Obama's Revamp of Cuba Travel Policy Is Overdue, But the Embargo Should Come Next

Obama team moves to loosen Cold War-era travel restrictions. Embargo must fall next, politics or no.


As an American, I enjoy the right to travel virtually anywhere without interference from my government. It's one of the things that set us apart from the authoritarian regimes to which we hold ourselves up as a beacon and an example. But there's one exception, one country over which the U.S. government abrogates its citizens' freedom of travel. Is it North Korea, the outlaw, nuclear-saber-rattling regime that starves its citizens? No, any of us can legally head west for a demilitarized zone vacation. Perhaps it's Iran, America's biggest Middle Eastern adversary and another possible nuclear threat? Nope.

The only country to which Americans are barred from traveling is neither a rival nor a threat. It is Cuba, the last bastion of domestic Cold War politics.

That may soon change. In anticipation of this week's summit with Latin American and Caribbean leaders, President Obama rolled back restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island or sending money to their families there. Last week, members of a congressional delegation had constructive meetings with former Cuban President Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, the current president. And a bipartisan group of members of Congress, backed by a formidable coalition of U.S. business interests, is pushing legislation that would lift the travel ban for all U.S. citizens. They are optimistic of passing it this year.

Easing travel restrictions would be a good first step, but only as prologue to the main event: lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba. There are several good reasons, substantive and political, to modernize our Cuba policy (and not simply my own desire to enjoy a Cuba libre and a Cohiba cigar while strolling the beaches of Varadero).

Let's be clear. The Cuban government is nasty and repressive. It has an atrocious human-rights record. But so do, for example, China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—all nations with whom the United States has trade relations, and all places U.S. citizens can legally visit. There's no logical reason to single out Cuba for special treatment.

But there have been political reasons. The U.S. posture toward Cuba has less to do with foreign policy than with domestic politics. Any questions about the embargo's uselessness as a lever for regime change were laid to rest when the Cold War's end—20 years ago, mind you—denied Castro the economic support of the Soviet Union. The regime still endures. The domestic political calculus used to be: Cuban-Americans implacably favor the embargo and are a key voting group in Florida, a presidential swing state. Their intensity on the issue ruled the day. Why needlessly irk the Cuba lobby? But that calculus is changing.

First, the bloc's power is fading. Barack Obama was the first Democrat to win the overall Hispanic vote in Florida—even though he lost among Cuban-Americans. And even among that demographic, time is on the side of normalized relations. While Obama, who pledged to loosen the travel ban but leave the embargo in place, won only 35 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, he won 55 percent of those under the age of 29. That's not a coincidence. A December Florida International University poll found that Cuban-Americans between 18 and 44 favored lifting travel restrictions by a margin of 75 percent to 25 percent. Those over 65 were only 51-to-49 percent in favor. More starkly, those 18 to 44 opposed the embargo 65 percent to 35 percent. Cuban-Americans over 65 favored it, 68 percent to 32 percent.

Not only demographics are changing. As the power of the Cuban lobby fades, broader considerations are gaining importance. I asked Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat who cochairs the House's Cuba Working Group, about the Cuba lobby's ebbing influence. "We now have people on our side of the issue who are saying, 'We support candidates who have a different view in terms of what the relationship ought to be,' " he said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tourism industry, and other such interests are pushing an agenda involving more practical issues.