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The Lack of Memory of Cuban-American Congress Members

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If the laws governing travel to Cuba can not be changed, how is it that they were amended in June 2004?

Awhile back I posted the first on-line petition calling for freedom to travel to Cuba. One signer wrote me that he was a Cuban living now in the U.S. and frustrated by the difficulty of returning to see his teenage sons. Ironically, the writer was a member of the National Guard serving in Iraq. Under restrictions introduced by the Bush administration, he was blocked at the last minute from visiting the boys during leave from the combat zone. His case dramatized for the media the inhumanity of a policy that limited family reunions to once every three years. Carlos Lazo just sent me this take on the debate over the prospective relaxation of travel restrictions by President Obama.


by Carlos Lazo

In recent days, four Cuban-American representatives and one senator wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him not to change U.S. policies toward Cuba. According to the odd logic put forward by these people, laws regarding the island are and were created already by the U.S. Congress. Therefore, any change in this regard would undermine "significantly the foreign policy objectives and security of America." In the epistle, the legislators added that the Helms-Burton Act codified the embargo on Cuba and it cannot be modified by the president. According to the letter, irremovable are also "all restrictions on travel" to the island.

I would like to remind these lawmakers that in June 2004, then-President George W. Bush imposed cruel and inhumane travel restrictions against the Cuban residents in the United States and our families in Cuba. At that time none of them addressed the White House to say that the embargo was untouchable, and therefore new restrictions on travel to the island would also be legally questionable. Paradoxically, these politicians now want to apply a double standard to the issue of traveling to Cuba. What they did not ask of George W. Bush yesterday, they demand from Barack Obama today. It is not a coincidence that some of those who tear their hair out today were the developers and architects of these inhumane measures against our families. Others of them maintained a cowardly silence or complicity.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans can freely visit our loved ones on the island nowadays is largely due to the political will of President Barack Obama. Neither the Diaz-Balart brothers, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Albio Sires, nor Senator Bob Menendez have ever lifted a finger to legislate with humanity and common sense in terms of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Suffering, confrontation, revenge and a visceral hatred toward the Cuban people: this is the only legacy that these so-called representatives can be proud of. Certainly they do not represent new generations of Cuban Americans who want to see a significant and tangible change in the U.S. policy toward our country of origin.

President Barack Obama is preparing to promulgate new regulations affecting some or all of eleven categories of non-tourist travel, including visits for educational, cultural and other people-to-people purposes. This is a positive step but could be done timidly or boldly. Timidly means just returning to Clinton era case-by-case applications for specific licenses, an expensive, time consuming and energy diverting process for both the applicants and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Boldy means granting general licenses that do not require applications. This was the approach chosen last year for Cuban American family travel and for Americans wishing to sell agricultural products.

In truth, it is time to eliminate all restrictions on travel to Cuba for all Americans. It is time for the U.S. policies toward the island to be guided by compassion and wisdom. Decisions regarding these policies should be taken in Washington, D.C. and not in Miami. However, only Congress has the power to restore to every American the right to travel. Obama can help the process by endorsing pending travel and trade legislation and confirming he will sign it, an important break with veto threats in the Bush era. He needs to accelerate the implementation of strategies that prioritize the welfare of the people of Cuba and the United States. At the same time, our president should say "No!" to the inconsistent claims of a group of known self-interested politicians.

Carlos Lazo is an activist for lifting the travel restrictions to Cuba. Currently he works as a combat medic sergeant in the Washington State National Guard. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), based in Washington, DC.

Messages asking the president to act boldly on travel can be sent to the White House here.