In an annual ritual of repudiation, the United Nations next week will vote overwhelmingly to condemn the 57-year-old US economic embargo against Cuba. Last year the vote was 189 nations to just two—Israel and the United States. This year the results are expected to be the same.
But even as the world community once again demands an end of the embargo, the Trump administration is ratcheting up economic pressure on Cuba. On October 25, the president announced the cancellation of all commercial air service between the United States and regional Cuban airports. While flights to Havana will continue, air service to provincial cities such as Santa Clara, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, and Cienfuegos will end as of December 10—just as holiday travel to the island gets underway.
The flight cutoff marks another milestone in Trump’s effort to dismantle the Obama administration’s bridge of reconciliation with Cuba, in which the restoration of commercial air traffic in 2016 has played a major role. While the freedom of all US citizens to travel will be curtailed, the flight cancellations predominantly affect Cuban-Americans, who fill most of the seats in JetBlue and American Airlines flights as they travel to visit their relatives across the island.
By sacrificing the interests of Cuban-American families, Trump is following in the footsteps of his most recent Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. In June of 2004, Bush issued a new, and gratuitously cruel, restriction on travel to Cuba: Cuban-Americans who wanted to visit their families on the island could go only once every three years, and then could stay for a maximum of only 14 days. As the November 2004 election approached, Bush’s strategy was to appeal to hard-line anti-Castro voters in Florida—the state, we must recall, to which Bush owed his contested presidency—by implementing a family separation policy to look tough on Cuba.
Bush won Florida, but he lost the exile-rich county of Miami-Dade by more than six percentage points. Indeed, within the Cuban-American community, Bush’s travel restrictions proved to be deeply unpopular. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his campaign promise to that community was that if elected, he would immediately lift all restrictions on family travel to Cuba; they could visit the island as many times as they wanted. Obama won Florida by a significant margin. Now, approximately half a million Cuban-Americans travel to the island annually for family reunions with their loved ones.
Those travelers carry with them not only the intangible bonds of family but also tangible support in the form of kitchen equipment, television sets, auto parts, linens, soap, and other appliances and household goods that are difficult or impossible to obtain in the Cuban hinterlands. And they carry informal remittances—funds that allow relatives to refurbish their homes, start and sustain small private enterprises, and simply survive Cuba’s deteriorating economic situation. “It’s sickening to be witness to another heartless and counterproductive act that will do nothing but hurt families and good people,” says Linda Delgado, Oxfam’s director of government affairs. “These measures will greatly harm a lot of people,” agrees Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. “Ending flights to cities that are mostly frequented by Cubans traveling to see loved ones is another blow to Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.”
To get to Cuba this Christmas and thereafter, family travelers will have to expend far more time and resources. They will have to fly into Havana and then pay for additional transportation—domestic flights, state buses, or private taxis—or else pay steeper fares to US charter air companies, which dominated air services before Obama restored commercial flights. The costs will deter some Cuban-Americans from traveling; others will resentfully foot the bill because family-to-family relations are a priority. All will be potential voters for a Democratic candidate in 2020 who promises to end Trump’s Cuba policy of family separation and restore unrestricted air services to the island.
Indeed, the political logic of the new restrictions is unclear. Nationally, polls show overwhelming approval for free travel to Cuba; an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in 2014 after Obama’s historic decision to reestablish diplomatic relations found that 74 percent of the general public supported lifting all restrictions. But free travel is also popular in the hard-line stronghold of Miami-Dade County. A comprehensive Florida International University poll of Cuban-American opinion on Cuba policy conducted in November 2018 showed that “a strong majority of respondents”—57 percent—“favors the lifting of travel restrictions impeding all Americans from traveling to Cuba.”
“If the calculus behind [the October 25] announcement is that it will help shore up Cuban-American support for the president’s reelection campaign,” said Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the moderate Cuba Study Group, “he would be well advised to think again.”
Trump officials seem to understand that the Cuban-American community will hold them accountable. “We want to make sure that Cuban Americans do have a route to their families,” claims Carrie Filipetti, deputy assistant secretary of state for Cuba and Venezuela. “Havana is currently carved out for this,” she stated, with a hint that flights to Cuba’s capital city might be in jeopardy at some point in the future.
The flight cancellations are just the latest step in Trump’s assault on the freedom to travel—a basic civil liberty supported by the US Constitution. In his first Cuba policy initiative as president, Trump rescinded an Obama-era authorization for individual US citizens to travel to the island under the category of “people-to-people” engagement; last June, the administration banned people-to-people group tours, one of the most popular ways conscientious US travelers have explored the island. The administration also abruptly terminated cruise ship visits to Cuba, preventing some 800,000 US citizens who had already booked passages from visiting the island.
“The White House has imposed onerous restrictions on travel by Americans who want, and have a right, to visit Cuba as they can to every other country except North Korea,” Senator Patrick Leahy pointed out in a recent floor speech on Cuba. “It is absurd that this administration is taking away the freedom of American travelers to fly wherever they want,” said Representative Jim McGovern, who denounced the latest effort to restrict travel as “a stupid political stunt.”
In response to Trump’s encroachments on the right to travel, Leahy and McGovern have jointly introduced the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act. The bill currently has 48 bipartisan sponsors in the Senate. If brought to a vote and passed, the legislation would lift all past and current restrictions on the rights of US citizens to visit Cuba. And it would remove the ability of presidents to abuse the right-to-travel in order to look tough on Cuba in an election year.
As the 2020 election campaign begins in earnest, Trump is likely to ratchet up the pressure on Cuba, including ordering further impediments on US citizens who want to go to the island, whether to visit relatives or to explore a close US neighbor. It will be up to those who have traveled, and those who want to travel in the future, to stand up for their right to do so. Former Republican senator from Arizona Jeff Flake, who first introduced legislation in Congress to lift all restrictions on travel back in 2002, sums up our challenge: “It’s a freedom issue.”