Absurd U.S. policies echo totalitarian East German Cold War travel rules
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY —News about the U.S. easing travel restrictions to Cuba made me think back to when I was growing up on U.S. Army bases in Germany.
The Cold War and the Iron Curtain around eastern Europe manifested in very tangible ways. West Berlin, technically part of West Germany, was completely surrounded by Communist East Germany, and we couldn’t just hop into a car or on to a train and go there at will.
Instead, traveling to Berlin involved making special reservations on a so-called duty train, intended mainly for U.S. soldiers and their families stationed in Berlin. The train left Frankfurt late at night and traveled through East Germany in the dark, to prevent Americans from “spying” on East Germany during daylight hours.
I traveled to Berlin several times as a youngster, once as part of a group attending a high school choir festival. On that trip, we managed to surreptitiously trade a couple of Playboy magazines for a red East German conductor’s hat. But aside from that youthful fun, I was always intensely aware that, even though life seemed normal in West Berlin, we were temporarily stranded on a political atoll, surrounded by sharp ideological reefs.
Growing up in that setting, and later studying political science at the university in Munich, gave me what I thought was a pretty good understanding of Cold War politics, but when I learned of the American embargo on Cuba, I had to scratch my head. It seemed that, even as we — as a country — championed freedom and liberty, were willing to build our own Iron Curtain of sorts, based on a misplaced sense of ideological righteousness.
As far as I’m concerned, the freedom to travel is — or should be — a fundamental American right, on par with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Reacting to a totalitarian regime with totalitarian policies of our own seems completely irrational and frightening.. If our government can tell us where and where not to go, well, then that gives lie to some of our basic precepts of individual liberty. What harm can possible come to the U.S. from civilians visiting a small island nation, regardless of ideology.
It’s completely absurd that we can’t travel freely to a country closer to our borders than any other except Mexico and Canada. I’ve never heard a completely rational argument as to what, exactly, those travel and trade restrictions are intended to accomplish, and it should be obvious, several decades in, that they haven’t worked.
It’s even more amazing that the restrictions lasted as long as they have, perhaps in testament to the disproportionate power of a small but vocal minority of special interests in a politically critical state, which doesn’t seem to be a rational basis for formulating foreign policy.
So last week’s announcement by President Obama that some travel and economic restrictions will be eased is a welcome step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough. There’s really no valid reason for maintaining any level of restrictions, and, like many travelers, I’m hopeful that Obama will stop kow-towing to the Cuban ex-pat community and completely open the doors. We can’t control what Cuba does, but we can set an example of freedom.
Specifically, Obama’s executive order will ease some restrictions on charter flights to Cuba, Allowing “all U.S. international airports to apply to provide services to licensed charters, provided such airports have adequate customs and immigration capabilities and a licensed travel service provider has expressed an interest in providing service to and from Cuba from that airport.”
Following is an excerpt from the White House blog detailing some of the changes. Read the full blog post here.
Purposeful Travel. To enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society through purposeful travel, including religious, cultural, and educational travel, the President has directed that regulations and policies governing purposeful travel be modified to:
• Allow religious organizations to sponsor religious travel to Cuba under a general license.
• Facilitate educational exchanges by: allowing accredited institutions of higher education to sponsor travel to Cuba for course work for academic credit under a general license; allowing students to participate through academic institutions other than their own; and facilitating instructor support to include support from adjunct and part-time staff.
• Restore specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.
• Modify requirements for licensing academic exchanges to require that the proposed course of study be accepted for academic credit toward their undergraduate or graduate degree (rather than regulating the length of the academic exchange in Cuba).
• Allow specifically licensed academic institutions to sponsor or cosponsor academic seminars, conferences, and workshops related to Cuba and allow faculty, staff, and students to attend.
• Allow specific licensing to organize or conduct non-academic clinics and workshops in Cuba for the Cuban people.
• Allow specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities.
The Wall Street Journal story on the changes is online here.
Some reaction from a human rights group is online here.
An earlier Wall Street Journal story about Cuba policies and travel is online here.
That story includes an interesting discussion thread with comments from Cuban-Americans, but be aware that you have to register with the WSJ and use your REAL NAME to participate in the comment threads.