Monday, September 17, 2012

Stifling travel to Cuba

EDITORIAL  The Tampa Tribune

By TBO.COM  September 16, 2012

If you want to vacation in Libya, the Department of State warns it's so risky you'd better keep next-of-kin notified of exactly where you are.

If you're going to Egypt, stay away from crowds, especially the ones throwing rocks at U.S. diplomats. If you're traveling in North Korea, be aware that if you take a photograph, the crazy government there might accuse you of spying and sentence you to years of hard labor.

If you're traveling in Cuba, don't go to the beach to catch some rays, and if, heaven forbid, a Cuban asks you to dance, it's your patriotic duty to refuse. The U.S. government is getting silly about what U.S. citizens can do while on legal visits to Cuba.

Numerous folks in the travel business are reporting that tour permits for 2012 have become extremely hard to get. Only a few have been OK'd by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Why is less clear. Some attribute political pressure from the right, specifically from Florida's Republican U.S. senator, Marco Rubio. The Obama administration says there have been abuses in the people-to-people program and it is just following the law.

It appears there has been too much salsa dancing, concludes

Federal law allows "purposeful travel," which is an arbitrary standard enforced by vague rules. Tour operators are saying that they now must document every hour and explain each traveler's "meaningful interchange" with ordinary Cubans they encounter.

So far the crackdown has not appeared to dampen travel to Cuba from Tampa. Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink tells us that through August of this fiscal year, 38,749 travelers have gone to Cuba from here. We're on target to exceed the first-year goal of 40,000 travelers.

Five charter flights are operating each week, and they're all full.

This newspaper has long agreed with a majority of the local business community that more person-to-person contact between the communist island and freedom-loving Florida residents is a good thing for this state and the people of Cuba. The Cuban flights from here have generated $657,000 in fees for the Tampa airport.

We recognize that not everyone favors more trade and personal contact. Rubio, of Miami, has worked hard to disqualify Tampa as a Cuban gateway. He has explained to us that he wants to keep as many U.S. dollars as possible out of Cuba to weaken the Castro regime.

That's the old Cold War policy that made sense when Fidel Castro was in cahoots with the Soviet Union. Now it's out of step with the United States' open attitude toward the rest of the world.

Free travel to Cuba was stopped in 1963 under President John F. Kennedy. President Jimmy Carter relaxed restrictions in 1977. President Ronald Reagan tightened them in 1982. President Bill Clinton loosened them in 1998. President George W. Bush tightened them in 2004. President Barack Obama in 2010 again loosened the ban on travel for purposes of research, religion or people-to-people contact. Now in campaign mode, Obama is tightening again.

Tourists determined to take a look at Cuba but unable to qualify for an official mission can sneak there through a third country, such as Mexico or Canada. Many people strongly in favor of liberty and limited government are oddly comfortable with rules that have U.S. citizens behaving as if they were refugees from a banana republic.

If U.S. authorities catch them on a personal Cuban tour, they could face criminal prosecution. The current policy is, unless you have family there, you can go to Cuba only if you fill out a stack of paperwork. When you get there, you must act like a robot.

It's not quite an Iron Curtain. It's more of an aluminum curtain. Whatever you call it, it's unworthy of this free county and unhelpful to our unfree neighbor.

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