistance from a powerful minority of hard line Cuban Americans and their Congressional allies in Florida and New Jersey who oppose even the general license for family travel authorized in 2009 and will object to every opening, no matter how timid or bold.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party-linked freshman from Florida, revealingly informed Politico: "I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes."

He was effectively offset by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who told the New York Times the reforms "open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future."

The challenge facing the Obama administration is to insure that its goals for "religious, cultural and educational travel" are faithfully implemented by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department.

"Reaching out to the Cuban people" and fostering "people to people contact" require fully enabling the energy and spirit of the American people without bureaucratic obstacles in either country.

The devil, as always, is in the details. (See analysis of new regulations here.)

The White House has begun to respond to substantial social and economic changes underway in Cuba. However for domestic political purposes it unnecessarily linked liberalized travel to maintaining the internationally despised trade embargo. Moreover the statement justified reform in terms of promoting "independence from Cuban authorities," an objective that would create suspicion in any host government.

Strengthening the White House Initiative

The principles of the White House Statement will be implemented through regulations written by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) during the next few weeks. Ambiguities will be clarified. It will become obvious through guidance from the White House and State Department whether OFAC is to function as an enabler or a traffic cop. Political forces that oppose all travel will try to undermine the president by working behind the scenes with an historically sympathetic bureaucracy in the Treasury Department.

The White House can only insure that its reforms fully "increase people-to-people contact." "support civil society" and "enhance the free flow of information" by moving to general licenses for all categories of "purposeful travel," whether undertaken by organizations, affinity groups or individuals.

For symbolism as well as practicality, oversight of the use of general licenses should be transferred from OFAC to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the State Department. OFAC is inherently a regulator and punitively focused. ECA "promotes international mutual understanding through a wide range of academic, cultural, private sector, professional, youth and sports exchange programs."

To assure nationwide participation in people-to-people exchanges, the current restrictive registration of 250 Travel Service Providers must be abolished. All US travel agents and tour operators should be free to book transportation and accommodations for legally authorized American visitors to Cuba.

By placing people-to-people travel in an anti-host government framework and requiring specific licenses for institutionally sponsored and organized group trips, the Obama administration creates a contradiction, undermining its own goals. It replicates the Clinton model of channeling travelers to Cuba's official system of state owned companies. They have reason to be suspicious of US motives and naturally strive to put the best spin on their guests' experience.

Ironically the most authentic unsupervised people to people exchanges will be by the thousands of Americans who travel through third countries without a license and rent a car or use public transportation to encounter an unfiltered Cuba.

Links and resources

Online petition of support for the president's executive order can be signed here

Slides and video accompany Jackson Browns song "Going Back to Cuba."