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Editorials

Ease travel restrictions to Cuba to boost freedom

Published:   |   Updated: June 9, 2013 at 09:08 AM

There is a quick way for our nation to help overwhelm Cuba's censorship and propaganda.

Simply allow Americans - the most effective ambassadors for democracy and free enterprise - to travel more easily to Cuba.

Having more Americans visit Cuba would almost surely boost capitalism in a country that is cautiously experimenting with property rights and private enterprise.

This can be done without the political firefight of eliminating the 50-year-old Cuban embargo, which greatly restricts trade and travel to Cuba.

We think the embargo no longer serves a useful purpose. Indeed, it gives the Cuban government a scapegoat for its failed economic policies. As John Caulfield, chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, says, Cuba's financial woes are a result of "Cuba's choice of an economic model."

But eliminating the embargo or allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba will require congressional approval, a political challenge.

In contrast, President Barack Obama by executive order can require general licenses be issued for all approved travel to Cuba.

Americans now can receive a visa to travel for such specific purposes as education and cultural studies. A people-to-people visa, for instance, allows Americans to have direct but limited interactions with Cubans to learn more about them and their culture. These trips must be guided by licensed travel services that are required to follow a strict agenda.

Everything is tightly regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control to ensure there are no violations of the sanctions against Cuba. (Cuban-Americans appropriately have no restrictions on traveling to visit family.)

The approval process for the specific visas can be cumbersome and time-consuming. Obtaining general license is far less complicated, so expanding its use would eliminate red tape and diminish barriers to travel.

It could, depending on how the executive order was written, give travelers more flexibility in what they do in Cuba. It might allow Americans to travel outside of tours. This would likely benefit those Cubans trying to establish private businesses, such as small hotels or restaurants.

In any event, making travel to Cuba less daunting would result in more American visitors, which we believe would generate more support for an open society in Cuba.

In April, 59 members of Congress, including Hillsborough's Rep. Kathy Castor, wrote the president urging him to "allow all current categories of permissible travel, including people-to-people, to be carried out under a general license."

It is, as the representatives stress, a logical next step for the president, who already has eased some travel restrictions, including allowing flights from Tampa to Cuba, which have proved popular.

The United States' tough trade and travel prohibitions unquestionably were necessary after Fidel Castro's communist takeover, when he confiscated property, ruthlessly suppressed opposition, sought to export revolution to Latin America and provided a base for the Soviet Union.

But the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is gone. Cuba remains an authoritarian state, but its grip seems to be slipping. That control would be further eroded should Americans be allowed to spread the seeds of capitalism and freedom in a country whose people badly need them.

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