Why the Travel Ban for US Citizens?

Nicholas Partyka

The following is the seventh and final part of a multi-part project entitled, A Crossroads for Socialism: Cuba in Transition .” This series of analyses, observations, and dispatches on Cuba focuses on the country’s unprecedented, post-Fidel transition. With a heavy reliance on macroeconomic, geopolitical, and foreign policy analysis, Hampton contributor Nicholas Partyka seeks to pinpoint the nuanced economic, political, and social changes that are occurring on the island nation, and how these changes are impacting everyday Cubans.
Part One: Introduction

Part Two: The US Blockade of Cuba: Its Effects and Global Consequences

Part Three: When Profit-Mongering Meets a Common Good: Contrasting Societies (US and Cuba)

Part Four: A Socialism for the 21st Century

Part Five: Cuban Economic Reforms: A New Hope?

Part Six: US-Cuban Relations: Life in a Cold-War Timewarp

There are different ways to calculate the size of national economies. However one looks at the numbers, the United States is one of the world’s top three largest economies. By some of the most traditional ways of accounting for GDP, the US is the world’s largest economy. Only the EU economy, taken as a bloc, is larger than the US’s economy. The US Dollar is the world’s main reserve currency, meaning that most international business is conducted using dollars. The US, due to its level of contribution, holds veto power in institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The decisions of its Federal Reserve make waves in international financial markets. Its multinational companies are some of the largest and most powerful organizations on earth. Their operations directly employ many thousands, and indirectly thousands and thousands more. Their production activities, all along their supply chains, directly effect millions through environmental changes. They also indirectly effect millions more through the social costs associated with their production activities, and environmental changes that result.

In addition to all the economic might that this leading – maybe we could even say hegemonic – position gives the US, it also possesses a military might beyond comprehension. The US also, along with an elite club, has a permanent seat and a veto in the UN Security Council. The US has the ability, through its various armed services and clandestine agencies, to project force at almost any point on the face of the earth within a very short time. Even the most remote parts of the world can have overwhelming destructive force brought right to them in short order. Targeted assassination, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, NSA surveillance, and massive stock piles of nuclear weapons among other WMDs are just some of the tools available to the US government to “protect its interests.”

However one looks at the issue, the US is one of the most, if not the most, powerful nation to ever exist. The world is definitely drifting back toward being multi-polar, and there will be advantages and disadvantages to that. The US’s moment of unquestioned, and unquestionable, dominance is close to, if not already, over. This does not mean, as some of the chicken littles on the right always think, that the US is now powerless, and no longer in charge of, or leading the way in, forging and securing the links that make up the global economy. The US is still immensely powerful, and remains the main force behind organizing the world-economy. In this hegemonic position, there would seem to be little to fear. The US still has the advantage of two oceans on either side, as well as friendly or militarily and economically weaker neighbors on each border.

Especially now, almost two and a half decades since the end of the Cold War, the US would seem to have little to fear. US citizens can come and go freely between the US and almost any former or currently “communist” country. China and Vietnam are both communist and US citizens can come and go without much if any hassle. Russia and the eastern bloc countries are all totally open to US citizens; though one would likely not want to travel to Russia at present given the unfolding events in Ukraine. Even Venezuela, the bane of the existence of the Bush Administration, and current thorn in the side of imperialist interests in Latin America, is open to US citizens. The same would go for other “pink tide” nations in Latin America; Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, One needs only a passport to travel to any of these nations. One, of course, needs a visa from that country, but these are usually relatively easy to obtain. The US puts no restrictions on travel to these countries.

There is now the intentionally omnipresent specter of Muslim terrorism to be afraid of. Yet, even for nations that supposedly export terrorism and terrorists, there is little in the way of restriction on travel there by US citizens. Plans to travel to these places may come with safety warnings or recommendations from the State Department not to go. They may even attract, depending on the particular person traveling, extra scrutiny from US national security and or law enforcement agencies. Nigeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Turkey (as a route to Syria), Iraq, and Egypt, among others can all be traveled to relatively easily by US citizens. The only dangers in these situations would arise from the inherent dangerousness of the destination itself.

US citizens are allowed to travel, without much in the way of formal restriction from the US government, to many different kinds of countries. US citizens are allowed to go to countries we label failed states, rogue states, dictatorships, corrupt kleptocracies, and authoritarian democracies. The US worries not about how its citizens will think its society and policies stack up against those of other nations. The US thinks, especially in the wake of the Cold War’s disappearance, that it has won the battle of ideas. The only kinds of radicalization the US elite fears will happen abroad are Muslim extremist radicalization. Even Venezuela, which is seen by many among US elites as fomenting dangerous revolutionary ideas, an even exporting them is not off limits to US citizens. They are setting a bad example from the point of view of US imperialism with their Bolivarian revolution, and yet it is still easy for US citizens to travel to the land of Chavismo.

And yet, despite all the foregoing, the US maintains, as part of its blockade against Cuba, a travel ban. US citizens are forbidden to travel to the island legally except under a certain few exceptions. At present, under a relatively liberal period in terms of US policy, there are a few broad categories of exception. Some of the main types of exceptions to the travel ban are religious, cultural, journalistic, academic/scholarly, and familial. Even with these exceptions, which are being granted more liberally under the Obama administration, very few Americans (nonCuban-Americans) get, or likely ever will get, the opportunity to travel to Cuba. This policy, of course, fits in with the overall blockade by limiting the ability of US citizens to go to Cuba and help their economy. The point of the blockade was and is to decimate the Cuban economy and, with it, Cuban society; and thus hopefully ignite counter-revolution. The travel ban just further limits any help US citizens might be able to give to the Cuban revolution. The intent clearly was to strangle Cuba’s tourist industry which, being so close, attracted many Americans.

However much this policy was intended as part of an effort to isolate Cuba, it has largely served, and continues to serve in the main, to isolate America. One can see, from a Cold War-colored perspective, how the travel ban fits in with the blockade policy. From other, less distorted, perspectives the travel ban makes no sense, and is in fact counter-productive. The ban makes the US appear scared of the Cuban example. The US appears to be scared, in that it will not allow its citizens to visit the island. It looks like the US elites see in Cuba a dangerous example, an example too dangerous to let Americans see it. If they did, they might start to ask dangerous questions, questions that might lead them to challenge power back home. If US citizens went to Cuba they might come into contact with similarities in the causes of the Cuban revolution and the structural crises in America today.

Despite all its power and prerogatives, despite all its military and economic might, the US refuses to face the reality of the success of the Cuban revolution. In a manner reminiscent of the British attitude toward the US in the war of 1812, only the US still sees the Cuban revolution as a temporary change, a brief disturbance in the established order of things. The US still appears to be waiting for this aberration to play itself out, and then be discarded for something more favorable to the dominant players on the international scene. Maybe this is an attitude born of power and hegemony? We have had, and still do to some extent, the ability to dictate terms, to impose conditions on other nations. Whether we call such activities regime change, or nation building, or democracy promotion, or any other catchy misleading title, matters little. Behind these slogans lies the reality of US political, economic, and military power. Of course, the ends toward which this power to determine outcomes is typically directed is, as it would for any nation-state in a capitalist international system, toward realizing outcomes that give a disproportionate benefit or gain to one’s own nation. The US appears to still think that eventually it can and will have its way in and with Cuba.

The ban on US citizens traveling to Cuba was initially imposed by the Eisenhower administration during its final week. As a result of this decision, US citizens would now have to apply for special permission to travel to Cuba. Public Notice 179 announced this, and except for a brief period during the Carter administration, this has remained US policy up to today; though Obama has eased some travel restrictions, mainly for Cuban-Americans traveling to visit family in Cuba. One Supreme Court case,Kent et al v. Dulles, in 1958, established that the government could not deny someone a passport for travel to Cuba due to their political beliefs. But a later case, Zemel v. Rusk, in 1965, established that the government does have the lawful power to require permission to travel to Cuba. Eventually, due to these and various other legal challenges, the Johnson administration replaced Eisenhower’s Public Notice 179 with Public Notice 257. This placed the travel ban to Cuba under the so-called national security umbrella provided in the Zemel decision. This was the ban that Carter lifted with Regulation 560 in 1977. The travel ban was re-imposed by the Reagan administration in 1892. Another Supreme Court case, Reagan v. Wald , in 1984, was required to establish that Reagan had the constitutional authority to do this.

As should be obvious, this policy is flawed in many respects. For one thing, it is in a rather straightforward way, a very difficult policy to enforce. Unless other countries are willing to cooperate with US restrictions it is very difficult to prevent US citizens from traveling to Cuba illegally through third countries to which travel is not forbidden. And this has indeed been extremely common since the travel ban was initially imposed. The Cubans simply do not stamp American’s passports when they enter the country from a non-US location. This way, officially, there is no record that one entered or exited Cuba. This policy also costs time and money to detect and prosecute these violators, and even a government as rich as the US has a limited budget. This notwithstanding, the US government has a very clear record of arbitrary and selective prosecution of these cases, and always with wildly disproportionate punishments. This is a porous policy that is costly to enforce, the success of which provideS little benefit to anyone. Yet more than a half dozen successive US administrations have continued, with greater or lesser intensity, to maintain this policy, and moreover have made little or no attempt to replace it.

Why then is Cuba a forbidden island? For one thing, it is a terrible example for US citizens to see. The last thing elites in the US want is for US citizens to see the accomplishments of the Cuban revolution. They also don’t need Americans, especially now with our healthcare system in something of a transition, seeing how cheaply and effectively Cuba delivers quality healthcare to its own citizens, as well as those of other countries. Cuban doctors work in some of the poorest parts of the poorest countries in the world. If the travel ban were about fear of communism writ large, then why allow fairly unrestricted access to Vietnam and China? Perhaps because these two nations now boast market-oriented, state-capitalist systems, and thus being ideologically safe, US elites are not concerned? Or maybe their more communitarian Asian cultures are so foreign to individualistic American sensibilities that there is little fear of contagion?

Maybe it is because the Cuban revolution has had so much actual success, and in the face of a blockade, that the US government cannot allow its citizens to go to Cuba? If too many Americans went there, and saw first-hand that the blockade policy had failed, there might arise more domestic political pressure to end this policy, a policy which was adopted out of a spirit of revenge for the nationalization of US-owned properties in Cuba. US citizens who owned property in Cuba did not think that the sums offered for their properties were adequate. They thought that the Cubans were being recalcitrant. In order to thus “protect US national interests,” the blockade policy was initiated. Look how long it took the US to withdraw from Vietnam after it was obvious to everyone that it was a no-win situation. This same sense of refusal to accept defeat is equally strong in the US regarding the Cuban revolution. That the body count in the effort to undermine the Cuban revolution is vanishingly small compared to that in the Vietnam conflict is perhaps part of the explanation of why it has been so easy to maintain this terrible policy, despite its obvious failure.

Maybe the US also keeps up this policy because there are so many parallels between pre-revolutionary Cuba and the US? If people noticed this they might become radicalized, in the sense of wanting a change in their own society, a change which usually comes at a price of lost wealth for the ruling classes. The struggle of Cubans yesterday are the struggles of Americans today. Deep structural inequality in income and opportunity based on social and economic class, with a strong overlapping of race and class; entrenched elites who utilize their wealth to secure further advantages especially for their children; unequal access to social services with rural areas most left behind; strong differences between classes in rates of certain diseases, life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality, et cetera. These features define Cuba in the 1950s, as well as the US today. Coming to know the story of the Cuban revolution might alter how US citizens perceive their own political and economic situaion. They might begin to see the US political situation as a revolutionary situation, as a crisis whose only solution is radical change. This would indeed be a negative outcome from the point of view of US imperialism.

Ultimately, I think that the travel ban represents the policy of an insecure nation. It is a shame that American political philosopher John Rawls is little known outside of academic circles. His is perhaps the most significant contribution to liberal democratic political philosophy of the 20th century. In his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, he describes the nature and workings of a political regime which embodies, as the title suggests, justice. In a later work, Rawls asks a very interesting follow-up question, What should be the foreign policy of such a nation? How should a just society treat other societies, especially other societies that are not just? His answer should be instructive for US policy on Cuba. He thinks liberal democratic societies that strongly respect individual rights should take up a foreign policy of engagement with these other unjust, or illiberal nations. Rawls argues that the fastest, and most liberal, way to encourage change in these societies is to set a good example and thus show the benefits of one’s own ways. Cashing out this analogy would require that the US be a reasonably just society, which it is not: certainly not by Rawls’ technical definitions, and not even by less rigorous standards. If the US had a good example to set, that would be the best way to encourage the Cubans to change thier practices in ways that the US desired. Of course, if the US was a liberal regime by Rawls’ standards, we would have very different objectives in regard to Cuba than we appear to at present.

Further Reading

Having reached the end of this series, I want to follow through on my promise to recommend some excellent books to anyone interested in checking up on my use of facts, in learning more about the history of the issues discussed here, or obtaining the required background knowledge to rebut anything that you may disagree with. Towards whatever ends, for further reading I recommend looking to the following recent works (all are in English);

August, Arnold. Cuba and Its Neighbors: Democracy in Motion. Fernwood Publishing. 2013

Shoultz, Lars. That Infernal Little Cuban Republic. UNC Press. 2011

Frank, Marc. Cuban Revelations. University Press of Florida. 2013

Lamrani, Salim. The Economic War Against Cuba: A Historical and Legal perspective on the

U.S. Blockade . Monthly Review Press. 2013

Craig, William. Yankee Come Home. Walker Publishing Co.2012

Bolender, Keith. Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba. Pluto

Press. 2010

Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. Yale University Press. 2005

For more perspective on Cuba, within the context of Latin American History, and especially within the context of US policy towards the region, see the following;

Shoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Towards Latin America.

Harvard University Press. 1998

Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Monthly Review Press. 1997 (1973)

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