By Wayne S. Smith
March 29, 2009
President Carter lifted all Cuba travel controls in 1977. From then until 1982, Americans were free to travel to Cuba and to spend money in the process.
That should have been the end of it. But then enter the Reagan administration, which on April 19, 1982, re-imposed restrictions on travel to Cuba. Except for special categories of people with licenses, no one would be allowed to spend money in Cuba. This limited travel as effectively as an outright ban.
Why these new sanctions? Because, said the Reagan administration, of increasing Cuban arms shipments to Central America, and because Cuba refused to negotiate our concerns over its aggressive actions there.
But both charges were outright misrepresentations.
I was at the time the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In December of 1981, the Cubans informed me that they were halting all arms shipments, and hoped this could open the way to negotiations in Central America and a dialogue with the United States.
I reported this to the State Department and asked if we had any credible evidence to the contrary, i.e., of continuing shipments. If not, it seemed to me we should respond positively, that we should be open to a dialogue.
In March, the Department acknowledged that we did not have the hard evidence of continuing shipments, but said that there would be no response. In other words, we were not interested in a dialogue.
And though the administration continued to talk of "increasing Cuban arms support," I saw intelligence reports which confirmed drastic reductions, as the Cubans had said.
Our position in Central America, then, was based on outright misrepresentations — and so was the Reagan administration's re-imposition of travel controls in 1982.
It was not Cuba that was refusing to negotiate in Central America; it was the Reagan administration, and it continued to refuse all through the years.
And the deceit continued under the George W. Bush administration. On June 16, 2004, for example, it severely restricted academic travel to Cuba. And it did so because it said: "academic institutions regularly abuse [the] license category and engage in a form of tourism."
But it could never point to a single abuse, as it was required to do under the Administrative Procedures Act. These new limitations, then, were in fact in violation of the law.
We look to President Obama and the Congress to bring an end to this shameful history of violating the constitutional rights of American citizens with measures that are based on lies and that are themselves outside the law. The Treasury Department's action on March 11 to increase Cuban-American travel should be but the first step.
President Obama has the authority immediately to rescind the various executive orders signed by Bush in 2004 on which the restrictions on academic and educational travel, and the travel of Cuban-American families, are based.
And he can support bills now before the House and Senate to allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba, as they have a constitutional right to do.
Wayne S. Smith is a Senior Fellow of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.