In a move which partially reverses almost 50 years of American foreign policy, U.S. President Barack Obama recently eased restrictions on American citizens wishing to travel to Cuba. The changes are expected to be enacted in three weeks.
Obama told reporters that by changing the long standing embargo he hopes to encourage “people to people” contacts between Americans and Cubans in academic and religious contexts. He further hopes that the increased contact will encourage “civil society” on the communist island.
The changes made by Obama allow religious groups and students at institutions of higher learning to study abroad in Cuba under specific charters, as well as permitting U.S. citizens to send remittances of up to $500 per quarter to non-family members in Cuba to encourage economic activity, according to a BBC News report. Furthermore, the changes will allow airports to apply to provide services for approved and licensed charters. Notably, the changes do not modify the standing embargo against Cuba, but merely lightens the restrictions of American citizens hoping to travel to the island.
Since 1962, the U.S. has enforced a near total commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba, the communist-run Caribbean country. As it still stands today, the embargo prevents the sale of Cuban goods in the U.S. and prevents U.S., businesses from interacting with Cuban entities. While the embargo does not prohibit the travel of U.S. citizens to the island, a de facto ban on travel exists, as any purchases made by potential travelers in Cuba are deemed illegal.
The ban emerged during the 1960s in response to Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union. As tensions grew between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. throughout the following decades, the embargo grew in severity and enforcement. As Cuban society became more closed and repressive, U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter continued the embargo as a means to coerce the Cuban government into releasing political prisoners and allowing U.S. telecommunications companies to operate on the island, among other demands. After the fall of the U.S.S.R, the U.S. continued the embargo due to alleged human rights violations and foreign policy disagreements with Cuba.
The embargo has received rollercoaster support throughout its history. At times it has been well supported while at others it has been condemned as a political failure. Even in the face of opposition, the embargo has survived more than ten U.S. presidents and numerous party switches, from Democrat to Republican and back. Recent polling data collected by the AP in 2007 shows slight public support for continuing the embargo.
Despite the partial public support, the embargo has been criticized frequently throughout its existence. A study released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 reported that while the embargo costs the U.S. $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, it only costs the Cuban government $685 million annually. Even though U.S. citizens are prevented from traveling to Cuba for vacation, thousands of European and Canadian citizens still flock to the island each year.
Humanitarian critics point out that the U.S. has withheld necessary clean water, food, and medicines from impoverished Cuban citizens, linking the embargo to widespread infectious disease on the island. Without the economic support of American business, Cuban citizens have suffered from numerous problems that could be alleviated by the increased cash flow from American tourism. Numerous libertarian and conservative Americans also argue that the ban helps Cuban leaders Raul and Fidel Castro by giving them a scapegoat on which to transfer responsibility for the nation’s problems. The Cuban government has frequently shifted guilt for poverty, widespread disease, and lack of sanitation to the American government.
In response to Obama’s changes, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.) argued that the changes would fail to help Cuba’s situation. “They will not make the Castro regime show respect for human rights, and they certainly won’t help the Cuban people free themselves from the despotic tyranny which oppresses them,” Ros-Lehtinen told reporters. Her critical views of the Castro regime are supported by recent polling data, which shows that American citizens are heavily critical of the Castro family and their government.
The recent move by Obama was preceded by a similar easing of travel restrictions. In 2009, the president released a statement allowing Cuban-American citizens to travel openly to Cuba. As the second move in just over a year, Obama’s changes in the Cuban embargo point toward a future of increased U.S.-Cuba relations. It is likely that collegiate study abroad programs to Cuba will open up in the coming years, giving students the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture which has been essentially closed to Americans for half a century. n