08/25/2010 04:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Administration Facing Critical Decision on Cuba Travel Policy

Time Magazine poses the right question, "Will the White House Fight to End the Cuba Travel Ban?"

Although not as dramatic and immediately beneficial as Congress ending all restrictions, the answer is tremendously important to US travelers and the industry that serves them.

The Obama Administration must choose soon how much to enable travel to Cuba for non-tourist people to people purposes, which is all it is able to accomplish on its own. It has obligated itself to respond to Cuba's ongoing release of "Black Spring" prisoners. Half of those who were still imprisoned since 2004 have already been freed.

The White House could take a minimalist approach and simply reinstate President Clinton's policy which required time consuming and costly case-by-case applications to the bureaucratic and politicized judgment of the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department (OFAC). Or it could implement its pro-dialogue values and grant general licenses to the remaining eleven categories of non-tourist travel, just as it did for the category of Cuban American family visits more than a year ago.

Under general licenses, travel could be freely organized by schools, cultural institutions, Chambers of Commerce, religious bodies, World Affairs Councils, humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups and other not-for-profit organizations. Tens of thousands of seriously interested Americans can meet their Cuban counterparts and create mutual understanding and trust, needed in both countries.

If, at the same time, the Administration did away with the near monopoly given by OFAC to some 200 licensed Travel Service Providers, tour operators and travel agents nationwide can readily join with local non-profit groups to organize trips.

The Administration should resist pressure from self-interested exiles represented by five Cuban Americans in the House and Senate. Polls demonstrate that they no longer reflect their own community, much less the two-thirds of Americans who support freedom of travel to Cuba. On Saturday they wrote to the President disputing the clear intent of the law which gives him complete authority to allow non-tourist travel.

Last year they opposed even family travel and will denounce any and all reforms, so there is no reason for the White House to be constrained by their misleading statement that they "are deeply troubled that such changes would result in economic benefits to the Cuban regime." At peak in 2003 only 80,000 people-to-people visitors went to Cuba, a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.4 million foreigners in Cuba last year, including 300,000 Cuban Americans.

What really troubles the old guard is that personal contact between diverse Cubans and Americans will puncture their isolationist balloon and contribute to reform in both countries, including the end of all US and Cuban travel and trade restrictions.

Notably absent to date are countervailing opinions from the substantial bipartisan number of Representatives and Senators who support legislation to end all restrictions on travel. They will make their own legislative job easier by visibly applauding the White House initiative and joining Governor Bill Richardson in urging the President to "issue an executive order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible."

John McAuliff is founder and executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Dobbs Ferry, NY, a twenty five year old non-governmental organization that worked to normalize US relations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and now Cuba.

Additional resources:

As a first step to changing our policy toward Cuba, the president should issue an executive order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible. The travel ban penalizes U.S. businesses, lowers our credibility in Latin America and fuels anti-U.S. propaganda. Lifting the ban would also be a reciprocal gesture for Cuba"s recent agreement, negotiated among the Catholic Church, the Spanish government and President Raul Castro, to release political dissidents. Obama has taken significant steps to loosen restrictions on family travel, remove limits for remittance and expand cooperation in other areas such as expanding the export of humanitarian goods from the United States into Cuba. Loosening travel restrictions is in U.S. interests and would be a bold move toward normalization of relations with Cuba.

Washington Post Op Ed
by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (currently in Cuba)

A new report from the Brookings Institution recommends general licenses, Seizing the Opportunity to Expand People to People Contacts by Dora Beszterczey, Damian F. Fernandez and Andy S. Gomez