The furor over the recent visit of Beyonce and Jay-Z to Cuba calls attention to the archaic U.S. embargo and the odious restriction on our right to travel.
The travel ban is actually something of a fiction.In practice, the ban prohibits the travel of some Americans, and permits the travel of others, surely an anomaly in a nation that proclaims equality under the law as the cornerstone of its legal system.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans travel to the island to visit relatives. And many thousands more travel to Cuba under a “people-to-people” license — that is, travel authorized by the Treasury Department in the name of cultural exchange and education.
In fact, American group travel to Cuba has developed into a growth industry in the United States. The alumni associations of scores of American universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Vanderbilt, among many others, have availed themselves of the opportunity of a “people-to-people” license to organize educational travel to Cuba for their alums.
Other Americans travel to Cuba under the auspices of religious organizations licensed to provide humanitarian aid. Thousands of American students pursue educational opportunities in Cuba. American journalists are authorized to travel to Cuba. So are American academics.
Then why the fuss over Beyonce and Jay-Z?
Because they appeared to have been in Havana as tourists to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. “Tourist” is the one designation under which Americans cannot travel to Cuba.
It turns out that Beyonce and Jay-Z had traveled to Havana on an authorized “people-to-people” license, fulfilling the Treasury Department requirement of cultural engagement. No scofflaw “tourists” were they.
Beyonce and Jay-Z oblige us to confront again a policy that has lapsed into a farce.
While U.S. law bans “tourism,” it allows travel.
Americans can travel to Cuba to enjoy live music, and this is licensed as a cultural encounter.
Americans can visit Old Havana, and this is authorized as an educational experience.
Americans can travel to Cuba with packets of aspirins and ibuprofen, and this is designated as a humanitarian mission.
Once upon a time, U.S. authorities were persuaded that the restriction of our freedom to travel would contribute to the restoration of Cuban constitutional rights. The theory was that the prohibition on American travel would deprive the Cuban economy of vital tourist dollars, and that in conjunction with economic sanctions — also designed to deny Cuba hard currency — the travel ban would hasten the downfall of the Cuban government.
That was 52 years ago.Today the same economic sanctions remain in place. The travel ban remains in force. And the Cuban government remains in power.
The time has arrived to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba, without the need for government permission and without the necessity of official pretext.
Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina and the director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas there.
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