Since the Kennedy administration, the United States has tried to overthrow Cuba's government: by force, at the Bay of Pigs; by assassination, through exploding cigars and poison-leaching scuba suits; by isolation, stopping Cuba from joining institutions like the World Bank and the Organization of American States; but, mostly by squeezing Cuba's economy.
There's virtually nothing the U.S. trade embargo won't do to dry up the flow of U.S. dollars to Cuba. For example, U.S. law bans most travel by Americans to the island and stops us from getting to know every day Cubans. At least there's no embargo on irony; the U.S. government, as a statement against their government's human rights restrictions, "fights for freedom in Cuba" by curtailing our freedom to travel. Cuba, it is important to note, is the only destination on Earth where Americans have to appeal to our government for a license to go there.
While President Obama has loosened the strings on travel - by allowing Cuban Americans the unlimited right to visit their family members, and permitting limited travel for other Americans who get licenses for a purpose - there are still Cold Warriors manning the ramparts in Congress, from both political parties, trying to roll back our liberties every chance they get.
Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are two of the most outspoken Cuba travel "hall monitors" in Congress. They argue for a total ban on travel, as Senator Rubio likes to say "because it provides money to a cruel, repressive, and murderous regime." Or, as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen puts it, the restrictions on travel to Cuba are "commonsense measures meant to prevent U.S. dollars from supporting a murderous regime that opposes U.S. security interests at every turn and which ruthlessly suppresses the most basic liberties of speech, assembly and belief."
That's pretty clear. At least it seemed that way until the Tampa Bay Times dropped this bombshell a few months back:
"Top aides to Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, two of the most vehement anti-Communist voices in Washington, took an all-expenses paid trip to China this month courtesy of the Chinese government."
This was not some misunderstanding. In fact, both offices confirmed the story was true. Just as the paper reported, Arthur Estopinan, chief of staff to Ros-Lehtinen, and Sally Canfield, who served as deputy chief of staff to Senator Rubio until she left his employ on December 5th, were part of a congressional staff trip facilitated by the U.S.-Asia Institute. An Institute source told the Tampa Bay Times, the trips were "paid for by the Chinese government."
As this story broke, the world was paying closer and closer attention to the tense political situation in Hong Kong, as demonstrators massed in the streets for self-determination and the right to choose their government. At that very moment, Senator Rubio and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen could have responded to the questions we posed to them at the time.
Why, specifically, do they think travel to Cuba is different from travel to China? Why do they fiercely criticize Americans who go to Cuba, because it puts money into the pockets of what they call 'the Castro regime,' while also permitting their staffs to accept travel junkets to China paid out of the pockets of China's government?
They never answered.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) believes strongly in human rights and deeply believes the right way to advocate for them is to engage directly with governments and publics where those rights are not secure. The Senator and the Congresswoman appear to share that view on China, but not Cuba, and that diminishes the credibility of their position, and it certainly isn't right.
That's why we have posted a petition and video on change.org that poses a simple choice to the legislators: "If they support travel to countries like China, they should end the ban on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. And if they won't support our right to visit Cuba freely, then they should pay the Chinese government back for the cost of their staffers' trips."
The saga of their staffer's trips to China got our vote for the worst embargo story of 2014. But if enough of us watch the video and sign the petition, maybe a little accountability will give that story a happier ending.