News Alert: Last Remnant of Cold War Policy (Finally) Takes a Tumble

05/25/2011 01:10 pm ET

The news alert that crossed my desk at 5:30pm on Friday afternoon caused sighs of relief and cries of joy in Havana, Miami, and places across our country where Cuban-Americans and others who care about modernizing our hopeless Cuba policy had long hoped for a new beginning.

Here's what the Wall Street Journal said: "President Barack Obama plans to lift a longstanding U.S. ban on family travel and remittances to Cuba, a senior administration official said Friday, in what could be an opening gesture toward more openness with the Castro regime."

It was an historic day. Here was Obama, in Strasbourg, celebrating with a new generation what the post-Cold War environment meant for Europe, also starting to dismantle our Cold War approach to Cuba, starting with the forced separation of Cuban families.

While more needs to be done--the entire Cuban embargo needs to be torn down just like the Berlin Wall--we should begin by celebrating what Obama has promised to do.

In 2004, grubbing for votes in Florida, and under the false theory that cutting Cuban-American travel to Cuba would add to the financial duress of Cuba's government, President Bush put into place extraordinarily tough restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit the island and provide financial support for their Cuban families.

It was a uniquely barbaric bit of political pandering. Under Bush's rules, a lucky subset of the community could visit Cuba but only once every three years. Others, who couldn't meet requirements that allowed visits only to nuclear family members, were barred from going at all. There were no humanitarian exceptions. So, family members were stopped from attending births and weddings and funerals; the rules even stopped a storied U.S. soldier, Carlos Lazo, from visiting his sons in Cuba while taking off a few weeks of precious R+R during his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's been five years of heart-break for the Cuban family on both sides of the Florida Straits.

As a candidate, President Obama promised to kill these rules and end travel and financial aid restrictions on Cuban-Americans entirely, and now he will make good on that promise in the coming days. My friends with family members on the Island are deliriously happy and they should be.

But now that Obama has taken care of them - in essence, restoring the constitutional right to travel but only for Americans of Cuban descent - many in the community have refused to leave the debate to make their travel arrangements. Instead, they are looking past their own interests to the national interest, and are asking the President to support restoring the right to travel for all Americans.

There is legislation before the U.S. Congress to do that - the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would repeal all restrictions on travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens.

Speaking at a press conference for the House version of the legislation, Alfred Duran, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a prominent Florida Attorney, framed the case this way:

"This is not an issue of Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, Black Americans, Chinese-Americans, but of Americans. We are all the same Americans under the constitution and under the laws of this country. As such, every American should be able to travel to Cuba. It is a right that we Americans have and we should not create a separate kind of Americans in giving a privilege to Cuban-Americans. We should be treated and all Americans should be treated the same. That is the law of this country and that is how it should be."

Three of his compatriots, Silvia Wilhelm, who came to the U.S. from Cuba as an unaccompanied child in the 1960s, Miami's auxiliary Bishop Felipe Estevez, and a Boston-based businessman Ignacio Sosa, joined Alfredo in making this case: the notion of a two-tiered system of travel rights is not only a contortion of the constitution, it is really bad policy.

Travel rights for Cuban-Americans provides no relief for the religious groups, the businesses and workers, the artists and academics and cultural figures, who will still be forced to submit to a burdensome licensing process to get to Cuba - with no assumption that their requests to our government for a travel license will be approved.

Travel rights for Cuban-Americans can't help the majority of Cubans, because Cuba is a majority Afro-Caribbean country, and only a fraction of the émigrés in Florida come from those families. Travel rights for Cuban-Americans, while completely just, provide Afro-Cubans will little added financial or emotional support.

Cuban-American travel, while humane, still puts the majority of Americans in the oddest political position of being able to visit Tehran, Pyongyang, Khartoum, and Damascus without begging for a license, but unable to visit Havana, even if their presence in Cuba would add information and vibrancy and contribute to openness as American travelers so often do.

And what is not said often enough is this: When travelers from the U.S. finally get to Cuba, as they will if this legislation passes, Cuba is also likely to change them, as it has done for me and almost all of the Members of Congress and professional staff I have taken to the island since 2001.

When President Obama signs an executive order allowing Cuban-American travel, it is my hope that he will signal the Congress that he is prepared for legislation to take us a step further. Only the Congress can repeal the ban on travel for all, and he should let the House and Senate sponsors of the legislation know that he will sign it if they can pass it and put it on his desk.

Obama, as he proved during this trip to Europe, is uniquely equipped to close this chapter in our history and write history anew for America's relationship with Cuba and the Americas as a region. Were he to open up travel for all of us, it would not only restore to all Americans a vital constitutional right, but also send a profoundly important signal, that the United States is ready to embrace the world not as we found it in 1959, but as it exists today.