22 December 2006

George W Bush ruined my vacation plans

I want to go to Cuba.
Forget the politics for a moment. Cuba is a beautiful Caribbean island that is untouched by McDonalds, Starbucks and WalMart. It has a rich history and character. Have you had Cuban food? Fantastic. Great music. Bermuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas are nice. But I'll take Cuba.
And now back to the politics. Since February 2, 1962, the US has had an embargo against Cuba, including travel. Technically, it isn't illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. It's just illegal to make financial transactions or receive gifts either on the island or to cover travel to and from the island. The government does issue licenses to academics, journalists or for humanitarian efforts, but I'm not likely to qualify for those exceptions. Does blogging qualify as journalism? I suppose it's worth a shot.
Over the years, the travel ban has not been consistently enforced. Jimmy Carter lifted the travel ban entirely, but it was reinstated under Reagan and has been in place ever since, although travel to Cuba was frequently overlooked. Which brings us to Bush. Under his leadership, the travel ban has been strictly enforced and the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) actively prosecutes Americans who violate the ban, sometimes levying fines up to $65,000. This is the same office that tracks financial support for terrorism. Some numbers to ponder:
Agents tracking Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein money: 4
Agents working full time on the financial embargo of Cuba: 21

Investigations opened from 1990 to 2003 related to terrorism: 93
Investigations opened from 1990 to 2003 related to violations of the economic embargo against Cuba: 10,683

Total fines collected since 1994 for terrorism financing violations: $9,425
Total fines collected since 1994 for violations of the economic embargo against Cuba: more than $8 million

There is a lot of talk about the War on Terror. According to the numbers, however, the US is waging a War on Vacation and Humanitarian Aid.
By the way, the embargo has been condemned by the United Nations every year since 1991, most recently on November 8, 2006 by a vote of 183-4. Only the US, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against. You know it's questionable policy when even Australia doesn't follow America's lead. The rest of the world opposes the embargo on the grounds of human rights and the Geneva Convention--economic embargoes rarely include an outright ban on the sale of food and life-saving medicines. It has been said in this space before: shouldn't America be a leader in championing human rights, not an instrument in denying them? Religious leaders around the world, including the Pope and leaders in America, also call for an end to the embargo. Interestingly, much of the political activity concerning the embargo happens during election years. Most recently, in 1992, 1996 and 2004, major legislation has been passed in an effort to swing Cuban-American voters in Florida, who are viewed as an important voting bloc in an often vital and tightly contested state.
What is the theoretical purpose of the embargo? I suppose it is intended to weaken Castro's communist regime.
What is the actual effect of the embargo? Certainly Castro is not suffering himself. If anything, it provides him with an excuse for the economic failings in Cuba. He can blame the hardship suffered by the people on the lack of trade with his powerful neighbor and their bullying restrictions on other countries. If the embargo were to be lifted, he would have no one to blame but himself. For years, the economic embargo actually forced Cuba to rely on the Soviet Union for support, strengthening communism on the island rather than weakening it.
The embargo does, however, hurt the Cuban people: the farmers, taxi drivers, store owners, musicians, etc. Americans are hurt as well. Before the embargo, Cuba was an important destination for American exports, from both the factories and the farms. At the very least, Americans have lost a prime travel destination, hence this post. A third group suffering is the rest of the world. America effectively forces foreign countries and corporations to choose between the Cuban market and the lucrative American market through shipping and cargo restrictions concerning the US and Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act (1996) penalises foreign companies that do business in Cuba by preventing them from doing business in the US. It is one thing for the US government to pass questionable legislation governing Americans. It is quite another for it to pass legislation to govern foreign entities. In a comic show of rejection, the European Parliament in 1996 passed a primarily symbolic law making it illegal for EU citizens to obey the Helms-Burton act.
The bottom line is that Cuba is the least of our security worries. In 1998 the US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that 'Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.' They aren't the Soviet Union's little buddy anymore. For that matter, Americans always had the freedom to travel to the Soviet Union, but not Cuba. Today, I could go to North Korea, China, Iraq, Iran, or Libya, but not Cuba. The irony of the situation is that in a way, I don't want the embargo lifted. I don't want Cuba to be McDonaldified. But I also can't afford to pay a $65,000 fine on my vacations.
What can we do? As with most things political, you can write your congressman. For several years now, Congress has favoured ending the embargo (yes, even the Republican-dominated Congresses prior to the recent mid-term elections), but has always backed down when Bush said he would veto any such legislation. Let your congressman know that you oppose the embargo on any or all of the grounds itemised here.
What else can we do? Go anyway. They can't catch all of us. But the bigger issue here is not my vacation. Quite simply, we are promoting a policy that does not achieve its purpose, but instead severely restricts humanitarian effort to innocent people.

For further reading on this topic:
Wikipedia: United States embargo against Cuba
What Has the US Government's Embargo on Cuba Accomplished?
Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact Of The U.S. Embargo On The Health And Nutrition In Cuba
Dorgan says Treasury Department's OFAC is supposed to be fighting terrorism, not chasing retired American bicyclists who travel in Cuba
More Agents Track Castro Than Bin Laden
Cuba OFAC Extortion/Shakedown

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very strange that so many Cubans have risked their lives to get in those little boats or almost any other flotation type device to have a new life in the bully country.

I will not go into all the reasons that I believe the embargo should continue except for one. The "easy thing" and "convenient thing" to do would be to lift the embargo. Sometimes more is required of a citizen.

Dad

http://www.townhall.com/columnists/MarvinOlasky/2004/04/29/compassionate_conservative_policy_toward_cuba
http://www.free-biscet.org/
http://www.nocastro.com/embargo/jeffjby.htm

Chris said...

I have read your comments and the links you provide. I am not questioning the harsh conditions of the Cuban people. Of course they risk their lives to come to America. But that doesn't make the embargo successful or humane.
As for the easy thing to do, I think it has been far easier to continue an ineffective policy for forty five years. It takes courage to admit something isn't working and change it.
I have added some information to the post that should have been included originally. What can I say--it was late. It has been included here for your convenience.

From the paragraph concerning the UN's condemnation of the embargo:
Religious leaders around the world, including the Pope and leaders in America, also call for an end to the embargo. Interestingly, much of the political activity concerning the embargo happens during election years. Most recently, in 1992, 1996 and 2004, major legislation has been passed in an effort to swing Cuban-American voters in Florida, who are viewed as an important voting bloc in an often vital and tightly contested state.

And from the conclusion:
But the bigger issue here is not my vacation. Quite simply, we are promoting a policy that does not achieve its purpose, but instead severely restricts humanitarian effort to innocent people.

patrick said...

Do you have your Congresssman's address?

Chris said...

Sorry for the delay, Patrick. Just got back from vacation. Yes, I do have my congressmen's addresses. If you want to find yours, you can do so here: Senate, House of Representatives.

patrick said...

Well that's good. I hope you're voicing your concerns to them too. I for one have never really had the desire to complain about government policy or belief, but probably could have and just didn't realize the effect a certain policy may have been having on my life.